What It's Like to Be An Immigrant Artist in Trump's America

Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming interviewed Iranian-American singer Rahill about her experiences as a Farsi translator at the JFK travel ban protests, plus they discuss the role of art in this fractious landscape.

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Mar 20 2017, 5:17pm

Julia Cumming is the singer and bassist of Brooklyn-based band Sunflower Bean. She felt moved to write this piece in the wake of her friend Rahill's experiences protesting at JFK in January, back when Trump's executive order travel ban was first announced. Their frank conversation soon took pertinent tangents: They discussed their feelings as artists reacting to the political situation, the liberal echo chamber of New York City, the effectiveness of protest and activist burnout, and much more.

On January 31st, 2017 at 6:13 PM I received three texts from my friend Rahill Jamalifard. I immediately felt for her. I also thought of my most recent panic attack. I don't know if it's a combination of current events, being an artist, or an onset of mental problems coming into adulthood, but these situations feel frequent. One of the things I like about my friendship with Rahill is that we can text each other when we're feeling weird or nervous about the universe, and I appreciated that she wanted to talk to me when she felt upset.

Rahill and I became friends a few months ago in a way I like to call, I-see-you-around-a-lot-and-we-should-be-friends-but-we-haven't-talked-yet-and-you're-a-cool-lady. Touring for months and not being in school makes me sort of isolated, and sometimes I just have to say, let's stop friend flirting and just do this thing. Rahill is a Michigan-born Iranian-American who makes music in the band Roya (and formerly Habibi). The first time we hung out, I visited her at her record shop job in the east village, and we talked so much I felt like I was going to get her fired.

On January 28—the day after Trump's executive order travel ban—Rahill's sister posted this Facebook update about their father.

If you are Iranian—or from any of the six countries included in the unconstitutional ban—you are going to be affected you in some way. But most of us on the outside will probably never have to feel what that's like. So in the wake of the ban at JFK and this post by her sister,  I knew I had to talk to Rahill about her experience as an Iranian-American musician navigating all of the above. I spoke to her in her apartment with Nick [also from Sunflower Bean], and here are the most pertinent parts of our conversation.

Julia Cumming: New York City feels like it's own country—especially at the moment—and we're also in a very niche, very white music scene. I feel like you have a different perspective as someone who's doing your own music and also being outspoken about your experience as an Iranian-American. Are people trying to be extra nice? Or treating you differently? Also let's quickly touch on your sister's Facebook post.
Rahill: Well, I felt like I overshared on social media. I put up that post about my sister and my father—I wrote it as news because it was on my scroll on Facebook. For 10 years my father has been going to Canada to do business and now he's become a prisoner of the US because he can't leave: his freedom's threatened. It was emotional because my aunt (who passed away), her kids live [in Canada], and my dad goes there on business, and he's essentially like their father, because their father's stuck in Iran for other reasons.

So I read [my sister's post], and it was on a day when I was super-emotional because of all this shit that's happening, and I just started crying, because I realized—"That's your sister, she's talking about your father!" And I hadn't talked to them and I didn't even realize how directly affected I was. So I screenshot the post, and put it on Instagram. I felt weird, because it was so personal, but then I was contacted by loads and loads of friends. Phone calls, like "I'm thinking of you." People I hadn't talked to in so long saying, "I'm so sorry, I can't believe this, we have your back." So the outpouring was really, really sweet. But what was even cooler was that so many other people were saying, "Oh my God, thank you for representing, for having a voice. It's so encouraging for you to talk about that, because I'm struggling with that and don't know how to say that. You saying that makes me feel like I can actually talk about this and not feel uncomfortable." So if that act is encouraging other people to speak out, then I'll fucking do that all day.

Julia: I think most people—most of us who feel this way—generally don't know what to do. Luckily we make art, so we think "Oh, I want to make a video, or I want to do this interview." On another note; I think it's hard for a lot people to feel that deeper level of empathy when they aren't personally affected or know someone who is affected. With you, in our scene, people can say, "That's my friend Rahill, that's my friend, we go to shows together." That's very powerful.
Rahill: Totally. For so long nothing has happened like this in our land, [it was] always happening somewhere else: we're just watching it on TV, reading an article about it, there's no humanization. Once you're like "Oh, I know that person. Oh, that's my fucking cousin. Oh, that's my neighbor, that's my bodega guy..."

Julia: Yeah, that's how it works. It's unfortunate that the human mind is sort of stuck in the village, in the sense where it's like you only care about the thing that's right in front of you, and everything else is abstract. Let's talk about the day of everything going down with the order, the ban. Going to JFK. What was it was like?
Rahill: I went there and my sister's best friend—she was in shock. She just moved here, and was like, "What the fuck is going on?" She's so scared. She's Iranian and born and raised here like us, but I think she's small town and only knows her own community. She's in the same boat as my family, so she's saying, "I need to do something, I'm having anxiety issues," and I was like "Well, we should go and do this. This will make us both feel like we're doing something. They're saying they need people." It was actually amazing. There was this part that was closed off in the arrivals and there were all these different people: a lot of people who were Middle Eastern, but then there were a lot of white people too, whether they were translators or lawyers. It was insane.

[These lawyers] were trying to intercept people who are being sent back, around eight people over the course of my time there. No airlines are giving them any information. They're trying to figure out who's coming from where, and who's going to be detained to be sent back. It didn't matter if there was jurisdiction or not. They were sending people back if they weren't met with any sort of obstruction. You would think in this situation somebody would give them names and information, but no, of course not. So this was all by anticipation of families who were telling us, "This person is coming… our flight is at this time, and they are a citizen of Iran or Iraq or Turkey."

So there's this team that's there—the translators, the lawyers, the people who are organizing the space. We each had different signs, in all different languages: we were waiting for anybody who was coming out—a sort-of "if you saw anything, say something" kinda thing. While I was there, there was an Arab who was being detained from Yemen. He texted his brothers or his family and he was saying, "They drew me aside, they're saying that I have to go back." Right away they got this Arab lawyer to come down, and she helped set him free, she informed him of his rights.

There was one Iranian girl, and they couldn't get the lawyer to go back to talk to her. But they were like, "OK, if they are putting you on a plane, just stand up and make noise—they're not allowed to take off if you're standing up." So she threw a tantrum and they finally got her off. And then she was finally allowed to see her lawyer. Again, she was allowed to stay.

Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming and Roya's Rahill Jamalifard

Nick: What was the attitude of the people who working at the airport? I'm sure they feel very conflicted about it. A lot of people who are employed might be immigrants themselves, so I imagine it was just terrible.

Rahill: They're just like, "Yeah, this is so unfortunate and weird because this is my place of employment."

Julia: "If I don't do my job, I'm going against the government."
Rahill: Right. And what was crazy was that there were these storm troopers there just for intimidation. There's no fucking reason for there to be four or five of them in different places. There's this Iranian guy who came here on a refugee program, he went to the airport to volunteer to speak as a translator, but he was so scared because he's like, "I'm a refugee, and these cops..." And that was exactly what they were trying to do—scare anybody who was trying to protest anything. And this guy was like "Should I leave?" and the lawyers were telling him no, you're fine, nothing's going to happen to you, don't worry. But it was just this weird intimidation technique that bothered the shit out of me. I was so angry about it.

But you know the lawyers? There were some boss-ass people there. I think the day before I went an entire law firm came. I loved it because it wasn't just Arabs. It was like these white New York people [too]. Everybody cared, it wasn't just your people looking out for your people: it's people looking out for the good of other people. That was really inspiring. I watched this lady in a hijab go and bring out this detainee. This woman in a hijab. They needed an Arab lawyer, because the guy couldn't speak English, and she was just so badass. She was like, "I'm going to fucking do this and make sure he's safe and received by his family." I left feeling like, OK, I want to be an immigration lawyer.

Julia: That's how I feel too! This is one thing that is really hard. I feel powerless because I don't have the knowledge of what you can actually do, because I'm not in college, I'm not a lawyer, I went straight into music. Of course, music and art are super, super powerful, but you know what I mean…
Rahill: It's weird because you realize that education, diplomacy, is a tool. I never think of it as a tool. But in this case to deal with the law, it's essential.

Julia: You want to encourage your kids to make art and write songs, but I also want to encourage my daughters, or my sons, or even myself to push myself on what that definition of an artist is, because it also feels like very recently I would never have done an interview with someone, even if I was capable of doing it. Or not make a video even if I had the ideas, because I feel this music purism where I only want my voice to be heard through music. And I already work in fashion. So it's a lot. But we might literally have to—and probably should—go to law school right now. How do you feel now, since those two days at JFK? What do you think is next for your activism?
Rahill: I think protesting, when it's a huge number of people, is really amazing. It's not false hope, because it is actually significant that you're unified. But I was talking with Eugene, the guy from Gogol Bordello and we agreed, it's really important to stay present, aware, and composed while staying informed and talking. I don't like this idea that people are "complaining"—they've been criticized, where it's like, "Come on. He's president, like get over it already." That is such a flawed mentality. That becomes the normalization of hate. That turns us into [an Aldous] Huxley novel. It's frightening because it shows just how sheepish we can be as a society, to be allowed to compromise our values. So I think the truest, most basic form of resistance—or just staying resilient—is to continue to not allow it, to practice that. I think you need to practice composure because you can over exhaust yourself mentally. When you read all these articles about the parallels between Hitler… it's just terrifying. I've been having night terrors, just thinking of my parents going to… [a] concentration [camp]…

Nick: Yeah. It's everyone's problem. Everybody's going to lose if something's not done.

Rahill: Exactly. I think the best thing to do is to be super-aware, super-present, and VOICE that. But stay composed too, because it's very important. You can't lose your mind. I've done that already. If we all as a society and a community, stay resilient and continue to support Planned Parenthood, support the ACLU… it's going towards something good, but I wish I did have more of an answer. I wish I did know what to do, if there was something, because I would do it. But it's not like a quick fix. That's not how it works.

Julia: There's definitely that burnout, that activist burnout, or just general burnout. You have to take a little bit of time for yourself, to even open up that creativity and figure out what we can do in life… our own frilly little way of being the people who make the work that is being consumed—hopefully so life is a bit more bearable. This is what we do with our jobs. And you can do something with that. Hopefully we already do that.
Rahill: Since I posted more political posts, there are [also] so many friends of mine that have unfriended me, or unfollowed me, because maybe it makes them uncomfortable. It's just a matter of waking up everybody— the people who are not siding with him fully. But that is a thing that really bothers me, because I'm friends with people who have that mentality… not to say they're pro-Trump, they're just like, I don't want to be a part of it.

Nick: They feel inconvenienced.

Rahill: The, I-don't-want-to-participate vibe. I need to get my coffee, and spend my paycheck at Opening Ceremony, or whatever the fuck it is… you know the same thrills that I have. But they need to realize like we're part of a very larger picture than our tiny little cush lives in New York or wherever.

Julia: Do you feel like your experience as an Iranian-American has affected your songwriting? Is that a super-annoying question, and do a lot of interviewers ask you that question?
Rahill: Yeah. Well no. In this last interview somebody asked about Iranian poets, and if that influenced my work, so I do think to some degree it's funny because I out myself: I'm OK with saying I'm an Iranian, I'm first generation, and I do identify as that. [But] I feel like it kind of pigeonholes me into this, "Oh, so everything that you do is based on that." It is a little annoying, because I feel I have this role to fulfill—am I supposed to be only creating work that's directly related to that? I would say no. It's just that I grew up being exposed to a lot of Middle Eastern art and artistry like painting, architecture, music—all that stuff is innately a part of my expression, and I feel like it helped form my creativity.

Julia: And also you're just being who you are, writing about your experience as who you are… boys, life, things that affect you.
Rahill: Absolutely, yeah.

Julia: I mean, already as a woman you're in that "other" place.
Rahill: Right.

Julia: And then I just imagine as someone who is out about your heritage, that's something that people must project onto you. And I'm finding it secondhand annoying even as I ask you about it.
Nick to Julia: Like when people ask you if you love Kim Gordon. Or Blondie.

Julia: Yeah, it's always a question of, "What women inspired you?" as if I only listen to women because I'm a woman, or I can only be in some other woman's image. And honestly, when I was a kid, my first memories were just of wanting to be in The Beatles. I wasn't thinking so much about gender, but I wondered why when I would sing all the songs I liked, it was always about a girl.
Rahill: I get those questions, but also, let me live, because it's never a conscious thing, or it's not something I'm trying to do purposely. It's more or less just a part of me that maybe I'm going to touch on, or maybe I won't.

Julia and Nick are two thirds of the band Sunflower Bean. Follow them on Twitter.

Rahill Jamalifard makes music as Roya.

Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia.