Multiple bands scheduled to perform this week at SXSW in Austin, Texas, will no longer be able to showcase their talents because some or all of their members have been denied entry into the United States.
It started last week when Italian band Soviet Soviet was denied entry by U.S. Customs agents in Seattle. According to a statement posted to the band’s Facebook page, they attempted to enter the country using an ESTA visa, which allows bands into the U.S. if they’re playing an unpaid gig. They had a letter from their American label stating the performance was for promotional purposes only and that no payment would be exchanged, as well as a copy of the written invitation from SXSW. Apparently, this was not enough for U.S Customs agents. “The control agents who did a quick check on the concerts we informed them of noticed that two of the venues were asking for entry fees and this was enough to convince them that we needed work visas instead of an ESTA,” the band posted. The band then spent the night in jail before being deported back to Italy.
Since then, three more bands have been denied entry into the country. Drummer Yussef Dayes of the London-based duo Yussef Kamaal, along with his brothers Ahmed and Kareem of United Vibrations, all had their visas revoked at the last minute. They too were attempting to enter the U.S. using the ESTA Visa Waiver program. United Vibrations released the following statement:
We are sad to announce we will NOT be performing at SXSW in Texas because our ESTA’s have been revoked under the new Executive order.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?
Last night, Canadian-Egyptian post-hardcore band Massive Scar Era were also turned away at the U.S.-Canadian border near Seattle. The band posted a video to their Facebook page, in which they explain they tried to enter the country in a similar fashion to Soviet Soviet. They brought a letter from SXSW with them and attempted to use a B-1 tourist visa (since they weren’t playing any paid shows), but they were turned away. In the video, lead singer and guitarist Cherine Amr detailed the disturbing encounter, in which bandmate Dylan Pieter Wijdenes-Charles was questioned about his ethnicity. Wijdenes-Charles is First Nations, and should be able to travel freely between the U.S. and Canada under the Jay Treaty of 1794. Even though he was carrying an official card showing his status as First Nations, he was told he needed to provide more proof of a DNA test. In turning away Wijdenes-Charles, the Customs agents were in direct violation of the Jay Treaty.
When bands traveling to SXSW are being denied entry like this, it obviously points to larger problems. In light of SXSW’s recent controversy over the language used in their contracts regarding deportation and Trump’s new travel ban, surely this is a clear signal to international musicians (especially artists who aren’t household names) that the U.S. is no longer a site of musical welcome. A lot of the blame appears to lie with SXSW, who in their festival statement advised bands (from certain countries) who weren’t being paid to use the Visa Waiver program. The problem is it seems the Visa Waiver program is not going to work anymore. In fact, some argue that the program never existed in the first place.
Per Billboard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have issued a statement explaining that, “if an individual is a member of an internationally recognized entertainment group, they must apply for and be granted a P-1 visa.” A SXSW spokesperson said event officials “know about the situation” and “have spoken to the artists” but declined to comment on the visa issue.