Ash Koosha: Acclaimed Iranian Musician on Being Newly Banned From U.S.

"We're in deep trouble on a global scale"

Ash Koosha, acclaimed electronic musician, is facing new challenges. Credit: Ozge Cone

This is first in a series on musicians affected directly by President Trump's travel ban on seven Middle Eastern countries. Read the other pieces on Iraqi metal band Acrassicauda and Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh.

On Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to bar refugees and virtually everyone else from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya from traveling to the United States. Beyond a violation of human rights that flies in the face of the Constitution, the move ultimately shuts down artistic conversations that musicians, filmmakers and other creatives have been holding across the continents for years.

Among those directly affected by Trump's ill-conceived executive order is Ashkan Kooshanejad, a 31-year-old producer who records wiry, crowded, and often quite beautiful electronic music as Ash Koosha. His most recent album, last year's I AKA I, released by art-dance stalwart Ninja Tune, was acclaimed by Pitchfork, The Wire, XLR8R and Resident Advisor among others. Rolling Stone named him an "Artist You Need to Know" last February, adding that his album was "uncompromising, dizzying and dense." He played esteemed electronic festival Mutek and did a "virtual reality" set for the Boiler Room. Still, Ash may be a lot better known in 2017 if he hadn't been put through the "extreme-vetting" ringer while attempting to promote his album's existence.

Rolling Stone caught up with Koosha, to talk about the morass the accomplished electronic artist now finds himself in.

Why are you so eager to talk about Donald Trump's seven-country ban on immigrants and visitors?
Growing up in Iran, we spent our entire lives caught in the middle of a conflict. Everyone was discriminated against for no reason other than that we were Iranian. But this is time it's worse, because it affects refugees, who are in immediate danger, as well as scholars, technology executives and everyone else. It's not a new thing for us. The difference this time is that I'm really fed up. It's a straight-on slap in the face. I want to speak out because it's not just about me anymore; everyone is involved. People have to realize that the entire population of a country like Iran isn't involved with terrorism or radical Islam or whatever they're afraid of.

"Conservative Member of Parliament Nadhim Zahawi ... is now banned. A Syrian refugee is banned. And I'm banned. We're in deep trouble on a global scale."

As an Iranian artist, you're already under siege in your home country. As one example, can you explain why were you arrested in 2007?
We grew up in post-revolutionary Iran where, after nearly 40 years, there's still a clash of ideas about tradition versus modernizing, closed doors versus globalization, and so on. I grew up wanting to make things – music, film, and technology – but we were never allowed to express ourselves and were banned from performing. So our band, Font, decided to turn a wedding garden into a venue and perform peacefully in the suburbs. The government raided the gig, which was portrayed on TV as a "Satanist" concert, and arrested us. My grandma asked me if I was a Satanist and all I could say was, "No, no, no! We're just a bunch of punks trying to play guitar onstage!"

When did you know you had to leave Iran?
We were serious people who wanted to create, but we were disconnected from the global culture industry. We made a film called No One Knows About Persian Cats as a way to seize the means of creation without censorship. But the film caused more problems for us, and that's how I ended up in the U.K. in 2010. They pushed me out of Iran and I was forced to start another life. I felt isolated in the U.K. because I wasn't part of the network of artists that develops in school and universities. We were total outsiders.

How did you keep going?
A small group of us in London, Paris, and the U.S. started working together. But whenever I crossed the border between, say, England and France, I always had this feeling, even though my work was appreciated, that I was going to have trouble. That feeling was always there, and now it's been heightened. The U.S. says I'm probably a terrorist because I'm from Iran so I have to prove I'm not a terrorist.

What does it take to get a 01-B visa "for an Alien of Extraordinary Ability" to perform in the United States?
I was accepted as a refugee in the U.K., and now I have permanent-resident status. The problem, however, is that you always carry your Iranian nationality with you. So even though the visa application process is the same for all U.K. artists, the Obama administration enacted an additional administrative process where they check deeply into your past. And it takes an additional two months, which caused my 2016 tour to be canceled even though we applied four months in advance. Bookers had to cancel our shows, which damaged my promotion for I AKA I. I wouldn't necessarily call myself a "victim," though, because I'm in a fucking great situation compared to all the refugees dying in Syria.

"[A]gents have stopped booking me for shows in the U.S. They can't risk it."

And your second 01-B visa application was approved?
Yes, but I spent $3,000 that went right down the drain with the first application. The second one cost $1,500 for a fast-track visa. I wasn't checked at the border when I arrived in the US. Well, I wasn't questioned officially but the officer asked me, "How did you get this visa as an Iranian?" Which was kind of insulting. "Are you famous or something?"

"I don't know," I said. "Google me." You're automatically problematic if you're Iranian. Conservative Member of Parliament Nadhim Zahawi, who represents Stratford-upon-Avon, is now banned. A Syrian refugee is banned. And I'm banned. We're in deep trouble on a global scale.

I understand you're not even Muslim. How do you prove that to an American official?
Please tell me how [laughs]. I'm an atheist, which is probably a bigger problem for me. I wouldn't even have a problem talking with someone about my past, because I like talking. The problem is that this goes way beyond that. This blanket order bans anyone who's remotely Iranian.

With the possible exception of "Shah" on I AKA I, your work doesn't seem particularly political. Do you see that changing?
I don't directly put politics in my work. It's based on research and progress in the media. The social message is embedded in the work as expression rather than directly.

How do you see all this playing out?
I think they'll sort it out within the next 90 days and U.K. citizens will be OK. And I'll be a U.K. citizen in two or three months. But agents have stopped booking me for shows in the U.S. They can't risk it. They'll stop booking everyone from Iran. I'm on hold now and can't say for sure what will happen. All I know is that it will cause a lot of problems for everyone, but especially businesses, universities and the cultural sector. 

How frustrated are you?
I'm frustrated but I'm not going to let this affect me. I'm probably going to do a holographic show where I can be present by augmented-reality tech. Either that or I'm going to have to start a Three Doors Down cover band [laughs].