Iraqi heavy metal band Dark Phantom are midway through the third song in their set when the power goes out. They're playing live to an audience in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, and the song is the title track from their debut album, Nation of Dogs. Singer Mir Shamal is deep into a menacing growl railing against corruption when the music stops abruptly and the lights go out.
Kirkuk sits atop enough oil reserves to power an economy but the city's leadership can't even keep the lights on. “Nation of shit!” an audience member shouts out in English, riffing off the song's title. Outside the city is in blackness. The last time they played, they received death threats from Islamist extremists who took them for devil worshippers. Now performing in the city since for the first time since 2011, it seems as though their act of defiance may have been cut short.
Before the show, the band explained the significance of the gig over pizzas while the venue slowly filled up. A recently opened cultural center, the cafe was of a similar size to a Brooklyn dive bar, but brightly lit and furnished with couches, and instead of swilling beer and Jägermeister, the patrons were drinking fruit smoothies and energy drinks.
Murad Khalid formed Dark Phantom in 2007, but his obsession with metal started earlier. Today, his tattoos and black goatee make the 27-year-old stand out at the power station where he works, but back in 2003 he was just a Turkmen kid trying to make sense of the chaos his city was sliding into following the US invasion of Iraq. “There was no law, there were no Iraqi forces in 2003, only American soldiers,” he recalls. “There was violence, bombs.” He still recoils thinking about the one which exploded near his school, killing one of his teachers. “Really I was shocked, this was terrible.”
When a friend ripped him a Metallica mix CD, the music spoke to him in a way that other genres didn't. “They were singing about war, our situation.” And when he picked up a guitar, he found a way to channel his frustrations. “With metal I can explain my situation. I can't explain it with folk music because in folk music they only talk about love but here is no love, only war.”
An earlier lineup of the band played a concert in Kirkuk in 2011. Some 300 young people attended and the guys congratulated themselves on playing a great show. A few days later though local religious figures caught wind of the group and imams in the local mosques railed against the band during their sermons at Friday prayers. “They were saying: 'Satan is in our city,'” Khalid recalls.
Then came death threats from Islamic extremists, who mistook the rockers for devil worshippers. “They sent messages on Facebook, saying this music is forbidden in our religion and if you do that again we will kill you,” Khalid says.
The band members closed their social media profiles and pulled their music from Youtube. They continued to practice together though and last year recorded an album in Khalid's bedroom at his mom's house. The guys then decided they had to play it to an audience.
Despite a war against ISIS being fought on frontlines only miles from the city, security in Kirkuk today is actually better than it's been in years. In summer 2014, as ISIS militants seized nearly a third of Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga took control of Kirkuk as the Iraqi Security Forces fled in disarray. Since then the bombings, which had been a feature of daily life in the city for over a decade, have tapered off dramatically. Some now hope that with the Kurds in charge, normal life may finally return to Kurkuk.
“We decided that we have to play,” says Khalid. “It's our city. We will take our chances.”
The band all finish their pizzas, except for guitarist Rebeen Hasem who seems distracted. His pregnant wife is overdue, and they're expecting their first child at any time now. “Close your phone, we've got a concert tonight!” Khalid chides him jokingly as they head towards the stage.
After the electricity cuts out, drummer Mahmoud Qasim taps his cymbal while the band wonders what to do. Then from outside a generator kicks in and the band continues their set.
There are a couple of metal fans eagerly headbanging, but most of the crowd looks bemused: there are more cell phones held aloft filming than devil horns. Far from being an underground event, the local media has turned out to witness the spectacle of a heavy metal band playing, and in place of a moshpit, a handful of cameramen film in front of the stage.
Two young men who call themselves Mohamed Slash and Omar Sleepwalker are big fans, though.They know the words to Dark Phantom's original songs as well as their Metallica and Godsmack covers. “They talk about the real world and what's happening,” enthuses Mohamed. For guys who dream of getting out, losing themselves in metal music for a few hours offers an alternative escape. “We are not free,” he says. “We are surrounded by religious guys and selfish politicians and we can't do what we want. We want to leave this country but I don't know if we will ever make it out of this city.”
Live music is a rare enough event in Kirkuk that even non-metal fans are in attendance, with Dark Phantom's message of defiance embraced by at least a section of Kirkuk's more culturally-minded community. “I'm not a big fan of this kind of music but I came to support the lads and to make it a real show,” says Yadgar Qabany, a health and safety technician for an international oil company. “If there's no support, this kind of thing won't grow. I'm looking forward to seeing more events like this in Kirkuk in the future.”
The concert is one of the first live music events in the city in years, according to the cafe's manager, 27-year-old Rokan Jaff, who also works as a journalist. The venue opened six weeks ago, with a mission to promote cultural life in the city and a return to normal life. “ISIS definitely impacts the security and social life of people in Kirkuk – and all over Iraq – but as a fight against this we have decided not to stop our social life,” he says. “This is a sign of our perseverance.”
Kawa Hama Amen, a 56-year-old salesman from the nearby Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, came just for the novelty of seeing live music. “It's a sign of better security,” he says. “When security improves opportunities for entertainment and music and art increases. Though I prefer the traditional music myself!”
For Dana Nawzad Mahmoud, a 24-year-old translator and teacher with a long black beard, it is more than just an evening's entertainment. “Metal changed my view of the world,” he says, and now Dark Phantom has inspired him. “I have a goal to start my own band.”
Photographer Cengiz Yar captured more images of the event; check out our gallery below.
Campbell MacDiarmid is a freelance journalist currently based in Iraq; follow him on Twitter.