Iraqi Band Acrassicauda on Trump's Travel Ban: 'Are We Being Punked?'

Drummer Marwan Hussein criticizes Trump agenda, plans concerts with artists in U.S. from banned countries

Drummer Marwan Hussein of the Iraqi metal band Accrassicauda parses President Trump's executive order, barring travel from Middle Eastern countries. Credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty

This is second in a series on musicians affected directly by President Trump's travel ban on seven Middle Eastern countries. Read the other pieces on Iranian born electronic artist Ash Koosha and Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh.

Acrassicauda drummer Marwan Hussein is at the Iraqi embassy in New York trying to find out how to see his mother under President Trump's executive order, which bans travel from some Middle Eastern countries. Like his bandmates in the thrash-metal group, Hussein came to the U.S. from Baghdad as a refugee roughly nine years ago and became a full U.S. citizen last year. He has been applying to have his mother, whom he saw last in 2011, come to the U.S. for years but she has been denied.

"Now it's like the whole case stopped, just because of the banning issue," he says. "Right now I'm trying to figure out if I can bring her over here, and if I do, what rights she has and if it would be possible to see her. It's all speculation. Nothing is for sure. Everybody is in shock."

Trump's so-called "Muslim ban" has become a tipping point for Hussein and his bandmates. In the past, the group – which came to prominence via the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad – has striven to be apolitical. "Now there is no escape from that," Hussein says. "We've got to talk about it. ... This is the first time in my life, I'm doing an interview where I speak my mind as though I'm speaking to a friend."

What was your initial reaction to Trump's executive order?
The whole thing is surreal. I think to myself, "Are we being punked in here? Where's the cameras?" It's ridiculous. It's somebody with the mentality of a 5-year-old bully and just literally doesn't know what the fuck to do. Who would do that?

What are you feeling now?
Mixed emotions of being disgusted by one man's action and knowing America is a country for immigrants. Only natives can say, "I'm 100 percent American." The rest are immigrants.

The whole slogan "Make America Great Again" never made sense to me. It's kind of ironic because what makes America great again is people being able to stand up to their governments when they're being fucking fascists and telling them to go fuck themselves. So there is a fucking irony [laughs]. I don't think he knew that.

Were you protesting at JFK over the weekend?
No, but most of my friends were.

How will the band react to the ban?
From what I understand, there are seven Iraqis being held hostage in JFK airport. So I've been talking with the rest of the guys in the band about doing a benefit show this month in New York to raise money for the hostages' legal support. We will sell our merch and DVDs to raise money – whatever people want to donate – to go toward the people's lawyers, or the International Refugee Committee, whatever committee is trying to build a case.

How does this executive order affect other bands in areas like Iraq and Iran?
Not well, by any means. Some [of the artists we know] are green-card holders. Some of them have tourist visas. Not everybody has citizenship. A friend of mine, Daniel [Gerstle], has been working on this project for a while to bring bands from war frontiers together. He's been working with Syrian, Somali and Sudanese bands for the past four years, and he was trying to release a documentary about these bands. We've been thinking that since the ban took place, we should get together with these bands to raise awareness. We could even play free shows. We want people to know this is bullshit and everybody should stand up for that.

You addressed refugees in a two-part video you made for "Rise" last January, and you featured Trump in the video. Why is that?
The first part is interviews with refugees. So there's a guy from Syria, a guy from France – he's talking about a bombing that happened in Paris – and a guy from Iran. And they all talk about what America means to them, before the actual video clip. I thought, OK, you're a refugee. Some of you are citizens and some of you can't go back to your countries, let's talk about it.

The second part of the video was funny. I put Trump in it because he's a douche. This video is dedicated to douches. This whole video starts with riots. I was watching what happened in D.C. [around Trump's inauguration], and I'm thinking, "Fuck me, this is actually happening." ... After Bush, I thought America learned, like, "We learned our lesson." We should be really careful with that from now on. And now this guy comes along.

Does this executive order affect your ability to tour the U.S.?
Being the band known for being from Iraq, I doubt that we'll be able to freely tour everywhere. There are some states that we can, probably some states we can't, like the red states. We toured Mississippi, Alabama, Jacksonville and New Orleans in 2013, but now I'm skeptical about going to those places again. I don't think it will be the same as in 2013 or even a year ago. It doesn't matter to some people if I've become a citizen or not. Unfortunately, some people still think, "You're brown." Or, "You're from the Middle East." Or, "You're Iraqi." In a way, we would want to tour there as a "fuck you" for racism.

In 2015, you told Rolling Stone you were considering touring the Middle East. Did that ever come about?
No, we didn't do much since the release of the album [Gilgamesh]. But I feel the urge more than ever before to perform and make it loud and proud. Before, we had our problems and our anger, trying to fit in with this society, trying to fit in in the free world again. But now when this thing happened, it's like dealing with fascism and dictatorship all over again. I guess that's when we should strap on our guitars and do the best we can to stand against it.

What was it like for you playing metal when you lived under the Iraqi government?
In Iraq, we felt empowered when we had the band because we tried to deliver this message to the people that was kind of encrypted in the music because we couldn't really speak it. We couldn't say, "We defy the government; we're against it," because we were thinking of our families' safety. Back in 1995 or 1996 when we first started hearing Metallica, and I discovered Scorpions doing "Wind of Change" – something I couldn't find in pop or mainstream music there – they were addressing global issues. It spoke to me and the rest of the band members. And we wanted to be like that. Every other band was hailing and praising.

We did one song for the government, because we needed to or we would have been shut down or imprisoned. And thank god, we did it only once or twice and that's it. But the rest of the stuff, whether it's "Massacre" or "Message From Baghdad," we did all this music because we felt the urge to speak up for a generation that's being leveled to the ground, unable to talk or say anything other than to accept what the government says and praise it more.

What did you think of America then?
What made America special was that in spite of the war in Iraq – we knew there were no weapons of destruction in Iraq, and we knew the government and politicians lie – but it seemed like America wanted to fix things. America made mistakes and fucked up, but it wanted to fix things. And the slogan "Land of the Free" is what made America special. It wasn't military power; it was immigrants. They opened their arms to anybody, and accepted people. And you can see that in New York more than any other place. Losing this [acceptance] will cost America a lot. This is a special thing about this country. If you take it away, it becomes a Death Star situation.

The reason I asked about fascism there is because your music wasn't allowed for religious reasons, because you weren't hailing and praising, as you said. What do you make of Trump turning this into something about how he thinks Christians are treated in the Middle East?
Nobody has more superiority in the Christian world than the Pope, and he's saying Trump isn't Christian. So enough with the religion. It worked thousands of years ago, but it's like using a Nintendo or IBM or a flip-phone now, it doesn't apply. You needed religion a thousand years ago because people were barbaric, just killing each other. Think about the way [conservatives] say "abortion is killing babies" – do you think this worse than sending your children to war when they have hopes and dreams and ideas for themselves? Once they're born, you don't give a shit about them. It's a hypocrisy.

And he's saying things like the Christian thing – Muslims and Christians have been living in harmony [in America], but what he's trying to do is divide the country, making it a civil war all over again. When brothers and neighbors are turning against each other just for religious views, forget about any code for decency or honorable points of view. Basically, they're saying, "I'm more superior than you are," and that's what he's turning the country into. I've seen it from experience, and I can tell you the worst type of war is a civil war.