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South by Southwest's international showcases are thinning out rapidly as an increasing number of foreign artists find themselves unable to pass US immigration
By IQ on 15 Mar 2017
The number of South by Southwest (SXSW) performers turned away at the US border has risen to ten, with an Egyptian-Canadian post-hardcore band, a Danish producer and a British jazz combo among those forced to cancel their showcases.
The latest round of cancellations follows the deportation last week of Italian trio Soviet Soviet, who planned to play a promotional showcase under the ESTA visa waiver programme, as “illegal immigrants”.
At the centre of the dispute is whether musicians can enter the US and play free, non-commercial shows under tourist visas or ESTAs. Soviet Soviet thought so, saying they did not require a performance visa (known as a P-2) as their SXSW showcase was for promotional purposes only, and that they would receive no payment for playing; immigration authorities disagreed.
Three members of Massive Scar Era, a post-hardcore act based in Vancouver and Cairo, ran into the same problem, saying they were denied entry even after showing the immigration officer a waiver from the festival they say “proved we don’t need a P-2 visa to perform” at SXSW.
“Why weren’t we let in? Our names? The music? The colour of our skin?”
Massive Scar Era frontwoman Cherine Amr speculates her Egyptian passport may have been a factor in their being turned away. “My passport (Egyptian) could’ve been the issue,” she writes on Facebook.
She adds that the band’s bassist, who is First Nations (Canadian Indian) and should be able to enter the US visa-free under the 1794 Jay Treaty, was told his “official First Nations card, released by the Canadian government, doesn’t prove he is First Nations and he needs to get DNA test […] He told him that he did this already to get the card in the first place!”
“What really kills me at this point,” she continues, “[is] that the band/the genre wasn’t welcomed by the Egyptian society. Every now and then the government would use metal bands to create false propaganda to distract the people from major political events. We were called a Satanic band and we had our picture in the newspapers once! They would even arrest musicians and metalheads and jail them!
“I moved to Canada to be closer to the music industry […] We thought that by me going there, I would be able to grow our band, play shows and live a healthy free artistic life.”
Danish EDM producer Eloq, meanwhile, was, like Soviet Soviet, detained overnight after being deemed to have the wrong documentation, despite being “informed by SXSW I had the right visa”.
ive been handcuffed and detained in a small very bright room plus a very unpleasant jail cell for 23 hours.. thats a first!
— ELOQ (@yo_ELOQ) March 13, 2017
Three members of British jazz four-piece United Vibrations – brothers Yussef, Ahmed and Kareem Dayes – were also denied entry “at the 11th hour”, according to label Brownswood Recordings, forcing the cancellation of the band’s set at tonight’s British Underground/Jazz Re:freshed showcase, which is backed with UK public money.
“We are sad to announce we will NOT be performing at SXSW in Texas because our ESTAs have been revoked under [president Donald Trump’s] new executive order,” reads a statement from the band, who said they believe the decision to be based on racial/religious discrimination. “We were looking forward to connecting with our brothers and sisters stateside to share our music. Why weren’t we let in? Our names? The music? The colour of our skin?”
“Our bassist was told his official First Nations card doesn’t prove he is First Nations and he needs to get DNA test”
Dave Webster, the UK Musicians’ Union’s (MU) national organiser for live performance and chair of the Music Industry Visa Task Force, comments: “We have escalated this to the highest level in the UK to try to ascertain what is going on. It is appalling that these artists have been denied the opportunity to showcase at SXSW. The US Embassy in London has provided no explanation. A letter from Nigel Adams MP and Kerry McCarthy MP requesting an urgent meeting with the US officials has been sent.
“Since the formation of the Music Industry Visa Task Force in 2015 some progress on these issues has been made; however, this latest development represents a huge setback.”
MU assistant general secretary Horace Trubridge adds: “The amount of public funding that has gone into getting our UK artists to perform at SXSW this year will have been wasted. It is outrageous that these ESTAs have been revoked and more outrageous that the musicians affected have not been told why.”
“The US Department of State has long recognised that entertainment groups may enter the US to ‘showcase’ on a B visa”
For its part, SXSW has taken the side of the performers, saying a tourist (‘B’) visa should be sufficient for playing unpaid showcases.
In a statement, its lawyer, Jonathan Ginsburg, says: “US immigration law allows foreign nationals to enter the US using a B visa or the visa waiver programme to conduct business, but not to render services. The US Department of State, accordingly, has long recognised that entertainment groups may enter the US to ‘showcase’, but not to perform under contract with US venues or other employers.
“SXSW is working in concert with other US organisations in an effort to ensure that both the State Department and CBP [Customs and Border Protection] continue to treat showcasing as a valid activity in B or visa waiver status. In the meantime, SXSW remains confident that the vast majority of consular officers and CBP officials understand and respect the need for, and the principle of, showcasing at promotional events such as the official SXSW event.”
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