For a festival that claims to represent discovery and representation, SXSW spent the last week scrambling to qualify the unjustifiable. The massive music, film, and technology festival in Austin, Texas, celebrates its 31st year this upcoming week with some of our own artists scheduled to play—rapper BIA, electronic act DJHerShe, cult rock favorites Pile, grunge pop trio Potty Mouth, Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sad13, to name a few—but things aren’t going as smoothly as they would hope.
Felix Walworth (of Told Slant, Eskimeaux, and Bellows) took to Twitter to post a screenshot of the contract they signed regarding their appearance at SXSW. The verbatim says that, in an effort to halt non-sanctioned performances, if the festival finds an international artist performing a show that’s not an “official” showcase, it “will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions.” Harsh, sure, but that’s somewhat normal for an organization as big as the festival, given it must cooperate with the law. But then things look truly grim, with the festival stating that “accepting and performing at any non-sanctioned events may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport, and denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US points of entry.”
Walworth’s discovery started a huge response within the music industry. SXSW upholds itself as a platform for artists to rocket their careers, to become discovered in a field of oversaturation, and to maintain relevancy at a time when trends fade quicker than ever—even though artists often lose money to make their SXSW trip happen. An anti-immigrant contract and the language that shows a lack of concern for immigrant lives not only demonstrated a disregard for the efforts of its participating artists, but for the safety of those participants.
It all comes down to the wording. The contract is legally obliged to follow US rules. It’s the added support and willingness to give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) the upper hand, however, that finds SXSW contradicting its supposed beliefs. Threatening non-US citizens with targeted immigration enforcement and deportation for playing unofficial showcases is not okay. That much should be obvious.
Leave it to artists to create noise that’s loud enough to do damage. With Evan Greer, Boston-based queer singer-songwriter and campaign director at Fight for the Future, and Providence punk act Downtown Boys at its helm, a group of musicians rallied together to write an open letter to the festival. In it, they demanded a rescinding of the portion of the contract stating US immigration authorities will be notified and can deport, revoke passports, or deny entry to US points of entry; a public apology for attempting to collaborate with ICE; and a clear affirmation that it’s a welcoming space for all artists—including immigrants and international performers—that commits to protecting their rights.
When dozens of artists—Immortal Technique, Killer Mike, Girlpool, Sammus, etc.—began signing the letter to amplify its power, SXSW responded with a half-assed attempt to save face. It didn’t agree to change the wording, it tried to justify its rules, and it said future editions of the festival would work to support its artists better. So the musicians told the festival it, once again, needed to do better. “SXSW bullying bands who have members that are not US citizens is chilling and frankly racist,” said Greer. “It undermines artists’ basic rights to free speech and sends the wrong message at a time when immigrant communities are facing an all-out assault from the US government.”
For most, it’s about standing as allies for what’s right. For others, like the Kominas, the contract signals a greater threat. The Boston band has been progressing Muslim punk, occasionally referred to as Taqwacore, for over a decade. Reading language of that severity on a performance contract, even if in place for common legalities, strikes a newfound tone under the Trump presidency, where immigrant bans and deportation are far swifter, unethical, and unclear than ever before. SXSW claiming it was misunderstood and would never follow through on the written threats only made things worse in the Kominas’ eyes. “If you don’t want to wield the power to deport people, don’t give yourself that power in the first place,” says the band. “It’s outrageous that SXSW can fashion its image as a progressive haven for artists while also adopting witchhunt policies towards non-citizens. Being in Texas, and furthermore in the sanctuary city of Austin, the festival should know better and should acknowledge that position sets a precedent in our current climate of hate.”
On March 7, the festival finally listened to the nearly 100 artists who signed the online petition. SXSW posted a blog post clearly stating it will remove the language from its contract for the 2018 edition, will not work with ICE at this year’s festival, and is building a coalition of attorneys to assist any artist who faces problems upon arrival in the US.
“Art has no borders,” says DJHerShe. “SXSW has always been a very open and diverse place for artists to connect and exhibit their work, nationally and internationally. I definitely believe that in the decision to revisit the language in the artist contract is a statement on behalf of not only the festival, but the environment they have created, both in the past and going forward.”
So after all this fighting, what does this mean? To some extend, we won. Victoria Ruiz and Joey La Neve DeFrancesco of Downtown Boys were the first to contact me when SXSW announced it would be changing its contract. “This is a huge victory and a beautiful example of what we can achieve when cultural workers act together to make demands,” they said. “These music festivals are our employers, and they reflect the same power dynamics of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that exist in so many workplaces. No matter where you work, these fights must be fought, and we hope this win shows that it can be done.”
Yet, there’s still work to be done. While the festival is changing the wording for next year’s contract, this year’s is still written in ink and signed by every act playing official showcases. It still has the written right to notify immigration authorities when a foreign artist may “adversely affect the viability of Artist’s official showcase.” It’s still a business, a corporation, a money-making machine with a guise of free BBQ and Texan whiskey to rope reuniting friends together with ease. For artists, this festival is one that has no problem building their future. It also has no problem jeopardizing their future. We can’t forget that.
Though an agreement has been made, for SXSW, this public dispute may be the final nail in its own coffin, the last bit of convincing that artists, journalists, and attendees alike needed that the festival has grown into a monster too big to control. After all, it’s a business, and money is booming in a way that, long ago, began overshadowing its heart.
“I’ve been sort of struggling with how to approach this, and I’ve committed to someone that I care about that I’ll play, but I think this is the last time I’m going to the festival,” says Pile frontman Rick Maguire, who is scheduled to perform at both official and unofficial SXSW showcases. “Aside from what is all abuzz about it, there are plenty of things about SXSW that I’d like to avoid and just not contribute to in the future. While I’ve always had a great time hanging with friends from around the country all in one place, it has become glaring that the festival as an entity is something that I don’t really want to be a participant of anymore. I would encourage artists to ask themselves why they want to go in the first place… But I’m not going to tell anyone what to do.”
SXSW. FRI 3.10–SUN 3.19. AUSTIN, TEXAS. SXSW.COM