After Artist Backlash, South by Southwest Removes Deportation Clause from Future Contracts

By Sameer Rao Mar 08, 2017

In response to mounting pressure, the South by Southwest (SxSW) arts and media festival promised to strike a contract clause that threatens international artists who perform at unofficial showcases with deportation.

The Austin-based festival, which kicks off Friday (March 10), issued a statement describing the change yesterday (March 7). "In this political climate, especially as it relates to immigration, we recognize the heightened importance of standing together against injustice," it reads. Festival officials then pledge to omit controversial language that allows "the option of notifying immigration authorities in situations where a foreign artist might ‘adversely affect the viability of artist’s official showcase’" from future artist invites and performance agreements.

The statement also emphasizes that the festival will not disclose an artist’s immigration status "except when required by law" and does its leadership does not collaborate with immigration enforcement agencies. 

Controversy erupted last Thursday (March 2) when Told Slant musician Felix Walworth tweeted about an email that included the following warning to international artists contracted for festival-sanctioned showcases: 

International artists entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa or any non-work visa may not perform at any public or non-sanctioned SXSW Music Festival day or night shows in Austin from March 13-19, 2017. Accepting and performing unofficial events may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport and denied entry by U.S. Customs Border Patrol at U.S. ports of entry.

Musician advocacy organization The Future of Music Coalition‘s Kevin Erickson shared a copy of an artist agreement contract with Colorlines on Friday (March 3), which includes near-identical language to the excerpt above.

Walworth joined more than 80 artists, activists and labels in an open letter and petition demanding the festival apologize and remove the controversial clause. Many of the signatories, including Talib Kweli, Aye Nako and The Kominas, are either people of color or are groups with members of color.

The criticism initially prompted SxSW managing director Roland Swenson to tell The Austin Chronicle that the provision is only "intended for someone who does something really egregious like disobeying our rules for pyrotechnics, starts a brawl in a club, or kills somebody." The festival then released another statement saying it would review the controversial language. 

Artist letter and petition signatories Downtown Boys, Evan Greer and Priests jointly rebuked Swenson to Rolling Stone on Friday night. "Not only is he playing into the xenophobia emanating from the White House by raising the spectre of unruly or criminal acts by non-U.S. bands, he’s blatantly misrepresenting what the clause says and its intended use," they wrote. "Starting a brawl in a club is already illegal. If an artist were to do that, there is a clear way that the legal system and immigration officials would deal with it. There is no need for a contract clause like this to prevent that, and absolutely nothing requiring SxSW to narc on bands who are at risk for deportation."

Those three artists joined Told Slant in a response to the contract change via The Huffington Post yesterday. "We applaud SxSW’s decision to stand with immigrants and against ICE, and are thrilled that collective action from musicians has worked to push a massive institution into taking a principled stand on an issue with ramifications far beyond next week’s festival in Austin," they wrote. "The effort shows that artists can and must take collective action to fight unjust policies within the cultural sphere. At this critical time we need to bring the struggle to every institution, and with this victory we’ve shown how it can be done."

The festival will feature artists from countries listed in both of President Donald Trump‘s executive orders in an official showcase on March 17.