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Why Kimya Dawson, Killer Mike, And Other Bands Are Standing Up To SXSW Right Now

An old clause in artists’ contracts leads to political outrage—and a commitment to progress

Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles. Image courtesy of photographer Kristina Bakrevski

More than 500 musicians were scheduled to perform at the popular media, film, and music festival South by Southwest (SXSW) kicking off next week in Austin, Texas. Then, on Thursday, Felix Walworth of New York City-based band Told Slant tweeted an image of an unusual clause in his contract—apparently indicating that the festival may refer international artists to immigration authorities for playing unofficial shows. By the end of the day, over 40 artists including Kimya Dawson, Killer Mike, and Ted Leo, had signed an open letter calling on SXSW to “drop this clause from their contract, and cease any collusion with immigration officials that puts performers in danger,” especially “in light of the recent attacks on immigrant communities.”

Victoria Ruiz and her bandmate Joey DeFrancesco, former union organizers and current members of Latinx queer punk group the Downtown Boys helped draft that open letter, along with a petition to push back on the festival’s allegedly anti-immigration policies. “This is our third year playing SXSW, and by not saying something, we’d really be complicit in that,” says Ruiz. “This president has added so much flame to the fire, and there’s so much fearmongering now … The bigger issue is that we have to do something about the immigration crisis in our country.”

SXSW subsequently responded, indicating in a statement that the language in Walworth’s tweet was was over five years old and has never before been enforced:

“Language governing SXSW’s ability to protect a showcase has been in the artist Performance Agreement for many years. It is, and always was intended to be, a safeguard to provide SXSW with a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues.”

Lance Curtwright, a South Texas-based immigration attorney and partner at De Mott McChesney Curtwright and Armendáriz, says that even if SXSW’s characterization of the clause is correct, it’s highly unusual. “I’ve never seen a deportation clause in a statute like this. SXSW to my knowledge is an independent group and has absolutely no authority or ability to enforce immigration laws."

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I’ve never seen a deportation clause in a statute like this.[/quote]

In addition, Curtwright says that it’s a frightening time for many in the region. “More than ever, there’s anxiety and there’s fear in the community about the rise of deportation. Even if it’s not seen in the numbers so far, it certainly is in the rhetoric that we’ve heard coming from Washington and our own governor.”

Austin’s immigration emergency

The Downtown Boys

The city of Austin has found itself in the center of the nation’s immigration controversy since the beginning of the year, when city Sheriff Sally Hernandez made a statement to CBS that as of February 1, she would end “her predecessor’s policy of honoring all jail detainers sought by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).” Republican Governor Greg Abbott responded to Hernandez’s decision to turn Austin into a sanctuary city by cutting off funds.

There is currently a proposed bill called SB 4, that has already been passed in the state’s Senate, which “will require all Texas law enforcement agencies to comply with” ICE, according to KVUE ABC. If passed in the house of representatives, SB 4 would effectively eliminate sanctuary cities in Texas.

Curtwright opposes SB 4, and has testified in court against it. “They’re really going after the township of Austin,” he says, calling immigration and deportation two controversial statewide issues, with Austin “right there in the middle of it.”

SXSW stages as sanctuary

For the artists protesting that deportation clause, SXSW’s statement discounted the very real fears and concerns of immigrants in America, further complicating the delicate relationships between SXSW and the city of Austin, the Latino community, and international artists. For Ruiz, the only appropriate response would be to explicitly state, “we’re going to make sure this is a safe place for immigrants.” Instead, the festival reinforced the idea that they “have this discretionary power to give information to ICE.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I’m a son of an immigrant from Latin America, and I felt personally insulted.[/quote]

Brandon Welchez from the band Crocodiles, along with solo artist AJ Dávila, are currently on tour. They live together in Mexico City, are playing at SXSW, and signed Ruiz’s petition and open letter. Welchez was motivated to sign because, “On a base level, I’m a son of an immigrant from Latin America, and I felt personally insulted. SXSW, you go into it knowing that … they’re generating tons and tons and tons of money, and they don’t pay well at all. You make more money playing in a dive bar in Omaha than playing SXSW. So one of the ways that you can offset that cost is by playing these unofficial gigs. It’s supposed to be a space that is welcoming to musicians, and it shouldn’t matter what your nationality is.”

AJ Dávila. Image courtesy of photographer Kristina Bakrevski

Dávila is originally from Puerto Rico, and has played SXSW since 2009, originally in his punk outfit Dávila 666. He originally chose to participate in the festival because he felt a sense of unity and “global citizenship” with other international bands. His first year in the festival, he played 10 total shows, only 3 of which were official—well within what he sees as the accepted culture surrounding the music festival. “With everything that is happening politically in the United States, for SXSW to be complicit with ICE is brutal. It’s a festival with bands from all over the world. If you’re deported, it’s 10 years before you can ever play in the states again and your career is totally ruined.”

A promise to ‘review and amend’

The grassroots activism, public pressure, and record label boycotts of SXSW led to the festival reconsidering their policies, releasing a new statement on Friday afternoon:

“The language in our Performance Agreement is intended to facilitate U.S. entry for international artists and to show CBP that SXSW takes visa issues seriously. This language has been part of the contracts since the summer of 2013, and we will be reviewing and amending it for 2018 and beyond."

When asked for comment, SXSW referred GOOD to the full linked statement above. While the exact changes to the festival’s contract have not been issued, it does appear that change is on the way next year. Though Austin is at the center of the nation’s divisive immigration clashes, it’s reaffirming to see that artists and activists can band together, voice their dissent, and reach tangible results to show solidarity with immigrants and international artists.

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