Iraq's Rock Band Hits Hard Times

It's not every day that the NPR crowd falls for a heavy-metal band, but then Acrassicauda isn't your average group of headbangers. The foursome, whose name means "black scorpion" in Latin, played their first real show behind blast walls and barbed wire, had their rehearsal space destroyed by a missile, and received death threats from fundamentalists for playing "Western devil music"—all before ever stepping into a recording studio. You might say they picked a rough neighborhood for launching a music career. "The only other types of bands in Iraq are the kind who play weddings and circumcision parties," says Acrassicauda drummer Marwan Hussein, 25, "so we really stood out, and standing out in Iraq is not a good thing."

The band's struggles became the subject of the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, produced by Spike Jonze and directed by Vice magazine's Suroosh Alvi. All of a sudden public-radio listeners, Toronto film-festival critics, and worldly YouTube users got hooked on the wartime story of the Baghdad rockers. High-school friends Faisal Talal Mustafa, Tony Yaqoo, Firas Abdul Razaq, and Hussein weathered the violence and anarchy by dreaming of the day they'd be free to grow their hair long and rock out loud—and it seemed half the world was rooting for them.

Coverage of the documentary by the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and CNN International made Acrassicauda a high-profile rock band in the Arab world—and a formidable target. So they sold their equipment and fled the country in late 2006, joining millions of other Iraqis who today make up one of the world's largest refugee populations. Sleeping six to a room and moving every few months, Acrassicauda spent more than two years scraping by in the refugee enclaves of Syria and Turkey. Finally, thanks to the work of the International Rescue Committee and a reported $40,000 in donations raised by Vice through PayPal, the broke and exhausted band made it to the United States just over a year ago. Their first week here, they were invited backstage at Newark's Prudential Center by Metallica, where singer James Hetfield handed a speechless Yaqoo his double-necked guitar, signed it, and proclaimed, "Welcome to America." Next stop, rock stardom.

Or maybe not. Though their first-ever recording, the EP Only the Dead See the End of the War, was released last week, most of the band's members are working two or three service jobs each and living in cramped apartments. They barely have enough time between shifts to practice, let alone put on a show. "We are kings without a throne," jokes bassist Razaq, 28, who left the computer store he owned in Baghdad when he fled with his wife. "We're famous, everyone knows us, but we're still struggling. At some points, to be honest, I've thought, what have I done? The only thing to push me forward is when I look back." Hussein, who was an English and arts teacher in Iraq but now works as a waiter, says looking into the future can be more daunting than grappling with their turbulent past. "We've been here over a year now," he says. "I sometimes wonder, will we make it in America or just be some guys doing whatever refugee jobs we can to survive?"

Roughly 30,000 Iraqis have come to the United States as refugees since 2003. Many of those who've resettled here are from Baghdad's middle class; their standard of living back home was in fact higher than that of some middle-class Americans. They worked white-collar jobs and parked their new cars in the driveways of paid-off homes. They arrived here thinking they would maintain the same lifestyle, but instead many were resettled into poverty. "Iraqi refugees generally have more professional career experience than other refugee arrivals, and most expected they'd be able to restart their careers here in a relatively short period," says IRC spokesperson Melissa Winkler. "That hasn't happened, in part due to the economic crisis. They also never imagined that they would be given so little startup assistance from the country that had a very direct role in their upheaval. It's an incredibly rude awakening."

Part of the problem is that the U.S. resettlement program hasn't been over-hauled since the post-Vietnam era. Until this year, the government allotted $900 per adult refugee to cover housing, food, and other living expenses (the Obama administration recently doubled that amount). And the economy has only aggravated the problem. Two years ago the employment rate for those moved here by the United Nations Refugee Agency was around 80 percent; today it's down near 40 percent.

Though most of the members of Acrassicauda found work within three or four months of arriving, Hussein says the jobs are often unstable and low-paying, meaning all four are perpetually looking for work. "We just thought things would be different once we got here," says Hussein, who initially lived with the whole band, plus Razaq's wife and baby, in Elizabeth, N.J. "Like we would be doing shows, interviews. But instead there were six of us living in a one-bedroom." The rough circumstances took a toll on the band, and Yaqoo, 31, who still needs a translator to communicate, left New Jersey to stay with relatives in Detroit. Hussein launched what he called his "couch tour"—crashing at the apartments of various Vice employees in New York—while singer Mustafa, 26, thought seriously about returning home. "We didn't get here easily," Mustafa says, "and I know we can't get back easy either. But there's not a moment when you don't think about everyone there. But what are you gonna do? Nothing, because we can't go back."

Things started to turn around when Mustafa and Hussein landed an apartment in Brooklyn and coaxed Yaqoo back to the East Coast. Help from the music community also arrived. Paul Green, founder of the School of Rock, offered them free rehearsal space in his school, and Hussein taught drum classes there in return. Dave Dreiwitz from the indie band Ween gave them a guitar, and eventually one of their metal heroes, Alex Skolnick from Testament, stepped in as a coach of sorts. He helped them procure new equipment, polish up their live performances, and get into the recording studio. "Their music was raw and, in all honesty, needed work," says Skolnick, who produced the band's EP. "For all these years they've been in an occupied country on the verge of civil war where it's not even safe to rehearse. They had a lot of catching up to do. But there were moments of greatness there, and they had a sound. It just needed to be cultivated. They've come a really long way, and I have a lot of hope for this band."

Acrassicauda does have one advantage over most heavy-metal groups—its members have actually lived the words they scream and growl. War is common fodder among thrash bands, but when Mustafa rails in "Message From Baghdad," "Is it God's will or just a lie?/People live and others die/Never had the chance and they never will/Forever doomed as I wonder why," it's full of an urgency and realism rarely heard in rock music today. The EP is already receiving positive reviews ("potent riffs, hooks and heavy grooves that any Metallica or Slayer fan will savor," said Time Out magazine), the band has hosted MTV's Headbangers Ball, and Rachel Maddow has invited them to play on her MSNBC show. But Acrassicauda's members see their performance this month at the Scion Rock Fest in Ohio as one of the first real signs that they are making it as a band. "We want to be known for our music now," says Yaqoo in broken English. "We want to hear 1,000 peoples, no, maybe more than 1,000, scream at our show. We don't just want to survive, we want to rock."