Even With Travel Ban Blocked, Artists Are Still Left Hanging : The Record Musicians form an important cultural conduit between the U.S. and the seven countries included in the ban. Despite judicial stays upheld on appeal, artists still can't hit the road.

Even With Travel Ban Blocked, Artists Are Still Left Hanging

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Even though the government isn't enforcing president Trump's executive order on immigration for now, there are lots of questions about who can come to the U.S. and for how long. Some prominent musicians are among those caught in the confusion. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas reports that their personal lives and livelihoods are on hold.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Omar Souleyman is a Syrian singer who in recent years has collaborated with Bjork and performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert.


TSIOULCAS: Five years ago, he moved to southeast Turkey to escape the war in his homeland.


OMAR SOULEYMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

TSIOULCAS: Souleyman has a new album on the way, and he was planning a U.S. tour to promote it. He's toured the U.S. 16 times before.

MINA TOSTI: New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and Arizona. We were cooking things for South by Southwest this March, but it's very difficult to say anything about that right now.

TSIOULCAS: That's Souleyman's manager, Mina Tosti, speaking from Istanbul via Skype. The visa paperwork for this trip was already well underway when the executive order was announced. When Tosti visited the home page of the U.S. embassy in Ankara last week, she saw this.

MCEVERS: If you already have an appointment scheduled, please do not attend - capital letters.

TSIOULCAS: She says there's an unspoken message behind those words.

TOSTI: You are not welcome. Do not come near us.

TSIOULCAS: Now that the order's in limbo, Tosti isn't sure what to do. Neither is immigration lawyer Matthew Covey, who heads a U.S. nonprofit called Tamizdat that advocates for foreign artists and helps facilitate their visa applications.

MATTHEW COVEY: For the arts, it's really not a resolution at all because for performing arts programmers, the temporary restraining order is just that. We don't know when or if it will disappear, and we'll go back to the ban. So if you're running a performing arts organization here in the U.S. and you're trying to figure out who to book for June, July, even for March, there's very few presenters who are going to risk contracting with an artist from one of the seven countries now for any point in the foreseeable future.

TSIOULCAS: Among those left hanging are some of the world's top musicians. Kayhan Kalhor is a virtuoso of the Persian kamancheh, a bowed stringed instrument. Kalhor is a four-time Grammy Award nominee and the longtime collaborator of cellist Yo-Yo Ma.


TSIOULCAS: Kalhor was born and raised in Iran, but he's a Canadian citizen, and he lives in California. Right now he's on tour in Iran. Isabel Soffer was hoping to help him toward the U.S. in May. She's an American who produces concerts and festivals across the country and works extensively with artists from the Middle East.

ISABEL SOFFER: So many of these incredible artists all over the world are doing this dance because so many of them have complex lives based around mobility. Where do they belong? Where do they live? What passports do they have? How do they function?


TSIOULCAS: Mahdiyar Aghajani is an Iranian producer and composer. He's best known in this country for his score for the film "No One Knows About Persian Cats" about Iran's banned underground music scene.

MAHDIYAR AGHAJANI: Up until two years ago, we were considered Satanists.

TSIOULCAS: That's right, he said Satanists. He's now based in Paris, but speaking via Skype, he says he still manages a hip-hop collective back home.

AGHAJANI: They cannot work in Iran because the government is against them, so they're illegal. So they cannot officially monetize their music.

TSIOULCAS: So he was hoping to bring them to the U.S. to reach the Iranian diaspora here and also mainstream hip-hop fans.

AGHAJANI: And we had so many states. It was a part of the tour. And now this thing put everything on hold basically because half of our plan is, like, now nothing.

TSIOULCAS: Mahdiyar Aghajani says that as an Iranian artist, he's already had to figure out how to knock down official hurdles. And he thinks that what he and his friends have gone through can be a model for others.

AGHAJANI: The borders - they cannot stop us. Right now with all this technology, we don't need to be there physically in order to do a show. I think the artists should be creative. Like, they shouldn't be scared or hopeless or anything like that. Imagine if I had this mentality. We had Ahmadinejad. Like, I know Trump is very bad and everything, but Ahmadinejad was, like, way crazier.

TSIOULCAS: For now, attorney Matthew Covey of the organization Tamizdat that is offering to prepare and file visa applications pro-bono for artists from any of the seven countries named to the executive order no matter what happens. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.


SOULEYMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

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