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.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - TRAVEL & PUZZLES - By Deb­o­rah Sen­gupta Stith dsen­gupta@states­

“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 Con­tra Banned Mu­sic Unites 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 over- come prej­u­dice. “I was a bit­ter young per­son,” he said. “I hated Musli ms 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 wou ld 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.”

Jalc ar­ried a pow­er­ful mes­sage from out­side our coun­try’s bor-

ders 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.

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.”


Em­manuel Jal is a Su­danese mu­si­cian who fought as a child sol­dier in Su­dan. He was fea­tured in Con­tra­banned, a So uth­byS out­h­west show­case in 2017 that in­cluded artists from the coun­tries listed on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s travel ban.


Liniker Bar­ros is a trans­gen­der, Afro-Brazil­ian singer and the front­woman for the band Liniker e os Caramelows, which de­buted at the South by South­west fes­ti­val in 2017 and is sched­uled to be back in 2018. Last year, Liniker said she and her band mem­bers felt scared when they ar­rived in the United States. “We didn’t know how we would be ap­proached by peo­ple and how they would look at us,” she said. “Be­cause we know there is this hate­ful rhetoric from the pres­i­dent (Don­ald Trump), who is de­ter­mined to ex­ter­mi­nate peo­ple and end lives.”

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