SXSW tend to be remembered by those who attend them for this great show or that wonderful discovery. But outside of the madcap Austin streets, the festivals years are demarcated by the worst possible thing that happened there. 2014 was on pace to be remembered as the year Lady Gaga became a living ad for Doritos until a horrific and tragic car accident left a stain on the entire festival. And if 2017’s SXSW is going to be remembered for anything, it’s the travel headaches and exclusionary rhetoric that international band’s suffered trying to get into President Trump’s newly cloistered America.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s second attempt at a travel ban from majority-Muslim countries, it seems even people coming from non-named locales are having trouble getting into the United States. London-based artist Yussef Dayes was scheduled to play several sets at SXSW in Austin, TX, but his status was revoked “at the 11th hour” in what he claims was a case of race and religion-based discrimination.
Dayes — who was denied entry along with his brothers Ahmed and Kareem — was expected to play both in his duo Yussef Kamaal and the family act United Vibrations. The latter band released a statement asking why their Visa Waiver Program status was revoked.
“We are sad to announce we will NOT be performing at SXSW in Texas because our ESTA’s have been revoked under the new Executive order. 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 color of our skin?”
The ESTA program allows citizens around 40 countries to travel in the U.S. as a non-working tourist for up to 90 days. While visitors under the program aren’t allowed to work, the law does allows those traveling to meet up with people who might conduct future business with them. While it is not spelled out in the law, many international acts have used this exemption to perform at SXSW, an event packed with industry representatives who might sign their band.
However, this hasn’t held true this year for several bands attempting to perform at the Austin-based fest. Along with Yussef and his brothers, the Italian band Soviet Soviet and the Vancouver-and-Cairo-based band Massive Scar Era.
Soviet Soviet were deported when they revealed that they intended to perform two non-SXSW shows, for which they weren’t being paid. The band believed that the fact they weren’t being paid would allow them to claim these sets as a “showcase” similar to performing in Austin. However, Customs and Border Patrol disagreed, detaining them for an evening and then sending them back to Italy.
Massive Scar Era were told that they didn’t have the correct visas to perform in the United States when they tried to enter at the Canadian border with tourist visas and a letter from SXSW saying that they could enter on the so-called “showcase exemption.” In a video posted to their Facebook, the band revealed that they were turned away even though they called the festival in front of the officers.
“We spent two hours trying to convince him,” vocalist and guitarist Cherine Amr told NPR. “We pointed out that not only had we played SXSW before on the same kind of visas, but that our visas for this visit had been issued by the consulate in Cairo specifically so that we could perform at SXSW. They knew we had played SXSW before, and that was why we were coming again — the government had all that information.”
Amr also told NPR that the border agents refused to accept that bassist Dylan Pieter Wijdenes-Charles was a member of the First Nations, and therefore able to cross the U.S.-Canadian border at will via rules about native people established by the Jay Treaty in 1794. The band member produced his First Nations I.D. card — which is provided by the Canadian government to people who can prove aboriginal ancestry — but was told by border officials that that wasn’t proof enough to allow him to cross the border. According to Amr, the officials told him to carry blood test results around so that he could prove his status as a member of the First Nations.
As for Yusseff and his family, they aren’t taking the rejection laying down. Along with their label, formed a night of protest-minded jazz artists for a solidarity jam at the festival for people who were lucky enough to make it to Austin’s premier event.
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Last night was unbelievable – it's been an emotional and turbulent couple of days but the way @sxsw turned out in support of our showcase and for our friends that were not allowed to travel with us was amazing! and the musicians gave them the AAA+ performance the energy that they brought to the stage was ridiculous!! Thank you @nativedancer_ @mosesboydexodus @shabakahutchings @nat_e_cross @manlikebinks @jharveymusic @fridatouray @theon_cross @sam.crowe @josharcoleo @azaitz @joshblackmore and especially @british_underground for all of their expertise and support in making this whole thing happen.
And United Vibrations played a triumphant set with the decidedly borderless internet showrunners in The Boiler Room.