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Keeping the doors open for African music

Coda Agency’s Clementine Bunel highlights the visa issues that are endangering the ability of African acts to visit Britain

15 Oct 2018

Clementine Bunel

As a European living in London for more than ten years, Brexit has thrown a little shade on what my future looks like here, and, like many others, I am anxiously waiting for it to unfold. But I feel fortunate that I currently live here, work here and have freedom of movement.

Yet for over ten years, I have been working with some great artists who have always required a visa to come play in the UK, sometimes at great expense – with the cost of a UK visa being £244 per person for the ‘cheap’ option. Artists from Mali, for example, cannot apply in their own country and instead have to fly to Senegal to submit their UK application. Their passports then have to be sent to Sheffield in the UK for processing, which can take up to four weeks.

They then they have to wait, anxiously, hoping that their visas are ready in time for them to travel. To the cost of the visa itself, you can add the expense of travelling back and forth and potential accommodation costs. If they are applying for an extended visa to cover a longer period, they will also have to pay for NHS fees and tests for tuberculosis, if applicable. It all adds up.

But the ambition to conquer the UK prevails, and a lot of bands do invest, sacrificing their fees sometimes just to get to the UK. As an agent representing African artists, I spend a lot of my time handling visa-related issues. It’s getting more stressful – but if this is what we have to do to ensure we welcome these artists to the UK and Europe in order to bring diversity into the musical landscape and to festival bills, then I will continue to do so with pride.

Today, one of the talking points in the music industry and one of the unforeseen consequences of Brexit is how it will affect non-European artists who start their tour in the Republic Ireland before heading to the UK. It will, theoretically, no longer be possible for artists to do so without applying for a UK visa. I am angry that there is now another obstacle to enter the UK, and it is once again to the detriment of the arts.

But this is a much wider issue, and not only about Brexit, which is only the tip of the iceberg here. I am equally angry to see that it takes a situation that directly impacts American artists for the industry to stand up and make some noise and finally admit how bad the situation is.

Price increases and processing times are getting to the point where some bands will refuse to play a UK festival or accept a UK tour

Yes, a UK visa costs £244 per person (add another £200 to that if you’re planning to apply for longer than six months) – and if you happen to be a five-piece, ‘emerging’ guitar band from the US that is getting £500 a show (and that’s being generous)… well, you will either need very rich parents to help you, or you need to urge the world to get its shit together and figure out how to pay artists better! I’ve read comments by people who are scandalised at the thought of having to submit fingerprints, leave passports at consulates… but no such fuss about nationals from other countries for whom it is already compulsory to apply for a UK visa at a high cost.

Artists from Africa who are booked to play UK festivals are here to perform – so why would their presence not be as important as American artists? They can also sell tickets, get radio playlists and gather impressive streams. They also have stories to tell, and all that matters. From the Malian band Songhoy Blues, who fought for their right to sing when Islamic jihadists banned music, to the gay South African artist Nakhane, who, having embraced his sexuality, had to leave his own country to find safety. Not your average indie band, right?

While we get fed stories from the news painting Africa as a continent that “needs help”, how about getting the real stories about contemporary Africa that has something to say, and do something about it. This is something Coda Agency has supported me with since I joined.

This is where our industry has to do better. Since Brexit was announced I have seen more hunger from within the media and creatives to champion and support music that is not from the US or the UK. A door has opened – but, unfortunately, to quote a recent tweet from Jon Snow, the Home Office is making it a “hostile environment” for touring musicians who do not hold a passport that doesn’t require them to apply for a UK visa. Price increases and processing times are getting to the point where some bands will refuse to play a UK festival or accept a UK tour just because of the sometimes humiliating process of applying for a visa.

That directly impacted a number of festivals this summer – and it will continue to do so if we do not react to this nonsense that is making the UK close its doors to diversity.


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