iranian producer ash koosha on trump’s ban and why music can help save the world

London-based, Iran-born electronic producer Ash Koosha is one of the artists playing a SXSW showcase of music from Donald Trump’s seven banned countries next week. He talks to i-D about being a kid in the Iran-Iraq War, how art fosters empathy, and his...

by Hannah Ongley
01 March 2017, 7:38pm

Most of us remember being reprimanded by for playing unprescribed music. Growing up in post-revolution Iran, electronic producer Ash Koosha wasn't punished by his parents or teachers but by the government - which sentenced him to 21 days in jail before he finally sought asylum in London. The breaking point was a festival Ash planned with other underground musicians and support from Unicef. Over 700 people showed up, authorities raided the place with soldiers and helicopters, and over 200 music fans were to forced to spend weeks locked up with rapists and serial killers.

You'd think such experiences might be explored in his music. But Ash's immersive soundscapes open up a new world rather than responding to this one directly. Accurately describing himself as a futurist, he combines elements as disparate as the classical compositions he studied at the Tehran Conservatory of Music and the VR potential he discovered when first trying on an Oculus Rift headset in London. "I'm concerned about normativity of styles and genres in music, and in the arts in general," Ash tells i-D over Whatsapp. "I was drawn to technology because it gives us the ability to explore more. I think you can be in music thanks to virtual reality. I want to translate music into more than just sound - give it more meaning, and take people's imagination to different levels."

Ash never intended for his music to be political, though as an artist he's grappling with complex policy very directly. Last year he had to cancel the majority of a U.S. tour around his mind-bending album I AKA I because of our already burdensome visa requirements. After Trump signed his travel ban on January 27, Ash wrote an open letter about his concerns for creative and intellectual progress in this nationalistic climate. "Donald Trump came to power claiming that he'll make America great again," he wrote. "But this seems impossible without the contribution from many many people of whom I am only one."

Next week Ash plans to come to the United States to play a SXSW showcase of musicians targeted by Trump's travel ban. The festival has teamed up with artist visa-assistance nonprofit Tamizdat for ContraBanned: #MusicUnites, which is currently seeking $15,000 on Kickstarter to build the bridge to cultural diversity. (By contrast, the estimated cost of Trump's wall is between $12 and $15 billion). Other artists on the bill include Libyan-American rapper Kahled M, Iranian vocalist Mamak Khadem, and Somali duo Faarrow. We talked to Ash about his hopes for the festival, and for the future of creative culture.

What was your experience growing up in post-revolution Iran? What impact has this had on your attitude towards the current Islamophobic climate in the United States?
I was born in the time when Iran was at war with Iraq. Growing up in post-war society, priorities were not art or cultural activities or progress. Priorities were always essentials and basics. That caused a lot of anxiety about catching up with a world that is making very fast progress in terms of technology and art. We always had visa issues traveling because the government that was in power in Iran didn't have a good relationship with the rest of the world. Many people think it was very recently that Iran was identified as a country that's causing trouble, but it has always been like this - the people of Iran suffering the foreign policies both of their country and American policies. This dispute caused us a lot of problems in terms of not being able to travel. It's funny, this is the first time that I'm going to SXSW, but I remember when I was around 20 years old I had this issue of, "Can we go to SXSW this year?" That was 11 years ago and it's still so impossible to apply.

What music were you listening to growing up? How did you access what didn't come from inside Iran?
Before the revolution, we had very close connections with the art and culture of America - of China, of Japan, of everywhere. The sudden change suspended the connection, but it never completely closed it. We had people traveling and bringing in vinyl records, magazines, and when cassettes was popular, people were just copying everything. It wasn't only from America, but a lot of American media was consumed in Iran. I grew up on a lot of American TV channels and went to an American school in Iran.

Is the government oppression that you currently face as a musician unique to dance and electronic artists? What is it about this music that causes anxiety amongst those in power?
Generally it's not about specific genres, but specific genres do pose a threat to the social and political situation in Iran. Specifically, the music that provokes people sexually or religiously or on the transitions that the revolution is based on, is mostly rock music or music with lyrics that could provoke people. Which is absolutely false - music can't provoke people to the extent that they become devils or whatever.

You experienced extreme vetting while trying to promote your latest album in the United States last summer. What is your attitude to policy and ideology within America?
My view on this whole thing now is that I'm in the middle of a fight between different groups of Americans. I'm seeing that there's a group of people who are more towards the right who use me as a threat and highlight me as this nationality that might be problematic just because of the fact that I've lived in Iran for the last 10 years. There's another group that is opposing this idea, but using me as a victim because they want to show me as a poor immigrant who can't go to America. It's not about me any more, it's about what's going on in one of the richest countries in the world. And it's reduced to this? What made America great is that it let every good thing in the world in, used it to push ideology and literature to new levels. Even if it was George Bush who was crazy enough to start that war - even at the worst times - America was about progression and the future. I'm going to try my best to go there and share what I've made with the people who are fans and want to know more about me and my story and my work. They haven't done anything wrong.

I was just about to ask you about that, because many artists right now are refusing to enter the US to protest the ban and the irrational fear. I'm sure you heard about the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi who boycotted this year's Oscars ceremony.
If I was him, I would go on that stage, have a bit of humor, and be positive about everything. And just say, "Look at me, I'm not a problem." My worry is that if we make confrontational statements, and say, "I'm going to ban America now because they banned me," the group that thinks we are problematic is going to use that to feed their own cause. It's not a logical argument that they have, but people who are afraid use everything. An artist, a thinker, a futurist is working for the prosperity of future generations. That's a key element to my work.

Let's talk about your work. Your music is exceptionally detailed and wide-ranging, even utilizing virtual reality technology. Do you think this desire to create a futuristic experience is born from the danger and oppression you've faced?
I think I've done it because I wasn't in that position where, say, a kid in London grows up, goes to school, comes out, and they're part of a social group and a way of thinking. Also I'm always traveling. I'm never going to stop traveling, because I was thrown out of the country. So I took that chance to see myself as a person who doesn't belong to any local ideology or social group. I've always been breaking rules.

How can this music help foster empathy and promote cultural diversity?
Any creative activity can help spread knowledge of what's going on in the world. What I do best, for now, is music, so whatever I do is attached to whatever ideology or ideas I have. People connect to music, people engage with music, and whatever is behind it is going to be attached to it. That's the best way to reach people.


Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Instagram

ash koosha
Muslim ban