South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual festival and conference in Austin, TX for the film, interactive media and music industries, celebrates its 30th year March 13-19, 2017. Always a benchmark event for national and international music scenes, SXSW this year features a new showcase: ContraBanned: #MusicUnites, presenting a lineup of musicians from countries excluded from entry to the U.S. by President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
However, it did not take Trump to come into office for a lineup like this to come together. Back in 2002, Marco Werman of Public Radio International’s program The World and Matthew Covey of Tamizdat, a nonprofit organization focused on providing legal and production support for international artists touring abroad, were at SXSW discussing then-president Bush’s administration, the showcases they had seen and the lack of international artists at SXSW. Werman and Covey started daydreaming of a showcase featuring artists hailing from Bush’s “axis of evil.” When President Donald Trump signed off on an executive order on Jan. 27, 2017 banning entry to the U.S. for 90 days of citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries—Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—and banning Syrian refugees indefinitely, their dream from years ago became a much needed call to action. (After a court blocked that order, a new one was introduced in March, targeting immigrants from those same countries minus Iraq.)
A few phone calls were made and the name ContraBanned: #MusicUnites was anointed. One of those calls was to J.J. El-Far, who I interviewed over the phone to hear the story of how she came to ContraBanned.
J.J. El-Far is the arts officer of the British Council, bringing British artists to the United States, cofounder and board chair of the Harlem Arts Festival, independent producer and creative consultant.
O.K., did you catch your breath after that? Yes, El-Far has made incredible contributions to the arts and, as an independent producer for ContraBanned, she is holding nothing back.
Having worked with Covey in the past, El-Far knew what was to come. In her independent work, El-Far is “compelled by projects or the partners and what the message is,” so upon hearing of ContraBanned, it was a project that needed a quick yes and she immediately signed on.
The mission in question was not just in response to Trump’s travel ban. As an industry showcase, ContraBanned is for music presenters and promoters specifically. El-Far saw the purpose of ContraBanned as “an event that sent a message to other presenters that said, ‘look we understand that this travel ban is scary’…. we wanted to look that risk in the eye and acknowledge it.”
El-Far further explains that even without a travel ban there have always been challenges with programming artists who need visas: “You’re planning six to 12 months in advance, you’re trying to line up funding. The funding is very hard to come by, it’s extremely competitive so the stakes are very high…And then at the last minute and you don’t get the visa, or if you don’t get the artist to be able to enter the country, your whole program falls through so the risk is there.”
A risk El-Far is familiar with, having once had to cancel a U.S. tour she had planned with Covey for a U.K.-based band that was unable to obtain visas.
However, a showcase like ContraBanned is not for pointing out the negatives like executive orders, visa applications or an administrative kind of hurdle that they’re afraid they’re not going to be able to surmount. Even though these fears are very real, El-Far emphasizes that the showcase is a “message of positivity and support to other arts presenters and promoters through a symbolic action” that booking acts that require visas can and should be done for the sake of the arts.
Alongside El-Far is a team of producers and presenters from The World, Tamizdat, globalFest and other independent producers, top-notch people working in global music both in the United States and around the world. El-Far sees an industry showcase such as ContraBanned as a real treat, not only because of the rock-star team she is working with but also a chance to continue to get incredible music from around the world heard, and hopefully ensure them more bookings in the future.
Despite the anxiety caused by the travel ban and the work required to apply for visas for touring artists, El-Far points out, “You got to give this a try and these are artists, not only are they excellent artistically but they deserve…for you to take a stand for them.”
As an industry showcase, the performance will be open to registered SXSW attendees and press; El-Far, however, is hoping to see producers and presenters so that they might be interested in booking these artists and others like them.
The music played during the showcase will be from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia and Libya (full lineup below). The bands themselves currently reside in the United States. El-Far explains the artists selected for the showcase were chosen because they “can stand alone on their credentials artistically…it’s not a tokenistic gesture, we’re not trying to just put them in there because they represent whatever country, you know they’re there because they’re great and their music is great. And that’s it.” Throughout the development of the showcase, El-Far says the ContraBanned team has had complete support from SXSW.
SXSW recently received criticism over social media from musicians featured in other showcases. An image pulled from an artist contract for SXSW was circulated online, revealing a clause in the contract setting parameters for where artists on visas could perform if booked for SXSW.
Artists protested that the clause was stepping beyond the boundaries of the festival presenters’ powers as it specified immigrant authorities would be contacted if visa-holding artists were found playing shows not approved in their contract with SXSW. El-Far agrees the clause was too harsh. Following protest and petition from SXSW artists and audiences, SXSW apologized and agreed to remove the clause permanently from current and future artist contracts.
El-Far supports SXSW’s decision as the clause needed clarification and in a “previous political climate” those types of details may have not held as much weight as they do now in the wake of the travel ban. El-Far went on to explain that artists on visas are not allowed to be paid outside of their contract if they are being brought in to perform during an industry showcase, as legally that is a violation of standard industry showcase performer contracts.
Although the travel ban is on many minds, including El-Far’s, the ContraBanned showcase is not a direct reaction to the executive order. The main intent of the event is to stand in the name of cultural diversity and encourage exchange and unity through the medium of music. To say the concert is just resistance to the travel ban, or simply a world music slot in the SXSW festival, gravely oversimplifies the importance of making space for music that will be performed. Although the ban “really grates on our sensibilities as global citizens,” El-Far explains the ContraBanned show is not only to feature “world music… just music…great music.”
ContraBanned is also not about satisfying a quota or calling out policies one does not agree with. The work of bringing more music from around the world to North America has been happening for years, done by individuals like El-Far and organizations like globalFest, PRI, Tamizdat and us at Afropop Worldwide. Our collective goal is to bring incredible music that we love to more audiences and share the joy of music from places that have not always gotten the headline act or even opening because they seem too far away.
And for the future? The ContraBanned: #MusicUnites Showcase is one of many actions already happening around the world as more artists and presenters rally together to take a stand and speak out that they are a part of the political landscape, such as Artists RISE UP New York and RISE UP Los Angeles. As a prominent purveyor of social and cultural influence, El-Far sees SXSW’s support for projects like ContraBanned as a, recognizable platform that came out symbolically to take a stand that making music accessible by bringing in artists and music from foreign areas is and should be important to us all.
Further information on the ContraBanned: #MusicUnites Showcase can be found here.
The industry showcase takes place at Palm Door on Sixth (508 E. 6th Street, Austin, TX) on Fri., March 17, 2017, doors at 7 p.m.
There will be a panel discussion as well preceding the showcase:
Fri. 3/17, 5 -6 p.m.
Room 10B of the Austin Convention Center
ContraBanned: Musicians and the Travel Ban
(Will include Q & A) Moderator and Panelists TBA
ContraBanned: #MusicUnites Showcase Line Up
Emmanuel Jal (Sudan/Canada)
Dena Elsaffar (Iraq/U.S.)
Bassel and the Supernaturals (Syria/U.S.)
Mamak Khadem (Iran/U.S.)
Mohsen Namjoo (Iran/U.S.)
Khaled M (Libya/U.S.)
Ash Koosha (Iran/U.K.)
MC: Azhar Muhammad Usman