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One would not normally think of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a country where a rapper’s endorsement makes a difference in elections. But when the tattooed rapper Amir Tataloo declared, this week, that he would vote for Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative challenger to the current President Hassan Rouhani, it caused major ripples on Iranian social media. Why, many wondered, would Tataloo, who has sung dozens of songs about girls and partying, decide to side with a candidate whose views are opposed to everything the rapper stands for and has done?

While Tataloo’s endorsement was one thing, once Raisi granted the rapper a visit, the relationship was understood to go both ways, prompting even more questions, like why would the conservative candidate who is Guardian of Iran’s holiest shrine in Mashhad and close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, court a hip hop artist?

In the days ahead of today’s presidential election, Raisi’s supporters were pushing to bump up his numbers. The meeting with Tataloo was perhaps part of this plan. On Instagram, the rapper has 4.1 million followers, many of whom conservatives would love to swing away from Rouhani.

This intersection between music and politics is hardly exclusive to Raisi. As part of their campaigns, both candidates have held large rallies in cities and towns across Iran, with music and musical discourses central to these gatherings. Moreover, as I write about in my book, Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran, the musical sphere has long been a barometer for the issues that matter in Iranian politics and society.

Musical Messaging: from Islam to Nationalism

In contemporary Iran, the electorates’ foremost concerns are the economy, health costs, opportunities for the young, and political freedom. As such, traditional Islam has not figured prominently for many years in political campaigns, as reflected in campaign music.

While in the lead-up to the 1979 revolution musicians used Islam as a powerful symbol of emancipation and freedom, in the Islamic Republic’s last several elections, nationalism has been the main message on all sides of the political divide. Indeed, Islamic signifiers are even hard to find in the arch-conservative state television’s own promotion of the elections.

During the heated 2009 elections, which resulted in months of protests, state television constantly broadcast Salar Aghili’s “My Homeland,” a squarely secular song declaring love for the homeland, bereft of any religious meaning. This time around, state TV regularly broadcast “My Iran,” a music video that begins with a short clip from a speech by Ayatollah Khameini, in which he says Iranians “do not accept negotiations under threat” and that he told former-U.S. President Barack Obama the time for “hit and run” was over. The video features a montage exhibiting Iran’s military prowess, with two male singers declaring that “Iran’s military is the epitome of [our] faith,” and that the Islamic Republic’s system of governance is a “mountain behind our backs,” that is a “firm punch on the enemy’s mouth,” a phrase Khamenei often uses in his speeches.

All this doesn’t mean, however, that religion is completely absent from election messaging. In fact, since the 2009 Green Movement, reformists and pragmatists have frequently used Islamic signifiers as part of their political narrative. In Iran’s divided polity, those who support the reform movement have often claimed the Islamic Republic abuses Islam for political purposes, and have rhetorically reclaimed the religion, in a powerfully subversive way. Reflecting this approach, the Rouhani camp adopted the campaign slogan, “Again Iran, Again Islam,” during this election season.

At times Islam has become so subversive that shouts of “Allah-o akbar” (God is great) are said to be forbidden in public. Both during the 1979 revolution and the 2009 protests, Iranians climbed to their rooftops at night to shout the proclamation, an anonymous tactic that represented a low-risk expression of protest.

Defining Nationalism

While both candidates have banked on nationalistic themes, it is the terms of that nationalism that will be defined in these elections.

For his part, Rouhani is calling for an Iran that is more domestically free and tolerant, and internationally more open to the world. Adopting the color purple in a nod to the Green Movement of 2009, his campaign has also used the “key” as a symbol of his efforts, thus far, to “unlock” Iran’s problems, chief among them the U.S.-imposed sanctions.

During his 2013 campaign, Rouhani promised to resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West, delivering on that promise during his first term. While the nuclear deal has not directly translated into better living standards for a majority of Iranians (which many expected), it has taken Iran off its collision course with the United States. In a rally in the northwestern city of Ardabil, Rouhani, who has recently become much more outspoken against his opponents, asked whether those who claimed his government had achieved little were upset with the lifting of sanctions, and added: “Do you want to negotiate with the world? Do you know how to speak the language of the world? You have problems understanding the language of your own people, how will you speak to the world?”

Aside from these messages, Rouhani’s main rhetoric has been rooted in hope, love, and the smile, as his campaign’s music videos, in 2013 as well as this year, demonstrate.

Despite the collective depression that followed 2009, during the 2013 campaign, there was much talk of hope in the Rouhani camp. This notion of “hope” – not unlike that used in 2008 by the Obama campaign – accrued subversive meaning. In the face of repression and fear, hope was presented as a mode of perseverance, the only way forward.

Rouhani’s supporters may have taken more than just this word from Obama’s playbook. In a video clip to commemorate Rouhani’s first 100 days in office, independent artists intentionally produced an imitation of Obama’s black and white “Yes We Can” video, in which a diverse group of people sing melodic tunes against the backdrop of the U.S. president’s speech. Quite strikingly, the Iranian version shows men and women singing along to the speech of a high-ranking cleric, interspersed with displays of musical instruments. At the time, Rouhani’s decision to feature the video on his official website signaled a welcome openness. To this day, the display of musical instruments on Iranian state television is banned.

This time around, Rouhani’s main campaign song “Again Iran,” is a video montage of a smiling president and his supporters. The implication of the title is that, if Rouhani becomes president, he will once again put Iran first. The song lyrics are “a smile, again; alliance, again; a pledge, again,” followed by an excerpt of a Rouhani campaign speech where he says to loud cheers, “we are against sanctions, we are against the imprisonment of Iran, we have chosen our path, our path is the path of freedom.” It is an upbeat song that extolls the spring and the “uprising of the hopeful.”

Raisi’s camp, on the other hand, defines nationalism as ideologically and outwardly opposing the reform movement, and the West. Raisi supporters have, for example, carried “Death to America” signs at rallies, something unseen on the Rouhani side.

The conservative candidate has, himself, been an outspoken opponent of the reformists. Following the 2009 elections, Raisi, who was then a high-ranking member of the judiciary, appeared on state television to warn leaders of the reform movement that they could be tried for treason, a charge that carries the death sentence.

Until this week, Raisi’s campaign relied mostly on instrumental songs, not unlike the epic film music one might hear in big Hollywood productions. But this week, his headquarters released an upbeat tune that coopts some of the reformists’ rhetorical hallmarks. The song says hail to the government of “work and beneficence” and hail to “love, smile and justice.” One does not need to have lived in the Islamic Republic to appreciate the significance of the intonation of “love and smile” when it comes to Raisi, who, as a judge, sent many people to their deaths and who is supported by the most conservative members of Iran’s establishment.

In Raisi campaign offices across Tehran and even in conservative Mashhad, techno and dance music has been blared from loudspeakers, leading users on social media to post clips of these scenes with comments of bafflement. After all, if Raisi becomes president, he is likely to shut the door to a lot of the same music. On the social media apps Telegram and Instagram, where a large number of Iranians receive their information, Raisi’s channels have been sending images of him framed with heart shaped thumbs and index fingers, as well as pictures of his name and visage combined with hearts.

Raisi and the Rapper

Perhaps this tactic of using the rhetoric of love and smile, and courting an “underground” rapper, is working for the Raisi camp. At the very least, the gap in the polls between Rouhani and Raisi seemed to have closed in the days leading up to the election, with conservative factions uniting behind their candidate and state media giving him greater coverage.

As conservative as many of his supporters are, some clearly do not fault Raisi for courting Tataloo. Soon after Tataloo’s declaration of support, images surfaced of Raisi supporters with posters mentioning the rapper. One woman, clad in a black chador with her face barely visible, held a sign that read, “There is a phenomenon like Tataloo, whose political acumen is higher than that of politicians,” presumably referring to politicians who do not support Raisi. Another image showed a young man asking Raisi to give Tataloo a position in his cabinet.

So what is Tataloo getting out of his alliance with Raisi? Even if he is a genuine supporter, Tataloo will probably derive some tangible benefit from siding with Raisi, especially if he becomes president. In fact, in a video of the meeting, Tataloo, whose bare forearms are fully tattooed, sits next to a visibly uncomfortable Raisi, and says: “Some people say Imam Reza only belongs to those who are religious. We say he belongs to everyone. Will you allow me to film a video in the shrine?” Tataloo was referring to the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, the city where even concerts of classical Persian music have been banned by none other than Raisi’s father-in-law, the Mashhad Friday prayer leader. Unfortunately, the video is cut short and we do not find out the answer, but rumors on social media suggest Tataloo has gotten the green light not just for a video, but even for a rap concert in Mashhad – an unprecedented event, if it happens.

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