Vocativ, an online media company that uses data-mining technology to report stories trending in social media, reported that as the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna headed into the 11th hour, former underground rapper Amir Tataloo and his new song, “Energy Hastei,” which means “Nuclear Energy” in Persian, was the top Google search in Tehran.
Tataloo, whose real name is Amir Hussein Maghsoudloo, is known for his popular flashy blend of pop, rap and R&B. The 32-year-old has more than 1.2 million fans following his official Facebook page. From an aesthetic perspective, Tataloo’s physical appearance has never personified Iran’s revolutionary zeal. Up until a few years ago, his trademark long hair, piercings, exposed chest, cross necklace and tattoos could have set the standard for what Iran’s morality police traditionally considered as “indecent.”
Tataloo ran into trouble in December 2013 when he was arrested by authorities for his alleged cooperation in distributing his unlicensed music to illegal foreign satellite channels. A few days after his arrest, Tataloo was freed from detention and released a public letter apologizing to his fans, promising accountability, with the goal of working toward obtaining a permit so that he can legally work in Iran.
Tataloo’s new video is prefaced with a brief message that reads, “No power can prevent the Iranian nation from having peaceful nuclear energy.” Dressed in light camouflage with an “Allah” necklace around his neck, the rapper’s initial verse is laced with passive-aggressive lyrics that he indirectly links to themes throughout the video: nationalism, defending Iranian sovereignty and Iran’s nuclear energy program. As he sings the chorus, “Having an armed Persian Gulf is our absolute right,” the rapper stands provocatively atop the Iranian Navy warship, Damavand, joined by a stone-faced unit of Iranian soldiers on the ship’s deck.
Narges Bajoghli, an advanced anthropology doctoral candidate at New York University who has spent the last nine years conducting research in Iran with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and paramilitary Basij organization, spoke to Al-Monitor on July 13. She explained the rationale behind producing and releasing such a music video on the eve of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 world powers.
Bajoghli said, “The fact that the military would agree to participate on this level for a music video points to something larger: The cultural and political elite in the Islamic Republic believe it is of utmost importance to garner the support of Iran's youthful population, support which they know to be shaky since the 2009 Green Movement. The regime's media producers admit today that in the 1980s and 1990s they churned out propaganda that does not resonate with today's youth. It is in this context that the video was shot on a military ship. Even though rap music has been branded as obscene by the government, the authorities know that by sanctioning a rap video about their military might, they are able to meet two of their goals: ‘speak’ to youth in their language and further their message of defenders of peace in a volatile region.”
Despite the buzz on social media and a handful of mostly hard-line Iranian news sites, there was a distinctive silence about the video in the Iranian press. The Twitter account of the ultra-conservative website Mashregh News fired off a number of promotional tweets about the video, including a link where fans can download the audio file for free.
Tataloo’s video instantly became a hot topic and a source of outrage on social media. Although Iran’s nuclear program remains widely popular inside the country, Iranians viewed Tataloo’s latest song as disingenuous and took to the rapper’s Facebook, Instagram and comments section of his YouTube video to express their displeasure that the former flamboyant artist was now singing behind an anti-aircraft gun on an Iranian battleship. Iranians sarcastically ridiculed the video, often insulting him and accusing him of “selling out” and joining the very forces that arrested him in 2013.
Interestingly, a Facebook page dedicated to the IRGC Special Forces also took Tataloo to task, mocking him with the hashtag #Amir_Sardar, meaning Lieutenant Amir. The account’s administrator expressed dismay that Iran’s military forces would be used in such a collaboration, arguing that Iran’s armed forces “are more dignified than to become propaganda for such an infamous singer.”
After receiving such a cold online reception, Tataloo rushed to address his detractors on his Instagram page. In a July 12 Instagram post, the rapper confronted his critics: “I feel bad for my friends who are posting such ugly comments. They should know that I’m not listening [to them], and that I’m moving forward, and God willing, very soon all of my countrymen will be full of love, supporting one another, and God willing the sanctions will be lifted. I don’t care about those who are jealous, who sing political songs against their own country just so they can stay in a foreign country, or those who fill their videos with girls to show that they're cool … I patiently worked on this nuclear energy song project for 14 years and I believe in it.” Tataloo concluded the post by writing, “If I’m flattering the system, I’m doing it for my country and motherland, and not for any foreigners or outsiders.”
The following day after Tataloo’s video went viral, a July 13 report published by the Principlist-affiliated website Young Journalists Club called the video “controversial” and questioned how Tataloo, an artist with such a “well-known past,” was able to obtain permission to film aboard a navy warship. The report pointed to the closing credits of the video where Tataloo thanked Iran’s navy commander as well as a number of other Iranian security apparatuses, including the navy’s public relations office, as proof that there must have been high-level coordination between the navy and Iran’s Ministry of Culture.
When asked by a Young Journalists Club reporter about the ministry’s involvement in the video, Deputy Culture Minister Hussein Noushabadi said that the video “had been made without the coordination of the Culture Ministry.” Noushabadi added, “I was surprised that the navy gave [Tataloo] the responsibility to create such a video. But it’s possible that the order [to create the video] was given from within one of the military forces, and the cultural authorities must investigate this. Because if there was a permit given, it should have been coordinated with the ministry.”
It remains to be seen whether other singers or artists will be able to obtain approval to use such high-level military facilities for future projects. But in this instance, it seems Tataloo, a former underground rapper with an infamous past, fit the bill for a rogue military public service announcement. Given the signing of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, the timing couldn’t have been better for the regime’s ideological cultural producers.