Over the past week, The Cedar has been forced to take the unprecedented step of canceling two imminent shows by international artists, both due to visa problems. The first artist, Aar Maanta, is a London-based quintet fronted by a young, charismatic Somali singer who were slated to perform for both a concert performance and two community programs as the centerpiece of this year's Global Roots Festival. The other, an talented ensemble from the Congo, Staff Benda Bilili, whose core members are victims of childhood polio, was to be a co-presentation with the Walker that was to include a special day program for diverse groups of people with disabilities in addition to their evening concert. Losing both of these, needless to say, was hugely disheartening.
In both cases, the artists were actually approved for visas after a difficult and lengthy process of vetting by U.S. Immigration, but the final piece which is handled by the local U.S. embassies (in London and Kinshasa) were unreasonably delayed to beyond the scheduled U.S. flight dates. In the case of Aar Maanta, four of the five members of the band were issued their visas. However, the fifth, whose "case" is still pending, is the leader, Aar Maanta himself- real name Hassan Mohamed Abidrahman. He has no criminal record, no history of problems of any kind, and has been a U.K. resident for over twenty years. But he is the only member of the band who is a Muslim from Somalia.
These kinds of additional security precautions have steadily increased since 9/11/2001. While additional procedures are to be expected, they often fall outside of any defined guidelines. Great latitude is often given to such discretionary delays. In fact, there is little or even negative incentive for field officers to process things in a timely fashion. While an outright denial of a visa has the potential to be controversial, delaying accomplishes the same result, with no apparent accountability.
At a certain point, such policies that are designed to protect and secure actually become counterproductive, and even counter to our national interests. The Twin Cities Somali community has become a national focus for law enforcement due to heavily reported incidents of external extremist recruitment, as well as local gang violence. It is virtually universally agreed that a key strategy for fighting these dangers is to provide positive role models, particularly young males who embody tolerance and the successful integration of Somali immigrants into the fabric of the greater community. There are few better examples of this than Aar Maanta. Similarly, it is hard to find a more inspirational story about overcoming adversity than that of Staff Benda Bilili.
Perhaps as part of the billions of dollars per year that this country commits to security, there should be a sizable share committed to identifying more positive, pro-active strategies, and specific individuals (artists, for example) who should actually be prioritized for travel to the United States? Or how about just improving the procedures, so that when community groups or cultural organizations apply for these kinds of visas, a more reasonable process can take place?
Something needs to change, because we've arrived at the point where aiming for greater security at all costs is actually shooting ourselves in the foot.
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Of course there's still plenty of great international music coming next week for Global Roots. The most highly anticipated appears to be the duo Chamber Music featuring Ballaké Sissoko on kora and Vincent Segal on cello. If you like gorgeous, sublime acoustic interplay, you'll love this...