You, my young British friend, start a band. You choose a name — something odd, slightly unsettling. Your three-piece practices diligently. Local fame soon gives way to regional fame. Elated, you hear yourself on British radio. You cut a CD and it gets a lot of buzz on American music blogs. Since you’re doing well in your home country, you decide to take advantage of the huge US market and go on tour. Your bassist keeps saying you can’t get on MTV by playing clubs in Manchester.
You book shows all over the States, buy plane tickets, and apply for a visa, which they say will take 10 weeks. Twenty-two weeks later, you receive only two of three visas when you find out that your drummer has a name similar to that of a possible al Qaeda operative from Qatar, a country to which he’s never been. Homeland Security is now on the case, no one in the American government answers your questions, and you wait another month — and hear nothing. You miss your kick-off show in New York, then more shows pass, date by date, and your manager cancels the rest of your tour. You apologize to fans on your MySpace page, comment with thinly veiled hostility about the absurdity of the process, and shake your fist west through the morning rain, cursing the day you ever tried to deal with the dispassionate labyrinth of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
In the past two years, news has come out of the music world with disarming frequency about artists being forced to postpone or cancel shows because of visa troubles. M.I.A, Rodrigo y Gabriella, Amy Winehouse, Klaxons, the Mystery Jets, New Model Army, You Say Party! We Say Die!, and the Young Knives are just a few highly publicized examples of musicians — successful and struggling, popular and unknown — who have tried to brave the system, and failed.
The situation has not passed unnoticed by music writers and bloggers, who tend to respond with hyperbolic outrage. “The front line of America’s border system,” wrote Spin magazine this past August, “has again spared us citizens the horrors of another evildoer attempting to breach our sacred grounds: Lily Allen.” Similarly, Pitchfork Media responded to the visa denial of Canadian duo Handsome Furs, facetiously proclaiming, “Three cheers for the United States, keeping freedom-hating, free-health-care-receiving heathens like Handsome Furs out of our beautiful land.”
The problem, of course, is both broader and more nuanced than just musicians trying to get visas — sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. While this story focuses on the plight of overseas musicians and how their problems diminish the US culturally, actors (like Sanjay Dutt of India), filmmakers (like Mahamet-Saleh Haroun of Chad, who missed an April screening of three of his films at Harvard), and student/athletes (like basketball player Bol Kong, originally of Sudan, though he has lived more than half his life in Canada) encounter the same fate. The endgame is that, in the name of making ourselves safer, we may only be further isolating ourselves from a world that already views us with suspicion.
Glam-rock shredder or dead terrorist?
There are some, like David King, director of client relations for Traffic Control Group — a company with offices in New York and London that specializes in obtaining work visas for traveling artists — who insist the troubles are overblown. “It really isn’t as bad as people think it is,” he says in a telephone interview, pointing out that the number of problem instances are statistically low. “You can’t generalize and say, ‘Here’s the reason that bands aren’t getting into the United States.’ There are all sorts of reasons. And each [band] would probably have a different reason.”
King is right in that there are myriad reasons why a band would have what gets reported in the press as “visa difficulties,” but the examination of said reasons neither sedates concerns nor tempers outrage.
Consider the case of the French group Fancy, which tried this past March to play with Justice on the MySpace Music Tour. Three of the members got their visas in February, but the guitarist’s visa was withheld because his name, Mohamed Yamani, is similar to that of Abu Mohamed Al Yamani, a reported al Qaeda envoy in Algeria. Never mind that one is a glam-rock shredder and the other an international terrorist, and more oddly, that the latter was killed in 2006. When the bells go off, Homeland Security has to get involved. Fancy’s problems were resolved in late March, but only after the band missed 18 of 20 scheduled US dates.
Equally absurd is the now-famous case of Rodrigo y Gabriella. The Mexican guitar duo tried to get visas in March 2007, but had similar problems when Rodrigo Sanchez found his name is shared by a criminal on a Mexican wanted list. There is, as of this writing, no mechanism at US consulates to prepare for the contingency that more than one person in Mexico may be named Rodrigo Sanchez, and the duo was forced to cancel eight sold-out shows, according to Spin magazine, to the lost-revenue cost of about $65,000.