One of the first tools used by authoritarian governments is the obstruction of culture to prevent citizens from understanding one another. Fared Shafinury knows this firsthand. The Iranian-American leader of the band Tehranosaurus recalls getting arrested for playing a show in a public park in Iran in 2006 during the rule of that country’s strong-man president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That’s why the blowback he’s witnessed so far from President Donald Trump’s controversial order barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations feels uncomfortably familiar.
“My band is composed of immigrants,” Shafinury, 34, a second-generation Iranian-American who was born in Corpus Christi, TX, and now splits his time between Texas and California tells Billboard. “Two of the musicians in my band are from the Northeastern part of Iran and they fled for their freedom and to be able to live in America and be free.” The brothers, Matin and Misaq Eshaghi, are classically trained musicians who are now afraid to return home to visit their families — including an ailing grandmother — because even with valid green cards they fear they won’t be allowed to come back into the country due to Trump’s order.
The confusing presidential action rolled out on Jan. 27 blocks any refugees from entering the country for 120 days (including those from war-torn Syria, who are indefinitely barred) and imposes a 90-day ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The White House has sent out contradictory statements about how green card holders would be impacted by the order, with the administration initially indicating they would be barred and then reversing course on Sunday (Jan. 29) and saying “going forward” they would not be blocked from re-entering the country.
“I also have two tall white men who are blue-eyed, blonde Texans that I was planning to take to Iran, but in reaction to Trump’s stand Iran has banned them [from visiting],” says Shafinury, whose repertoire is a mix of traditional American and Persian folk music that sometimes finds him mixing Bruce Springsteen with revered 13th century Persian poet/philosopher Rumi. “This is an obstruction of the transfer of culture. My firm belief is that the main uniting factor in all of this mix of political strife is that governments who become tyrannical and authoritarian use the obstruction of culture to prevent people from understanding and getting along with one another.”
For Shafinury, there’s never been a more important time in his life to make music. Which is why he’s heartbroken that his biggest overseas tour to date — a planned 11-gig trip to Australia, Europe and Canada — has been scrapped due to the chaos surrounding Trump’s order. In addition to creating a “huge financial burden” and blocking his attempt to further spread the name of the band he’s fronted since 2008, Shafinury says this is the first time in his professional career where there’s been “an actual blockade of my culture.”
The tour cancelation comes on the heels of a sold-out three-date swing that took his group from New York on Jan. 20 to San Francisco’s African American Art & Culture Center on Jan. 28 and the American Jewish University the next night. The eclectic choice of venues is in keeping with Shafinury’s drive to reach across cultures, and he says the timing ended up being both inspiring and head-spinning.
“Our tour was happening just as these laws were being signed,” he says, recalling how the presidential order was released the night before the San Francisco show, at which the band “performed their hearts out” in reaction to their emotions about the anxiety-producing news. “The next day we got on a plane and walked into LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] right into this mess [of protests and travelers being detained.] This band is exactly being affected by this. I’m an Iranian-American musician who is as Iranian as he is Texan. I’m extremely Persian and extremely Texan.” He says those three shows had a much different vibe, as much about the music as they were about raising a fist in defiance. “My work has turned into a huge protest.”
That energized vibe feels like it’s coming up onto the stage now as well, he says, sensing that his fans — many more of whom are non-Iranian lately — are openly making a statement of solidarity by supporting Tehranosaurus. “How could one prepare for this?” he wonders, alluding to the “state of fury and angst” that he feels emanating from his band during their passionate recent gigs.
Asked what he would say to Trump if he had a chance to plead his case with the reality-star-turned-commander-in-chief, Shafinury doesn’t even see the point. “To a man like Trump communication with the tools of logic becomes meaningless,” he says. “To communicate any motive of unity or cultural exchange to a man like Trump is beyond his capability to understand. In Iran, the fear is people shouldn’t come together and unite around culture — that’s what happens in a tyrannical police state. There’s no difference between Trump and Ahmadinejad.”
Actually, there is one.
“The only difference is Trump has access to the world’s most powerful military.”