Anyone who’s listened to the music of Iranian musician Ash Koosha will know there’s a restless intelligence at work in his infinitely-detailed electronic manipulations. So it comes as no surprise that that when Koosha found himself on the wrong end of Donald Trump’s immigration ban, which included his home country in the list of citizens prevented from entering the USA, he immediately issued a smart and thought-provoking response. His brief statement didn’t just describe his own predicament or protest the ban, but put the current situation in context of a rising demonization of outsiders in the USA and elsewhere.
Koosha is someone who understands government persecution intimately—having been harassed and punished by authorities in Iran for promoting music events, and finally exiled with his friends and family – so it’s clear that he has an unusually nuanced perception of what is going on in Trump’s America. We met him in a tea shop in central London, where he now lives, and asked him to unpack some of his motivations for speaking out, and in the process touched on “virtual facts,” social divides worldwide, music as discussion platform, and a perhaps-surprising sense of optimism.
The statement you put out has got you lots of attention—but that can be counterproductive, of course. Was there any worry about rocking the boat or jeopardizing any future travel?
Well, I knew that at some point sooner or later people were going to start asking me about this, like, ‘Dude, did you hear? This might affect you!’ So, kind of for my own sanity, I thought I’d tell the story, just to avoid every other person I met telling me about it. And also I thought, it’s time to just let people know… because this is nothing new. I don’t know if you know, but this kind of security thing already cancelled my tour last year. That time, my visa had even been approved, but then after that—they were very straightforward about it—they said, ‘Well, because of your nationality, you’re going going to need this whole other set of administrative processes,’ and that cost me my shows. It’s very difficult already, it’s a very closed system with America. So it’s nothing new for me. But this time around, it’s just crazy. Nobody’s going to book anything for me! Last week, they said the ban was lifted by a judge, but of course still there’s a chance it might come back. So this shaky situation is going to affect my whole summer… my whole year. I’ve played one or two gigs in America before, but basically I haven’t had a chance to promote my records there yet. The promoters I work with there are really nice people, but they can’t risk me not showing up, they can’t take that risk until they know what’s going on.
And ‘knowing what’s going on’ doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon…
Yup, it’s such a weird dynamic now. So I thought, ‘Well, let’s not even worry about that now. Let’s talk about other issues. Maybe I can at least get something out of this, which is to inform as many people as possible about the reality.’ Which is that America’s been like this for many years. This is the peak. This is what we’ve been talking about for many years, but now finally everyone’s seeing it. I think that’s a good thing, honestly, I don’t think it’s bad. Before the election I always said Trump is a good thing—I know that’s crazy, but we need to know that the world is crazy, and it’s been crazy for the last eight years and more. It’s not just the last year or two, because of Trump. I think he’s a fucking puppet, a role-play kid. The whole system that runs Western politics ruins many places, and now it’s the day of realization, like ‘Oh shit, now this is happening to us! Now we have to face it!’
Did you feel like a political person before any of this?
Maybe this is a cliché, but if you’re born in a post-revolution, post-war country, you’re automatically a political person. You’re part of politics. Personally, I always avoided talking about politics… and even now I don’t feel I’m talking politics—this is more about the social psychology, a social division, our relation with people we’ve been separated from, which is the lower, working classes, the people who work for us, and a gap opening up between ideas. You see the same here [in England]. It’s much milder, sure, but it’s given you Brexit. You have this division. We, people like you and me, are the people who use the media, the mainstream media; we’ve had the means to be educated, to go to school and become actors and musicians and successful in many fields. These other people exist in the same country but are completely separate. I remember a very similar thing in Iran. I can feel it because of that—in my whole body I can feel it because of eight years of Ahmadinejad. It’s the same thing. We suddenly realised that same thing: Iran consists of 90 million people, and almost all of them we don’t know anything about. There’s us—me, my family, my friend and a million like us—but the rest… I don’t know!
It’s been said by more than one person that America is now getting a taste of having a government like a Middle Eastern country…
Exactly. Yeah. It’s like some weird balance thing… You talk about ‘post-truth’—Ahmadinejad publicly denied the Holocaust. He said, ‘It didn’t happen, what are you talking about?’ despite every bit of historical evidence, every photo that exists. Same thing about gay rights—he said ‘We don’t have any gays in Iran’ [laughs]. It’s exactly what you see with Trump now. But like I say, this was bound to happen. People didn’t want to see it, because people are stuck on Instagram trying to replicate other people’s lives. I feel like our generation is so fucked—I’m not being an old dystopian pessimist. But it’s true, we’re fucked up.
It’s the monstrous duality of the internet—on one hand you have the availability of communication and truth, like all the techno utopians said would happen…
And I think that good stuff will happen! I think this phase is meant to be the dark ages phase of the Internet, where everyone is new to it, we lose our sense of critical thinking, and you trade your critical thinking for style and aesthetics and being part of the social group or social class. So, we are at the beginning of the damage that this whole digital globalization is going to bring—and I guess my hope is that this damage isn’t right to the core. People are still going to have reactions when something like Trump comes along. And I guess that’s one of the reasons I started to speak out.
As an artist, do you feel like any of this affects your creative process?
Well, I’m not a lyricist, so I’m not ever directly expressing myself, speaking out or singing about things in my music. But I think for me, it’s very impulsive: if I get agitated by an issue, it goes directly into the way I design and make something. It’s not scientifically proven, but it’s psychologically possible that I reflect what I’m thinking. That’s the only connection I see there to exactly the things I make. But besides that, the reason I create is to open up a dialogue outside the music. The music is also interesting to enjoy and experience, of course, but as well as that, it’s a platform to talk about the future, about people, about life, about general existence, existential issues. I don’t use it to solely express myself, but to create a platform on which people can discuss, if that makes sense.
Ninja Tune must be a good place to be in that case—as a label, it’s always had a broader aesthetic and mindset than just music, and it certainly seems to encourage unorthodox thinkers.
My next record on Ninja Tune is going to be called Aktual, and it relates to how we are living in a very warped reality, how we morph into different realities, how we have this sense of actual versus virtual, actual facts versus virtual facts. Facts are divided now, but it’s not always clear where reality is. So we have to have a plan for this now, right now, and think about how we’re going to deal with this, instead of just living it until we realise, ‘Oh shit, we have two realities and we don’t know what is what.’ And I’m showcasing this idea using electronic digital software and AI versus classical. So parts of my music will be digital but sound very acoustic, and vice versa. I’m playing with reality, with actuality, with facts—this violin is not actually a violin, but nobody can tell. If it’s saying anything, it’s saying that we have to think very, very hard about what is real.