SXSW, Executive Orders and the Global Musical Environment

Written by on 17th March 2017

Jazz fusion duo Yussef Kamaal had their right to enter the US revoked on the afternoon of Monday, 13th March just one day before they were due to depart for SXSW, the annual festival of media, film and music based in Austin, Texas.

Drummer Yussef Dayes, who intended to perform both in Yussef Kamaal and United Vibrations with his brothers Ahmed & Kareem, had his Visa revoked “at the 11th hour” in a decision which he believed to be “discrimination based on religion and race.”

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United Vibrations & Yussef Kamaal

In the third border control intervention to involve SXSW artists that same day, members of both London-based bands underwent several hours of interview, but were denied entrance to the US despite their scheduled performance at the Jazz Re:freshed ‘Outernational’ initiative. Jazz Re:freshed has been funded via Arts Council England since 2015 with the aim of showcasing the movement of UK jazz around the world, and said this:

“We are appalled at the revocation of 4 approved ESTA’s with little more than 48 hours’ notice (…) these revocations prevent 4 of our musicians from (attending) SXSW, one of the largest and most influential global music industry events of the year (and) it has a major impact on 2 of our 4 bands that (were there to represent) the UK (…) we fought to the end to get these decisions reversed and although not successful, we are still pursuing the matter, so this is all we can say for now.”

SXSW (South By South West) initially hit the headlines on Friday afternoon, when Italian post-punk band Soviet Soviet arrived in Seattle to then be denied entrance to the US, detained overnight and sent back to their Italian home city of Pesaro the following morning.

Cairo-Vancouver-based alternative hardcore band, Massive Scar Era, were also refused access to the US for SXSW when their B1 tourist Visas were declared ‘not valid’. MSE later said that Dylan Wijdenes-Charles (MSE’s drummer) had been questioned about his ethnic identity and also refused; as a First Nations member, this should not have been an issue.

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Other artists who had expected to perform at SXSW but were refused at border control include Danish EDM producer ELOQ, who was told that his B1 tourist Visa was not valid after 23 hours of detention, and Belgian singer COELY, who had intended to release her first album Different Waters at SXSW but was barred from boarding her flight. COELY released a statement via facebook: “after months of dreaming, planning and saving (…) I’m in possession of a valid passport and all the required documents (but) I’m the only one of my crew that was refused to board the plane (…) we still don’t know why.”

It does need to be said, this doesn’t make SXSW look good. SXSW underwent a different scandal in recent months over the controversial language used in their international artists’ contracts; this contract included clauses which said artists who performed at ‘unauthorized’ shows (shows other than the ones covered in their Visas) could suffer immediate deportation or revoked passport as a direct consequence of this misdemeanor.

Because of this, several artists submitted an open letter which asked SXSW to remove controversial language from its contracts; this letter negotiated that the festival could contact immigration authorities if an international artist’s actions had an adverse effect on the “viability of the artist’s official SXSW showcase,” but it should not have involved artists being denied access to the US before even arriving in the US at all.

SXSW festival has recommended ESTA Visas (accessible online) to their artists for several years with no issue, but not all international artists were detained and each case seems to hold a different rationale. SXSW claims that event officials “know about the situation” and “have spoken to the artists” but declined to comment on the Visa issue.

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But it is an issue, and it needs to be addressed. B1 and ESTA Visas have, until now, allowed artists to construct multinational careers in music. P2 visas, the alternative following recent executive immigration orders from US President Donald Trump, are exclusive to ‘known’ international artists who have had a sustained ‘period of achievement’ of no less than 12 months. P2 visas also cost several thousand dollars.

It seems this recent shift in international politics has left the international music scene somewhat bruised; the US has been the economic centre of music for decades, even centuries, but it might not be for much longer.

Yes, this means artists might find it harder to ‘make it’ because of the lack of international focus, but it might also lead to a more diverse global musical environment, governed through the global collaboration of local markets rather than one globalized market. I don’t think music can exist without borders, but it might be time those borders were redrawn.

In light of their denied entry to the United States, Boiler Room offered United Vibrations their first ever appearance on the platform, with the band playing a beautiful 45 minute set that can be found below.


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