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Headbanging in Iraq puts on a strong performance

Dead Tears musicians expected 50 people to attend their underground gig last month, instead, around 200 showed up headbanging to their music

Not once did Karam Bassam think the gig would go ahead. Finding a venue for Iraqi metal band Dead Tears to perform their first live show had been a nightmare, everywhere they tried said no. “Hardly any places accept this kind of music,” he says.

Playing death metal in Iraq is dangerous, even more so than performing it live. That’s why he and the four other members of Iraqi metal band Dead Tears had more than the usual pre-gig nerves as they arrived at the only venue that would accept them, a wedding hall in central Baghdad. The event was being held in secret, and invites circulated among a select group of friends. If word got out, they would all be at risk. 

Metal Tears performing in Iraq.

“People associate this type of music with worshipping the devil in Iraq, the whole thing is super taboo,” says the band’s drummer Mohammed Raad Abdoulsattar, who is a dentist by day. “If something bad happened to us and we got on the news I think most Iraqis would say ‘Oh yeah, they deserved it.” 

This was Iraq’s first heavy metal show in over a decade and the group, including lead singer Karam Bassam, bassist Zaed Saad, drummer Mohammed Raad, and guitarists Yousif Alash and Laith Al-Safar, wondered whether many people would show up. Were there even metal fans left in the country, beyond their immediate circle of die-hard enthusiasts? Would people consider it worth the risk?

Warming up before the gig, they peered around the piece of cloth that separated them from the audience. “I could not believe it, I thought 50 people would come, I was way off,” Abdoulsattar says. Looking out at the crowd of young Iraqi men and women, many of them wearing band t-shirts, he realized Baghdad’s metal community was still going strong. “Just seeing 200 plus people showing up and paying money to see us, a band most of them had never heard of, being so energetic and loud, it meant the world to me,” he says.

Headbanging knows no gender in Iraq

In the front row, men were doing the devil horn sign – the hand gesture ubiquitous in heavy metal – and women were headbanging to the music. For Khalid Waleed, 32, an electronics engineer who has never missed a metal show in Iraq, it was “surreal to see the metal scene in Iraq alive again after almost a decade.” The number of people at the gig showed that rather than stagnating, the scene has continued behind the scenes. “There were a lot of new faces,” he says.

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Dead Tears appeal is on sale at their concert.

Playing controversial music can have serious consequences in Iraq, but for some young Iraqis heavy metal is the only genre that speaks to their experiences. Abdoulsattar has listened to metal since he was 10. “Pop music was never sufficient, it was mostly happy and about topics I felt were silly back then. Metal music spoke to me and soothed my soul. It reminded me that I wasn’t the only one having negative thoughts about the world and society,” he says.

It’s a feeling shared by Ideas Beyond Borders Founder Faisal Al Mutar, who recently described the escapism and outlet metal music provided growing up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In an article on the appeal of the metal counterculture that blossomed in secret under the nose of the Baathist regime, he described it as a “much-needed distraction from the day-to-day suffering we were all privy to,” one that spoke to the reality of daily horrors that became the norm.

“Metal music both helped me escape and also helped me to experience the reality of my situation. I couldn’t relate to happy songs because there wasn’t much happiness going on outside of my house and friendship circles. The depression wasn’t in my head; rather, it was outside of it. Heavy metal music was an outlet for my feelings in an environment where I felt stuck and silenced. Heavy metal music screamed the way that I wished I could,” Al Mutar writes.

Twenty years later, the conservative gatekeepers of Iraq’s cultural scene remain as restrictive as ever and IBB is channeling support to organizations and individuals working across diverse fields to promote open expression and human rights for a freer, fairer Iraq. “Culture in all its forms is under attack in Iraq as extremist voices seek to shut out artistic expression,” says Al Mutar. “Dead Tears makes music that stands in defiance of the censorship that is stifling Iraq and silencing those who demand change.”

Abdoulsattar hopes that the success of last month’s gig will encourage other bands to perform and create original music. “We need more bands and musicians who create their own songs, otherwise I’m not sure this genre would grow here, especially with the taboo surrounding it. Although I will say that the last concert and the number of people who came and enjoyed themselves makes me believe that there are a lot of metal heads just waiting for bands to emerge.”

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Metal is gaining popularity across Iraq.

Jafar Alwaely, 35, a reporter with the New York Times in Iraq, arrived early on the day of the gig. A lot of fans were already there, a sign, he says, “that heavy metal music is still present in Iraq and a new generation of metal supporters are hungry for more.”

Among them was Zahraa Hadi, a 24-year-old data analyst, and translator. For her, the risk is part of the thrill. “that’s what makes it a great experience,” she says. This was her first live metal show and she’s hoping it won’t be a one-off experience. “I’ve always loved metal and more than that to get to experience that loud, heavy music with all the darkness and the horns sign…I loved every second of it.” 

The band is working on their second album, funded in part by our Innovation Hub grant, but the success of their first live performance has inspired them to consider more shows. “Not once did I believe that this would happen, that this concert would work, but it did, it really surprised me,” Bassam says. “People are still saying to us when is the next concert, we need you, come on guys, we’re waiting for you.”

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