Why your favourite bands are boycotting SXSW this year

After the likes of Scowl, GEL and Sprints pulled out of SXSW, Kerrang! Award-winner, activist, and protest pundit Janey Starling explains why artists are boycotting the festival and what they’re hoping to achieve…

Why your favourite bands are boycotting SXSW this year
Janey Starling
Ben Morris

In response to a growing number of bands boycotting this year's SXSW festival in support of Palestine, musician, feminist campaigner and Kerrang! Award-winner Janey Starling takes a look at the power artists wield and how they can instigate change...

Over 100 bands have pulled out of playing at SXSW this year in protest against the festival’s ties to the U.S. army and weapons companies involved in Israel’s military assault on Gaza, which has so far killed over 31,000 Palestinians.

Among the artists boycotting the major U.S. festival are several Kerrang! favourites, including Lambrini Girls, GEL and Scowl. In a social media post, Scowl said: “We refuse to be complicit in the face of genocide in Palestine. We refuse to participate in the war machine.”

But how can not playing a show in America stop the mass killing in Palestine? Let me explain…

What is a boycott?

A boycott is a form of mass protest. It means withdrawing your support or labour from an organisation, event or company on moral grounds, in order to pressure them to behave more ethically.

Throughout history, organised boycotts have successfully brought an end to racist violence. In the United States, it was the Montgomery Bus Boycott that brought an end to segregated bus seating. In 1955, African Americans were required to sit at the back half of buses and to give up their seats to white riders if the front half was full. It famously started when civil rights activist Rosa Parks deliberately refused to give up her seat for a white man. African Americans in Montgomery stopped riding city buses for over a year and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation was illegal.

Boycotts were also instrumental in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa. In response to calls from South Africans fighting against apartheid, people across the world refused to buy food and products from companies that supported the South African government – and people closed their accounts with Barclays to pressure them to withdraw investments from South Africa. Musicians refused to play shows in the country, and the musicians union blocked South African artists from playing on the BBC.

Bands and boycotts

Boycotts play a key role in the international solidarity movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. Palestinians have called for people across the world to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which calls on people to strategically withdraw support for companies and institutions that help to uphold the persecution of the Palestinian people.

In the music industry, organisations like Artists For Palestine and PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), encourage bands to withdraw from festivals that are sponsored by such institutions.

PACBI have urged all artists to withdraw from official SXSW events, saying: “We applaud the artists who have boycotted SXSW, often at great personal cost.”

When a band gives up any gig there is a financial cost attached, but in a display of solidarity, a strike fund is offering to cover performers’ lost SXSW income. Some have argued it’s better to use a performance as a ‘protest’, but when Palestinians have explicitly asked bands booked for SXSW not to play, ignoring them sends a message that career interests are more important than Palestinian lives. I was appalled to see that the political punk band I founded and fronted, Dream Nails, chose to ignore the boycott and play SXSW. When over 9,000 Palestinian women have been murdered in Gaza, the least that three white British women in a ‘feminist’ band can do is cancel a festival booking. There is no excuse for the show to go on.

For punk, rock and metal bands making music that defends the underdog and rejects the status quo, where we play is just as important as what we say in lyrics. It’s heartening to see so many bands publicly withdraw from SXSW, which has in-turn put a media spotlight on Palestinian liberation.

In response to the boycott, SXSW have said they “continue to support human rights for all”. This statement will be put to the test next year: if they still take sponsors’ money, bands should be ready to boycott on a bigger scale. Without the artists, there’s no festival to be had.

History has shown us that when musicians collectively unite to use our power and influence for good, we can end violent oppression. If we did it for South Africa, we can do it for Palestine too.

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