Here’s what we do and don’t know about Generation Z in Iran. We know that it has distanced itself from the anti-imperialist and Islamist ideas of the 1979 Revolution.
However, we do not know what Generation exactly wants for its future and what are its objectives in life.
While Gen. Z played a central role in the Mahsa revolution, we lack insights into their varying social and cultural policy perspectives, their views of the world around them, and their vision for their future in Iran. We’re unaware of the plans they have for their future (aside from mass migration to the West) and how they envision that future. This knowledge gap exists due to the absence of scientific and independent attitude surveys in Iran.
However, in the absence of sufficient information about the attitudes and positions of young people, we can turn to their popular figures and the messages they convey. The government’s treatment of these figures also reflects the attitude of their supporters toward the Islamist regime.
To gauge the attitudes of young people through these popular figures, we can focus on four very different personalities among the popular performers whose music has captured the attention of Generation Z: Tomaj Salehi and Amir Tataloo (currently imprisoned for their work), Sasy Mankan (in exile after his arrest in 2010 and the subsequent ban on his activities), and Mehdi Yarrahi (arrested in 2023 for posting the song “Rusarito Dar Biyar: Get Rid of Your Scarf” and currently released on bail).
All four singers have political backgrounds, ranging from involvement in the election campaigns of presidential candidates (Sasy for Mehdi Karroubi and Tataloo for Raisi) to outright opposition to the regime (Yarrahi and Toomaj). Three of them have operated underground since the beginning of their careers, unable to officially distribute their works in Iran. Mehdi Yarrahi joined the underground music scene midway through his career. This illustrates that the government does not want to hear their voices, nor does it want the youth to hear them.
The works of Toomaj Salehi, aged 33, echo the sentiments of a generation of young Iranians who ardently and persistently seek the downfall of the regime. Toomaj’s music found its way into the cars of people taking to the streets during the 2022 protests. His arrest was a direct result of his outspoken views against the current government. His supporters squarely blame the Islamist regime for the suffering and discrimination in Iran and vehemently call for the overthrow of the clerical establishment. Toomaj articulates the necessity of rebellion against the country’s occupiers. In his song “Omen,” he portrays the fate of regime officials after their overthrow, while in “Look for A Rat Hole,” he envisions their fate during the overthrow.
“Get Rid of Your Scarf “: the transition from reformism to soft regime change
Mehdi Yarrahi (42 years old) comes from a religious background, but he has not remained silent against discrimination, poverty, and exploitation by the religious government. He has been banned from publishing his singles for many years because he supported protesters against the policies of the Islamic Republic. In 2017, Yarrahi was banned from working and filming for six months due to wearing the uniform of protesting workers, who were arrested in 2018, during a concert and releasing the critical music video “Pareh Sang” (Rock). After dedicating one of his songs called “Farewell After Leaving” to the victims of the November 2019 protests and his defying statements in concerts in Ahvaz and Karaj, his activities were banned. Yarrahi fully supported the nationwide protests of 2022 with works such as “Sorud-e Zan” (Woman Anthem) and “Sorud-e Zendegi” (Life Anthem) and his epic works were sung by protesters in the streets. He has become a kind of reformist who supports the civil resistance to end the Islamist regime, and unlike Toomaj, does not want to bring about the conditions for the “Look for A Rat Hole” for IRGC and Basij members.
“Gentleman“: laying the groundwork for socio-cultural change
Sasan Heydari, with the stage name Sasy Mankan (35 years old), is popular among elementary and high school students in Iran. His songs titled Gentleman, Doctor, Tehran-Tokyo, and Leila’s Brothers were welcomed by tens of millions in Iran. Sasy, who emigrated to the United States after his arrest and work restrictions, has been very successful in producing popular music while criticizing and exposing the hypocrisy of the religious regime in Iran. Those young Iranians who don’t want the totalitarian role of the government, religious education and Islamization in their lives love Sasy’s works. Sasy does not take a political stance in his music and does not defend a certain class. He even shuns political activism, but his works are popular with those who oppose the lifestyle of the ruling class imposed on others. The “grey stratum” (people who are silent while being against the regime) welcomes his works the most.
Amir Hossein Maqsoodlou, known by his stage name Tataloo and aged 36, attempted to carve a niche for himself in the music scene of the Islamic Republic by aligning with political factions, singing propaganda songs, and lauding Khamenei. However, these efforts yielded little interest from the regime and failed to connect with the youth as intended. Consequently, Tataloo faced government arrest on three occasions but persisted in his work by relocating first to Dubai and then to Istanbul. Along the way, he avoided directly confronting the regime and took the path of carelessness fun and even promoting obscenity (Lady Waziri). His literature has come closer to street literature, which Islamists and leftists call vulgar. For young people, this is a kind of rebellion against the status quo and they welcome it. He is the promoter of hugs, kisses, heaven, sin, fear, and forbidden (Forbidden) beside profanities in a frozen world (Hell). Like tens of millions of young Iranians, he asks the surrounding society to “let him be himself.” He reflects on the feelings of tiredness, burning, impatience, imprisonment, and depression of Iranian youth in his songs. Confusion and lack of responsibility are reflected in his lyrics too.
Despite their diverse social and political stances, all four singers and their tens of millions of fans share a common sentiment: that the Islamist regime hinders their ability to live freely, revitalize themselves, and express their true selves. While the generations that came of age in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, represented by artists like Sasy, Tataloo, and Yarrahi, once believed that dealing with the Islamist regime through certain reforms was feasible, today’s Generation Z has adopted different strategies and perspectives. The Iranian Generation Z is determined to extricate the Islamist government from their lives, whether through street protests or simply by distancing themselves from its influence in their mental world, including through the use of cannabis.