International art and anxiety in the age of Trump: a SXSW story

A look back and forward at the challenges facing international artists traveling to SXSW


“There’s a responsibility that I cannot run away from,” Emmanuel Jal, a hip-hop artist who escaped life as a child soldier in Sudan, said from the stage during a panel discussion at South by Southwest 2017. “Dead bodies talk to me. Kids that died next to me. If I run away from representing their voice, I’m running away from responsibility.”

Jal was one of 572 international artists who performed at SXSW in 2017 and one of seven acts who played the ContraBanned MusicUnites showcase, a special event highlighting artists from countries included in President Donald Trump’s first travel ban.

Jal lives as a refugee in Canada now. In his homeland, the war continues. He couldn’t return even if he wanted to.

As someone who has witnessed the ugliest ways factionalization divides and destroys a nation, he said he understands the impulse behind the hard line Trump takes on immigration and refugees: “There are people behind Trump, that he’s representing, and he’s accountable to do what they want because they put him in office.”

But Jal’s personal struggles taught him it’s possible to overcome prejudice. “I was a bitter young person,” he said. “I hated Muslims as a child soldier. My desire was to kill as many Muslims as possible. But education changed my view … I went to school and had many Muslim friends who were generous and would share what they had … they share their clothes with me, they share their biscuits with me, and so they kind of beat me with kindness.”

“In the end I came to understand all human beings are the same,” he said. “There is love in every individual’s heart. There is kindness in every person’s heart. The vibration is out there.”

Jal carried a powerful message from outside our country’s borders to the festival, and he wasn’t alone. Throughout its 32-year history, SXSW’s global scope has been a defining characteristic of the event, and international music is a crucial component. Of the 2,011 bands that attended the 2017 fest, over 25 percent were international. Festival organizers say they expect similar numbers this year.

                 SXSW 2018: The best world music at the fest

But in the shadow of the Trump administration’s efforts to increase border enforcement, a dark undertone crept into the annual celebration of world sounds last year.

The anxiety came into the spotlight a week before the fest kicked off, when Brooklyn band Told Slant decided to opt out of performing at SXSW because of a poorly worded section of the fest’s artist agreement that implied festival organizers might report international artists to immigration authorities for playing unofficial showcases. A screenshot of the language posted to Twitter set off a firestorm of controversy.

For the 2018 event, festival organizers revised the event’s artist invitation letter and performance agreement and removed the language that caused concerns. SXSW provides international artists with answers to frequently asked questions related to international travel, and festival reps coordinate with artists when possible to help expedite visa appointments. They also connect artists with immigration lawyers and other industry professionals when problems arise.

Every year there are international artists who encounter visa problems at the border on the way to Austin for SXSW. Sometimes paperwork isn’t in order, and sometimes artists are sent home. Festival reps said they were not aware of an increase in SXSW-related deportations in 2017, but when several artists shared reports about their negative experiences on social media in the days leading up to the festival, it added to a general climate of unease.

“I feel something changed in America, because I had some tours in the U.S. before, but this time was very hard and very stressful to come,” said Luna Lee, a South Korean artist who became a YouTube star playing classic rock covers — songs by artists like Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top and the Doors — on a traditional Korean stringed instrument called a gayageum. (Lee is scheduled to return to the festival this year.)

Like the vast majority of artists entering the country for the festival, Lee had no trouble at Customs and Border Protection. She described the agents she encountered in Dallas as “very generous,” but she heard stories from other artists that made her nervous.

Her South Korean compatriot rapper Don Malik was detained and deported in San Francisco. In a statement released by Malik’s record label in Korean, and translated to English by South Korean music sites, Malik claims he was “racially discriminated by local employees who imitated monkeys and called them ‘chinks.’”

Other artists who didn’t make it into the country last year included rising British avant-garde jazz act Yussef Kamaal, Egyptian/Canadian metal band Massive Scar Era and Norwegian EDM artist Eloq.

The law is murky, with a fair amount of leeway for interpretation left to individual customs agents, but some of these artists might have been traveling on the wrong documents. Italian band Soviet Soviet was deported after customs agents in Seattle rejected the claim that a few ticketed shows on their roster of U.S. dates were part of a promotional tour. The aggressive treatment they received grabbed national headlines.

“They declared us illegal immigrants even if our intention was by no means to look for work in the United States nor never go back to Italy,” the band said in a statement released on social media.

They said their cellphones were confiscated and they were handcuffed and jailed overnight.

Matthew Covey, an immigration lawyer whose nonprofit Tamizdat assists international artists with U.S. visa issues, says these sorts of detentions have been going on in the shadows for years. “It’s very easy to believe that they are more common and more severe (at South by Southwest 2017) based on anecdotal evidence, but I do not have anything yet resembling clear statistical evidence to prove that,” he said after the 2017 festival.

A month before the 2018 festival he said he still hasn’t seen an increase in detentions at the border. “If the artist arrives with the proper visa, they are not facing heightened issues at the ports of entry,” he said. But securing clearance to travel to the U.S. has grown trickier.

“We have seen a significant uptick in consular problems, with visas being denied or delayed following artists’ interviews,” he said.

At his panel, Emmanuel Jal said he believes the impulse to shut foreigners out comes from fear, and by finding the courage to face that fear, we grow stronger. He praised Americans who have publicly resisted isolationism. “What America has done actually, to communicate back to their president is important,” he said. He draws hope from protesters carrying an alternate message: “We don’t want this. We want to be together.”

The festival’s ongoing commitment to internationalism in programming reflects an enduring belief in the power of music to transcend boundaries.

“You can put visas on people, but you can’t put visas on music,” Marco Werman, host of the Public Radio International program “The World,” said onstage during the ContraBanned MusicUnites showcase last year. “Music is like water — it goes everywhere.”

“An artist’s journey is a spiritual journey. Change comes from us. We have to be the change that we want to be in the world,” Iman Hashi, who forms the R&B and pop duo Faarrow with her sister Siham, said at the ContraBanned panel. The sisters were born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and relocated to Toronto as refugees when they were children. They are based in Atlanta.

“Right now, Somalia is going through like a famine, a drought literally, and Somalia is banned. How crazy is that?” she said. “But we can’t get angry about that. All we can do is what Emmanuel was talking about … raise the frequency of love. Because when you do that … that is the answer, because it’s infectious.”

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