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SXSW controversy spikes as bands drop out over military ties

Controversy surrounding the annual South by Southwest festival, familiarly called SXSW, has spiked after more than 100 acts, the majority of them European, dropped out over the U.S. Army’s and defense contractors’ sponsorship of the music and cultural event in Austin, Texas.

As of Wednesday, five music labels and 105 bands and individual musicians, including more than 60 acts from the United Kingdom and all 12 Irish bands originally slated to perform, chose to forego the nine-day festival in protest of the Pentagon’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

More than 10 acts have decided to stay in for financial reasons but are going to make statements on stage or use their time slot to focus on Palestine, as tracked by Austin For Palestine Coalition (AFPC), the organization leading the boycott. 

Among the acts that have pulled out are Chicago-based songwriter Ella Williams, known as Squirrel Flower, Los Angeles-based indie band Mamalarky, and hip-hop trio Kneecap from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The avalanche of boycotts stems from an AFPC pressure campaign, launched Feb. 21, asking artists to apply pressure on SXSW over the participation of defense entities, Zainab Haider, the lead for the initiative at AFPC told The Hill.

The group has protested the Army’s heavy sponsorship of SXSW as well as the festival’s inclusion of military defense firm RTX, also known as Raytheon, and its subsidiary Collins Aerospace, which both make weapons and equipment used by the Israeli military. 

BAE Systems has also been called out for its participation as an exhibitor in a connected event known as Startup Crawl at Capital Factory House. In a statement to The Hill, a BAE spokesperson said the defense firm has “no plans to participate in any way” in SXSW. 

RTX and Collins Aerospace did not respond to requests for comment. 

Army spokesperson Matt Ahearn said it’s “proud to be a sponsor of SXSW, and to have the opportunity to showcase America’s Army. SXSW presents a unique opportunity for the Army to meet technology innovators and leaders, explore new ideas and insights, and create dynamic industry partnerships as we modernize for the future.” 

The AFPC effort has quickly picked up steam, and since late last month nearly 600 people have emailed SXSW “to express their horror” at the military-linked sponsors, Haider said. 

“These entities are either sponsoring, funding, or supplying weapons for Israel’s assault on Gaza, for what the International Court of Justice is investigating as Genocide in Palestine.” 

Israel in October launched an air and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip after the Hamas militant group, which controls the territory, attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 others hostage. 

More than 30,000 Palestinians have since been killed, the majority women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. 

The United States, Israel’s biggest military backer, provides some $4 billion to Israel in defense assistance annually and has also sent additional weapons to the country since the start of the war to be used in the conflict, such as American-made aircraft and bombs. 

AFPC contends that RTX makes missiles, bombs and other weapons the Israeli military uses against Palestinians, while Collins Aerospace provides components for aircraft used by the Israel Defense Forces. BAE Systems, meanwhile, “has supplied weapons and equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territories,” according to AFPC’s website.

Haider said the group coordinated with Austin Federation of Musicians and United Musicians and Allied Workers to spread their message, and it also delivered it by hand to those at the SXSW offices but did not receive a response.  

The boycotts quickly drew the attention of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who wrote, “Bye. Don’t come back,” in a post on social media. “Austin remains the HQ for the Army Futures Command. San Antonio is Military City USA. We are proud of the U.S. military in Texas. If you don’t like it, don’t come here.”

The official SXSW account quickly responded that it “does not agree with Governor Abbott.” 

Organizers of the festival wrote that they “fully respect the decision these artists made to exercise their right to free speech,” while defending the Army’s sponsorship role in the festival.  

“The defense industry has historically been a proving ground for many of the systems we rely on today,” they wrote. 

“These institutions are often leaders in emerging technologies, and we believe it’s better to understand how their approach will impact our lives. The Army’s sponsorship is part of our commitment to bring forward ideas that shape our world. In regard to Collins Aerospace, they participated this year as a sponsor of two SXSW Pitch categories, giving entrepreneurs visibility and funding for potentially game-changing work.” 

The Israel-Hamas conflict was also acknowledged, though organizers did not take sides.  

“We have and will continue to support human rights for all,” they wrote. “The situation in the Middle East is tragic, and it illuminates the heightened importance of standing together against injustice.” 

AFPC called the SXSW response “empty” and “performative.”

“It was immediately clear to our coalition and the musicians who have dropped out that these empty words touting ‘justice’ did not do a great job hiding the fact that SXSW IS forcing musicians to be in bed with warmongers,” the group said.

The music component of the SXSW festival started Monday and will run through Saturday. 

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