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Ash Koosha

The story of Ash Koosha, now banned from the USA

The Iranian sound sculptor fled his country after being jailed for putting on an illegal show. Having lived in the UK as a diplomatic refugee since 2010, he’s now barred from the US

Across the USA right now there are people forming bands and putting on shows – I took this freedom for granted when I was a teenager doing the same thing. Ash Koosha didn’t. In Iran, it was and is against the law, something he and his friends flouted at every opportunity. Most of his shows were illicit, basement affairs, but one such show, a Unesco-sponsored music festival in 2007, was actually given special dispensation by the presidential office, only to be revoked at the last minute. Undeterred, they did what they usually did – they put the show on illegally anyway. This time, they were shut down by police descending on ropes from helicopters.

Ash spent two weeks in a high-security prison sharing a cell with a killer, with no idea when he might get out. When the resulting film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, started attracting notoriety (including a Cannes Film Festival award in 2009), Ash and others who starred in the film – including The Yellow Dogs, rapper Hitchkas, and producer Mahdyar – felt that they had to leave Iran. Ash has been living in the UK as a diplomatic refugee since 2010. I started managing him in 2015, and he released his second album I AKA I through Ninja Tune last year.

The O1-B Visa, necessary for musicians, actors, and artists wanting to work in the USA, is extremely difficult and costly to obtain. The evidence you need to provide includes proof of major awards, pages of clippings from world-recognised press outlets, and numerous supporting letters from high level people in the industry you are in. The process of getting an O1-B (aka Alien of Extraordinary Ability) visa is still the same today as it was around a year ago when I first started putting together a petition on behalf of Ash Koosha. I knew from the start Ash Koosha’s petition would likely be even more complicated given his background as an Iranian refugee.

I honestly had no idea if we could succeed in getting Ash to the USA for shows, but we had the Cannes award and mounting excellent press in our favour. Our first attempt to get a visa centred around a run of shows including FORM festival in the Arizona desert, plus headline shows in Los Angeles and New York – three weeks of May 2016 in total. The petition, at the cost of nearly $3000, was accepted, and Ash turned up at the US embassy in London for a visa interview. This is the point where things started to get sketchy. He was told his passport was to be sent to Washington, DC for “additional processing” (basically, making sure he isn’t a terrorist), with no time frame for its return, just under two weeks before he was due to fly to LA. Around this time we enquired as to whether his passport, which is actually a refugee travel document, could be duplicated, allowing Ash to fulfil other tour dates in Europe and Canada if Washington held on to his travel document for any longer than three weeks. The reply from the UK Home Office said that not only would they not issue a duplicate, they wouldn’t even give a replacement, leaving Ash essentially stateless if it didn’t return from Washington. Thankfully, it did return – but it turned up two days before the end of his scheduled tour in May, with shows long since cancelled.

On the second attempt (with yet more money spent), Ash was accepted for a three-year O1-B visa, and we celebrated the end of this admin headache. Then, after his first trip late last summer, he was informed that as he was Iranian, his visa was only good for one entry every three months, and that he would need to undertake another interview for every trip. What I’m trying to get at here is that even before Trump’s executive order, America was already the hardest country for Ash Koosha to tour in bar none, and we both frequently marvelled at how obtuse and prejudiced the system was. It was already extremely difficult for people like Ash.

“Even before Trump’s executive order, America was already the hardest country for Ash Koosha to tour in bar none... it was already extremely difficult for people like Ash”

This new executive order leaves our efforts, and Ash’s O1-B visa in tatters. He can’t go and perform or work in the USA for 90 days. In reality, I would now struggle to find a promoter that would confidently book Ash for a show in the USA for as long as Donald Trump sits in office. Ash had to leave Iran as a refugee to make and play music. That he now can’t do the same thing in the biggest market for music on Earth, and a place that supposedly virtues freedom, and freedom of expression in its very constitution is backwards and full of prejudice. In classic Trumpian manner, it doesn’t even succeed in being the straight-up #MuslimBan he intends – as Ash remarked earlier this week, he isn’t Muslim, and most people he knows here or back home aren’t particularly religious either.

Make no mistake, this is the wild swing of somebody so obviously, catastrophically out of their depth, and can only serve to exacerbate tensions and feelings of ill-will in the Middle East. On a micro level for us, it erects a huge wall in front of Ash’s developing career (though Ash has a borderline genius answer to the problem, which we are working on). For music fans in the USA, there is now a list of acts that they won’t be able see live in America anymore. To me that feels utterly striking, that the USA now joins an infamous list of places difficult to tour in – North Korea, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and, yep, Iran. 

Today Ash Koosha has released a statement in his own words about his situation and the sad, exasperating plight of everybody affected – read it in full here.