SXSW boycott grows in solidarity with Gaza

‘This was not a difficult decision,’ says South African artist Shalom on her move to pull out of this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas. ‘This would have been my first time playing SXSW, but I will never abandon my morals for exposure.’

Shalom is among around 80 acts who have withdrawn from the festival, taking place from 8-16 March, to protest sponsorship by the US Army and defence companies supplying weapons to Israel in its war on Gaza

Kneecap, a hip hop trio from Northern Ireland announced on Instagram that they had cancelled their shows ‘in solidarity with the people of Palestine’, adding: ‘We cannot in good conscience attend at arts festival that has “The US Army” as a “Super Sponsor” and is platforming RTX (formerly Raytheon), Collins Aerospace, and BAE Systems, the very companies selling the weapons that have murdered 31,000 Palestinians, over 21,000 of them women and children. These organisations are literally profiting from and facilitating war crimes.’ 

A similar statement from the US hardcore band Scowl read: ‘We refuse to participate in the war machine.’
 

 

The US is the biggest supplier of weapons and munition to Israel, its closest ally in the region, which declared war on the Gaza strip following the 7 October Hamas attacks. At least 31,000 people in Gaza have been killed, many from bombs directly supplied by the US, and a looming famine due to Israel’s blockade of humanitarian aid to the strip has already claimed many more lives.

In a stunning display of irony, President Joe Biden announced earlier this week that the US Army will set up a temporary pier off Gaza to deliver humanitarian supplies to the starving population.

The SXSW festival, which celebrates film, comedy and music attracts more than 300,000 people each year. It is a major promotion and networking opportunity for artists. Cancelling shows means losing income and incurring costs for many who decided to pull out.

‘Opting out of SXSW means not only a considerable financial loss for us as an independent band but also the loss of a significant opportunity to share our music on a large and diverse platform,’ says Faye O’Rourke, lead singer of the Irish indie band Soda Blonde. ‘But we firmly believe the ethical considerations outweigh the costs to the band.

‘To stand on a stage funded by the architects of conflict, directly opposing our values of peace and unity, is something we cannot and will not do.’

‘To stand on a stage funded by the architects of conflict, directly opposing our values of peace and unity, is something we cannot and will not do.’

Questions remain as to the impact of so many artists pulling out of a festival which last year raked in more than $150 million.

‘We’re under no illusions about the scale of our influence, especially when it comes to the US military or its partnership with SXSW,’ says O’Rourke. ‘Our withdrawal is less about expecting a seismic shift in their operations or decisions, and more about staying true to our collective conscience as a group.

‘This decision is a reflection of our values and a statement that, in our own small way, we hope contributes to a larger conversation about peace and the role of art and culture in advocating for it.’

But individual decisions can make an impact, argues the South African artist, Shalom. ‘The only way we can live out our dreams for liberation is by demanding it, and providing consequences when we don’t get it. I’ve wanted to play [SXSW] for years. But boycotts work, and, by withholding our labour as artists, we can put pressure on [the festival]. We can say: “End the army and defence contractor sponsorships, or there’s no music festival.”’

SXSW is not the only arts event to come under fire amid the ongoing war on Gaza. This month artists Yto Barrada and Cian Dayrit, asked for their work to be removed from an exhibition at the Barbican in London after the venue pulled out of hosting a speech about the conflict in Gaza. In November 2023, artists Nicholas Galanin and Merritt Johnson also withdrew their work from an exhibition of contemporary Native American art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in protest of the US government’s military backing of Israel.

In a statement to the BBC, the US Army said it was ‘proud to be a sponsor of SXSW, and to have the opportunity to showcase America’s Army… explore new ideas and insights, and create dynamic industry partnerships.’

SXSW also issued a statement on X, formerly Twitter, saying the organization ‘welcomes diverse viewpoints’ and ‘fully respects the decision these artists made to exercise their right to free speech.’

SXSW did not respond to New Internationalist’s request for comment.