South by Southwest Deportation Clause Sparks Artist Backlash

By Sameer Rao Mar 03, 2017

South by Southwest (SxSW), one of the country’s biggest arts and media festivals, faces criticism just a week before its annual gathering over contractual language that suggests international artists who play non-official shows could be deported. 

The controversy began yesterday (March 2) when musician Felix Walworth (who uses the pronouns they and their) of Told Slant tweeted about their refusal to play a festival-sanctioned show with a screenshot of SxSW’s invite email that referenced the deportation clause:


Walworth then tweeted further disapproval of the provision, SxSW’s curatorial model and the festival’s impact on its host city of Austin, Texas:  

Kevin Erickson of The Future of Music Coalition, a musician advocacy and policy organization, emailed Colorlines a copy of that agreement. Here’s a screenshot of the first page, which contains the relevant passages:


More than 50 artists and bands responded with a letter demanding organizers rescind the clause and publicly apologize. Many of those bands, including Aye Nako, The Kominas and Downtown Boys, feature members of color and center race in their work. 

"So many of the artists playing the festival are addressing and confronting the very power structures that SxSW is perpetuating through their threats towards international musicians," wrote Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz and Joey DeFrancesco in a statement accompanying the letter. "We demand an end to their threats and a public apology for their anti-immigrant and therefore racist stated policy. Cities, counties and states have all been urged to cease collaboration with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], we demand the same of music festivals."

SxSW managing director Roland Swenson initially responded by saying the festival introduced the provision to its artist performance agreement as a safeguard in case international artists do something extreme. "We’ve had these restrictions in the agreement for about five years and never had to enforce them," he told The Austin Chronicle. "It’s intended for someone who does something really egregious like disobeying our rules for pyrotechnics, starts a brawl in a club, or kills somebody. You have to really fuck up for us to do this stuff." Swenson added that "all this stuff in there about getting deported and immigration—that’s just us telling [artists on visas, including those sponsored by the festival] this could happen if you’re doing this other stuff."

Swenson reiterated this sentiment in another statement denying racist intent, saying the festival works with attorneys to help international performers with potential entry issues. The statement includes two excerpts from the artist agreement that correspond somewhat with the language in Walworth’s screenshot. 

Swenson also accused Walworth of placing sections similar to those two excerpts together to deliberately distort context in his remarks to The Star. "We’re doing a show with bands from the seven banned countries and we came out publicly against the immigration ban last month," he said. "I don’t know why this guy did this. He’s just confusing this very complicated subject," he added, misgendering Walworth. 

Walworth responded to this accusation with a tweet showing the artist invite email in full: 

Swenson reached back out to The Star last evening and said he mistakenly thought Walworth spliced together the two excerpts when they actually referenced the full email. Despite the confusion, he said it was "still a misunderstanding on his part in thinking that the deportation threat was from us, not just the consequences of violating the terms of the visa," again misgendering Walworth. He also added that "the contract could use some work."