80+ bands pull out of South by Southwest to protest festival’s ties to Israeli military
A SXSW sign at Austin Convention Center from March 2023. (Photo: Shutterstock)

By Andrew Lapin
March 13, 2024

(JTA) – More than 80 bands and several scheduled panelists have pulled out of the ongoing South by Southwest festival, citing Israel defense ties among its organizers.

Organizers of the Austin, Texas, event that draws attendees from around the world have threatened legal action against the boycott’s leaders. But they also said on Tuesday that they “fully respect” the boycott.

The protest was sparked by the Austin For Palestine Coalition, which called for a boycott of the festival due to the fact that its sponsors include the United States Army and the weapons manufacturers RTX Corporation, Collins Aerospace and BAE Systems. The festival began March 8 and runs through Saturday.

The coalition argues that, because the U.S. military and the defense contractors have supplied Israel with weapons and technology — RTX supplies major components of the Iron Dome missile defense system, for example — boycotting the festival will show solidarity with Palestinians.

“No more war profiteers and warmongers in this city!” the coalition posted on Instagram Tuesday in an announcement of the dropped bands. “Free Palestine. Ceasefire Now.”

The boycotting acts represent a small fraction of the total bands that were booked for SXSW, which this year totaled more than 2,000 and included headliners such as The Black Keys, Bootsy Collins and the Japanese artist Chiaki Mayumura.

But the boycott comes as the arts and culture world is widely roiled by tensions surrounding the Israel-Hamas war. Three venues have canceled shows by the Jewish musician Matisyahu in the last few weeks because of pro-Palestinian protests, and Jewish authors and museum executives have also reported feeling targeted by antisemitism as a result of pro-Palestinian activism in their fields; meanwhile, the Jewish director Jonathan Glazer ignited a firestorm with an Oscars speech this week when he criticized the war while accepting an award.

Musicians who have dropped their planned SXSW appearances include the indie acts Squirrel Flower, Mamalarky and Omni, as well as Shalom, a Nigerian/South African singer-songwriter whose given name is Shalom Obisie-Orlu. Every Irish band originally booked to play the festival, including the hip-hop group Kneecap, has also reportedly dropped its participation; Ireland is a particular hotbed of sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

In addition, some scheduled panelists have also dropped their participation, including Chris Smalls, lead organizer of the first successful Amazon factory union in Staten Island and the star of an upcoming documentary about his unionization efforts; the social psychologist and author Devon Price; and the sociologist and Princeton University professor Ruha Benjamin. SXSW encompasses tracks on music, film, technology and social movements.

Prior to the start of the festival, SXSW sent a cease-and-desist letter to the coalition alleging that it had used the festival’s trademarked art in its social media posts without permission. The coalition’s website includes language in which it affirms a commitment to fight antisemitism and also states that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.

But the festival backed the boycotting groups late Tuesday after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, slammed them on social media. “Bands pull out of SXSW over U.S. Army sponsorship. Bye. Don’t come back,” Abbott tweeted.

“SXSW does not agree with Governor Abbott,” the festival responded in a statement posted to Instagram. “We are an organization that welcomes diverse viewpoints. Music is the soul of SXSW, and it has long been our legacy. We fully respect the decision these artists made to exercise their right to free speech.”

The post also explained SXSW’s connections to the defense industry, saying that the festival’s focus on the future made the companies a natural though minor fit.

“These institutions are often leaders in emerging technologies, and we believe it’s better to understand how their approach will impact our lives,” the statement said. “The Army’s sponsorship is part of our commitment to bring forward ideas that shape our world.”

The festival concluded with a comment referring to the Israel-Hamas war: “We have and will continue to support human rights for all. The situation in the Middle East is tragic, and it illuminates the heightened importance of standing together against injustice.”

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