Wearing a white suit in a dark, cavernous room, the bearded singer walks past row after row of flag-draped coffins representing martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War.
“With a drop of your blood, my country is revived,” he sings in a video that has been widely shared since its release in September.
Glorified religious sacrifice – martyrdom – has been a familiar theme employed by Iran’s ideological regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But for many its appeal has grown stale, and it is often ignored by the legions of Iranian youths.
This, however, is no ordinary Iranian artist carrying the revolutionary torch. Amir Tataloo, a long-haired, tattooed underground rap musician, has a fan base that includes 2.4 million Instagram followers.
In awe, both supportive and ridiculing, Mr. Tataloo’s fans have watched his transformation from a flamboyant pop star operating below the radar of Iran’s strict cultural rules – he was once arrested by the “Moral Security” police – to one who embraces Iran’s ruling system and is helping it modernize its message by appealing more to young people’s nationalism than religious values.
His transformation coincides with renewed efforts to update the popular legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, which carefully choreographs its official cultural output.
Key players in Iran’s ruling system, from the Revolutionary Guard to pro-revolution filmmakers, have emphasized appealing to youths for at least 15 years, and the move toward greater nationalism goes back a decade. But internal and external forces have accelerated the trend, say analysts, who point to the fight against the Islamic State group, last summer’s landmark nuclear deal, and the desire by authorities to remedy the distrust – especially among young Iranians – that remains from violent protests over the disputed election in 2009.
The trend has also received fresh recognition from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is urging Iranians to vote in parliamentary elections this month – even if they do not believe in the ruling system, or in him.
In the music video tribute to the war dead – for decades a sacred topic that Iranian hipsters would rarely touch – Tataloo sings: “How come we wrote all about those girls and boys breaking up and making up, and then we shouldn’t write about martyrs who sacrificed their lives?”
Navy ship as backdrop
But if “Martyrs” was a blend of revolutionary and nationalist messages, a video Tataloo released in July, shortly after the nuclear deal was reached, aimed solely at Iranians’ outsize national pride.
Called “Nuclear Energy,” it made jaws drop across Iran’s political spectrum and went viral, because it was made with the explicit cooperation of the Iranian military, albeit outside the normal channels of approval. The rapper – who still is not approved to perform in public – sang from the deck of an Iranian Navy ship at sea about peace as his “only intention” and Iran’s “right to an armed Persian Gulf.” In port, uniformed Iranian sailors standing at attention with their rifles joined in the singing.
Narges Bajoghli, a doctoral candidate at New York University, says Iranian authorities have noticed and are trying to harness the surge of nationalism among the nation’s youths, which can be seen even in the sale of Faravahar pendants – a winged symbol of ancient Persia – and the naming of babies with old Iranian names.
“They have realized, especially since 2009, that their more religious messages don’t necessarily translate or get picked up as well with young people,” says Ms. Bajoghli, whose decade of research has brought her into close contact with cultural decisionmakers who aim to keep the revolution alive. “So I think they’ve really realized that to communicate their message [they must] couch it in nationalistic terms.”
Bajoghli, in her own written analysis, quotes a prominent pro-regime film producer who sought underground musicians to write music for new war films. “I don’t care that they’re banned and that some of our politicians think they are bad people,” she quotes the producer as saying. “This is what young people listen to, and we need to embrace that and have them work for us.”
'Respect the warriors'
Tataloo is a prime example, even if Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which issues permission for all cultural activities from concerts and art to films, complained to the military that the ban on Tataloo extended to naval ships at sea.
Tataloo, in a text chat interview with the Monitor, says the video brought “a new message to invite our generation to peace.”
“The soldiers represent the young generation, and the messages we have on placards are mostly about peace,” he says. In every country, people and governments “respect the warriors of its soil,” he says. “Of course we need to update this message.”
One young woman, a recent graduate who works at an advertising agency in Tehran, Iran, notes that in her view, “the martyrs and religion are getting very old.”
“Mr. Khamenei is very smart,” says the 24-year-old, who asked not to be named. "He thinks: 'I have martyrs and religion; yet this is a very old card. But young people: What are they talking about? Their country.' "
With Tataloo “it’s all about adaptation,” she says. “At first Tataloo was going to fight and stand against the [regime]. But day by day, he thinks more to be closer to it.”
'True believers' unmoved
Yet not all who recognize the need for Iran’s ruling system to evolve its message say artists like Tataloo are the best ambassadors.
“This is the first time that our Navy, our modern ships, could be used as a tool of propaganda,” says a conservative journalist in Qom, who asked not to be named. He scrapped plans to take a delegation of clerics and journalists aboard a naval vessel because “the place where Amir Tataloo went was not suitable for us.”
He says this method attracts the kind of people who stood outside Khamenei’s hospital when he underwent surgery last year – an eclectic mix of directors, actors, football players, and TV hosts – “but not us ... not the true believers.”
“They are people who defend the country without any relation to Islam or the revolution,” says the journalist. Appeals to nationalism are “for the other side of the nation ... that doesn’t want to vote.”
But fostering more unity is one purpose of the nationalist evolution, says Mojtaba Mousavi, a conservative editor for the website Iran’s View.
Khamenei “is trying to solve this issue and define the country – Iran – as an umbrella which can include both polarities,” says Mr. Mousavi. “What he is using maybe is not nationalism – love of country – but he is trying to define a united front against outside threats.”
Inspiring youth with nationalism is one obvious aim of the newly built Holy Defense Museum in Tehran – a sprawling complex created by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. There is no shortage of religion; the fruits of martyrdom are depicted by a surreal bridge bathed in red light and 10,000 hanging war-era dog tags, leading martyrs from this world to the next.
Getting the right balance
But the first hall is about keeping the “motherland stable and secure,” a wall plaque states. It shows maps of how the Persian Empire shrank over 2,000 years, and notes that the Islamic Republic is the first to never “surrender a meter of our precious country.”
“The reason we show this to you first,” a female tour guide tells a group of high school girls wearing black chadors, “is that in the worst war we kept all our land.”
Getting the balance right between religion and nationalism has been the challenge as the regime tries to appeal to as many Iranians as possible, says researcher Bajoghli in New York.
A funeral last June for the remains of 270 war dead returned from Iraq was a test case that succeeded in attracting tens of thousands of mourners from all parts of society, united in their grief.
“They know that people are not happy with the Islamic Republic,” says Bajoghli, who was privy to some exchanges of the event organizers. She says part of the discussion was, “ ‘How do we do it so we show that we have people behind us?’ And that’s why they chose to articulate it in that national way.”