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The impact of passport discrimination and racialised migration policies on artist mobility
by Hanna Keil Pronouns: She/Her - Sie/Ihr (DE)
Think globally, consume locally
Recent trends in nightlife encourage promoters to book locally and support the community. We should think critically about the global equity and fairness of this sentiment. Local scenes in metropolitan cities often consist of international artists that move to the city by choice and have access to travel mobility. These advantages include short and long term visa allowances, work permits to relocate permanently and the financial means required for both relocation and survival.
Artists from the Global South experience obstacles in the European Union visa process, such as requirements to have a sum of €10.000 in their bank account before applying. Their travel schedules, accommodations and invitations from EU residents and institutions must be prearranged and handed in with the application. Although travelers from non-EU countries of the Northern Hemisphere face similar prerequisites in obtaining visas, these translate a lot differently to individuals with passports from countries suffering from economic and imperial suppression.
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Besides these bureaucratic standards, we have recently witnessed additional restrictions. The detection of a new variant of COVID-19 by scientists at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, South Africa in 2021 resulted in a global travel ban on several African countries, yet such restrictions would never be imposed on countries like the United States. Even when artists have qualified to work abroad after an intense application process, bookings may fall through and impact their entire tours. Furthermore, the individual racialised reality at border controls that Black people face every day regardless of their passports must be taken into account. The contradiction in this globalized economy is that we find governments and industries optimizing the flow of goods while forcefully restricting the flow of people.
According to “The contingencies of whiteness: Gendered/racialized global dynamics of security narratives” by Catherine Baker (2021) at the university of Hull, UK, these dynamics are intentional and deeply rooted in imperial power structures.
“Both the fortification of European borders against migration from the global South and Western militaries’ involvement in wars ostensibly to prevent terrorist networks reaching Western shores belong to what critical and feminist security studies already recognize as a racialized security regime. Within this gendered racial order, policies, discourses and everyday practices surrounding border security, migration, asylum and war reinforce each other to construct ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ as normatively white spaces, under threat from racialized Others within and without”
Booking and organizing tours for artists from the Global South requires more labor than simply requesting availability and paying for flights. Curating an international artist roster carries with it the demand of extra work, complexity, and preparing for canceled shows for artists who may lose their right to travel. This unpaid labor often falls on individual artists, especially up-and-coming talents. Remote working artists face an economical disadvantage due to currency exchange rates and lower salaries, making it difficult not to lose money on a tour. Additionally, there are risk factors in touring such as currency inflation, physical and mental health tolls, and other challenges that affect artists everywhere.
“The option of actually playing or touring in Europe is almost impossible,” explains Shaheen Jacobs, a Cape Town-based South African artist also known as Aryu Jassika, and co-founder of the label and nightlife collective SWAK. “You would have to sustain a day job in South Africa, which means you can't travel for long periods of time […] I already lost like 10,000 South African Rand on a lot of flights last year, which got canceled because of COVID, and also having to apply for a visa every time and having to have so much money in your account. It's almost impossible, basically, unless you have things hooked up or you can get a sponsor.” These are only a few of the structural challenges that artists from South Africa face in building their careers.
The globally touring DJ is the rockstar of our generation, a dream that ambitious artists aim to achieve when starting to play out in local bars and pushing for first gigs. However, for artists trying to build successful careers, touring is often a requirement. Jessika Khazrik is an artist, composer, deejay, technologist and writer born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, now living in Berlin, Germany. However, Jessika’s relocation to Berlin was not by choice; “I was compelled to leave Lebanon and relocate to Germany [in 2019,] 3 months into the onset of the October 17 Revolution in Lebanon after I was held hostage by the securocratic banking system in Lebanon, detained while 5 human rights violations were committed against me and swiftly released thanks to a very moving solidarity. A very nasty surveillance campaign and threats ensued against me and my lawyer, who urged me to leave. Though I have been leading a satellitic life for a while, I do feel deeply displaced.”
Once an artist is based in Europe, access to mobility and opportunities increases. “Already when I was in Beirut, I would receive several invitations to play trans-continently and travel a lot, but the visa work for that was like a part-time job – a very humiliating and encroaching job you pay for. Now that I'm based in Berlin, I get to play even more. It's much less expensive to book you, though I do hope promoters/festival curators would always prioritize booking artists who are based in their locales. Circulation is necessary but moving can come with a very heavy load.” It is unequal and unjust to witness the differences in access to mobility. “According to the quiddity of law, as well as the core principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, visas are illegal. They should not exist, because they completely breach the universal right to mobility, and in many ways, they institutionalize racism and inequality of access.”
The freedom to travel, enter a country and stay for a period of time is extremely dependent on the passport one holds, and the political relations between countries. For instance, Passport Index ranks passports according to their Mobility Score (MS) based on visa application requirements. With the exception of the United Arab Emirates topping the list, passports from countries in the Northern Hemisphere disproportionately hold the most power.
This imbalance in freedom of mobility has a ripple effect on opportunities for artists. Europe is an established market for touring DJs, with club circuits and festivals featuring high-grossing bills; party cities like Berlin, Amsterdam, Lisbon and Barcelona are nightlife hubs with gigs aplenty, where both local and international DJs launch their careers. Huge festivals such as Amsterdam Dance Event, “the most upfront and influential gathering for global electronic music and its industry,” break talent and influence international bookings. An industry that has superficially committed to do better and book more diverse lineups still lacks follow through on that commitment. The representation of Black artists in electronic dance music event lineups has barely changed or even decreased, and while there are many contributing factors, access to mobility is one of them. Depending on citizenship, artists can spend a season touring in Europe, with allowance to work and travel within the Schengen Area for several months. The comparable economical conditions of countries outside of the EU such as the United States make it possible to organize these tours, even though the logistics become increasingly difficult in the current recession.
Jessika Khazrik shares additional obstacles she’s faced in organizing tour logistics; “Since I was 19, I started being invited to perform and to exhibit internationally. [Artists] get access to mobility through our work, through invitations, but the big hustling work of constantly having to prove the ‘legitimacy and worthiness of your existence’ on this planet through visas is on you. [...] My artist visa in Berlin during the pandemic was 238 pages, and it took 11 months. I was lucky to have a letter of support from the Ministry of Culture in Berlin because I used to play a lot in Berlin since 2014 before I moved here in 2020, and they were familiar with the political dimension of my work. This is while I had a semester-long guest faculty position in a masters program in Germany and dozens of artist invitations.” Even with an extensive CV, institutional support and documentation, it took almost a year for Jessika to be given an allowance to stay and work from Germany. Furthermore, changing a Visa type D (student visa) to a Type C (working visa) requires a bureaucratic service that the German embassy in Lebanon simply doesn’t provide.
Injustice through capitalist regulations on borders
Access to mobility is regulated by governmental offices and the individual judgment of bureaucrats within those structures. “It comes from capitalism’s ‘precondition’ of inequality, i.e. its enduring imperialism which steals, classifies and surveilles,” explains Jessika. The global debt economy centered on the Dollar has contributed to visa regulations and the right of countries to deny entry at borders. Citizens of countries that are suffering from this imperial debt are therefore denied travel - “even by the alleged ‘universal’ legal standards of post-WWII, rejecting someone[’s access to mobility] is illegal. The world, local as well as global economies, would look very different if we all had equal access to circulation – like we should. We live on a sphere, and restricting access to some is an insidiously perverse form of occupation. Visas need to be abolished,” Jessika urges.
Artists from the Global South face challenges to obtain a Schengen Visa that can only be overcome through institutional support, sponsors, local organizations or politicians helping them to navigate complex discriminatory immigration systems. Even that is sometimes not enough. This was Jessika’s experience when planning a performance scheduled for Supersonic festival in the UK. “We'd been preparing for seven months, and we were supposed to have a tour with 7 shows. With the invasion of Ukraine, the UK government stopped processing visas for half a year while also considerably complicating and delaying the influx of people from Ukraine. There was no way to get the visa.” After investigating, Jessika found out that “the minimum waiting time was like 24 weeks. If you call, you can’t get an answer. If you send an email, you will pay. You have to pay like £3 and they will answer you three months later for a process that usually would take between 1 to 3 weeks. And the thing is that if you have a passport from the Global North, you can take your passport with you while the visa is processed. But if you have a passport from the Global South, you have to leave your passport there,” and one is essentially forbidden to travel at all. “So I ended up insisting on doing the festival premiere remotely, as if some of us were still in lockdown, and transforming my set to tackle that. I changed my visuals and used a neural network I have been working on since a while, to generate visuals of a future fictional time or a parallel present, where people in the UK are protesting to abolish visas. I was also supposed to be on a panel called The Art of Collaboration, with some of my favorite musicians. Instead of canceling, I joined the panel as a disembodied voice. My voice could travel and be relayed, thanks to technology. The absence of my body speaks by itself. We had an amazing conversation.”
Even though this solution was seemingly a success, it is clear how the system is unjust and prevents artists from having the freedom to perform their work where they are booked. A digital solution like this is also unique to the performance. This would not necessarily work in the context of a live band or DJ set. Additionally, racialised assumptions can punish artists, as was the case with the band Kin'gongolo Kiniata from Kinshasa, Congo. After 3 years of hard work to get a tour booked, they were denied a visa because the French government had doubts that the musicians would return to their country of origin before the expiration date of the visa requested.
The tables turn when the seasons change
After the summer festival season in Europe has passed and ADE hosts its autumn gathering, the cold winter months set in. An escape to warmer climates for remote working freelancers is a common reality. Europeans can travel and stay in other countries with ease. “Passport on arrival” is a common phrase, since EU citizens don’t have to provide income statements or present anything other than a passport at the border control. How does this freedom of movement and material advantage of Europeans impact countries like South Africa?
While history books state that Apartheid ended in 1990 in South Africa, “Apartheid was ‘deracialised’ in a narrow sense. Some Black South Africans can now participate in its spoils, though most still experience the vast disproportion of its evils” (The New Apartheid 2021 by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, page 19). This is an important fact to take into account while traveling in the country and interfacing with its citizens. “White South Africans often maintain gross overrepresentation in centers of economic privilege, even though Black South Africans are the over numerical majority” (Mpofu-Walsh, page 41). Europeans traveling to South Africa directly benefit from this ongoing injustice of material conditions for South Africans of color.
Recently The Other Radio, a community radio station from Cape Town, and their venue Ghost were evicted after the building was sold to be turned into luxury apartments. Woodstock, a neighborhood that used to be for and by the local community, is another example of Cape Town’s gentrification. The rising costs of living since the 1990s have pushed residents out, sometimes forcibly. The Guardian reports that in one building, a wealthy new owner with plans to renovate and “rent out accommodation to the hordes of foreign tourists” in advance of the World Cup of 2010 raised the rent on its existing tenants. When they couldn’t meet his demands, “he obtained a court order and had them evicted in the middle of the Cape’s harsh, wet winter, dumping them and their furniture on the pavement.” This resulted in families and neighbors living on the street, many ultimately joining Blikkiesdorp, a settlement of 20,000 disproportionately Black, Indigenous and People of Color facing inhumane conditions of poverty and illness.
The Fortress Europe
The Schengen Area consists of 27 “border-free” European countries enabling “every EU citizen to travel, work and live in an EU country without special formalities [...or] being subject to border checks.” These countries and their citizens heavily benefit from this systemic freedom of mobility, spontaneous travel and exchange of goods. The lack of regulations leads to an optimized flow, where actors within can react to day to day challenges and therefore plan flexibly, whatever business they’re in. However, there are many bureaucratic and physical obstructions to enter this system of freedom for citizens from countries with a non-white majority population. Closed borders and entry barriers for non-Europeans often lead to fatal migration realities. Even in times of crisis, citizens from countries with a non-white population struggle to find allowances to stay in the EU, even amongst forced migrants of war who are treated with a double standard.
Bureaucratic labyrinths and brutal border controls are today’s walls that are built around the fortress of Europe. Europeans are biased by fear-mongering propaganda against migration from the Global South. So how can nightlife workers from European countries react? What can we do about the seemingly distant yet impactful regulations affecting our international comrades?
Unequal opportunities for refugee support
Institutions in Berlin representing nightlife have focused their solidarity on migrants from countries with majority white populations. For example, Berlin’s Clubcommission created a job website for Ukrainian (non-EU) refugees to find nightlife opportunities in response to the 2022 Russian invasion. Where are the initiatives for migrants from countries in the Global South to support their survival and prosperity?
This unequal treatment comes into play for migrants forced to move to Germany, where the impact is more harmful due to the material conditions faced by refugees. The struggle for survival and freedom is as literal as it can be. Berlin Collective Action is an organization that exists to support those most impacted by risk and violence in Berlin, formed as a result of COVID-19 and its egregious economic aftermath. From applicants to BCA’s donations-based financial assistance, we see a recurring reason for need reported: they have no work allowance for places outside of the regulated refugee camps. The duality in treatment of the people fleeing imperial warfare needs to be amplified. Furthermore, we need to organize for a universal solution with equal access to work for everybody.
Fighting for equal mobility is essential to pursue a cultural exchange without exploitation. The erasure of colonial history in media and education leads to harmful assumptions about the origins of wealth in Europe. An example of recent colonial activities in Europe comes from Paul Reynaud, Chairman of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Economic Questions in 1952: “We must also, if free Europe is to be made viable, jointly exploit the riches of the African continent, and try to find there those raw materials which we are getting from the dollar area, and for which we are unable to pay.”
We are indoctrinated with a colonial mindset today about music exploited from the African continent, played by DJs from the Global North mixed with all kinds of genres. “If you come to Europe [as an artist from South Africa] you have to play and produce Gqom or Amapiano. They want you to be like Black Coffee,” Shaheen laments about the reductive image of artists like him or his peers from South Africa. “If Americans can play trance or jungle or all these styles from the UK and we can only play music with bongos, that's racist. [...] How do you develop as an artist if that's not what you're about? But anyone else from Europe or America going to either of those countries, they get to play whatever they want.”
A future to dream of
The abolishment of borders, nation states and devaluing the Dollar and Euro as the central global currency are all pathways to a more equitable future. “Devalue all currencies and let whatever ensues be universal and ecologically driven” suggests Jessika, ”Demands like universal basic income cannot work as long as some local currencies are deemed as centralized global forces. I think we should abolish nation-states for sure, not just visas. No matter how dystopic and techno-solutionist our present continues to be, I will continue calling for and dreaming that.” The same universal approach is needed regarding access to mobility and travel. “Just like airports are logistical non-places that hold the same function everywhere,” Jessika adds, “where the same process is required from everybody to board. Just as simple as this, we can have an equal process everywhere that signals; hey I'm passing, but I don't need to be approved.”
As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948:
“Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”
Jean-Hugues Kabuiku Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.