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SXSW decision to end US Army sponsorship spotlights political tightrope for festival organizers amid Israel-Hamas war

<i>Justin Bettman/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>(L-R) Rich Peppiatt
Justin Bettman/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
(L-R) Rich Peppiatt

By Elizabeth Wagmeister, CNN

(CNN) — At the South by Southwest festival earlier this year, dozens of indie artists and speakers cancelled appearances in protest of the event’s sponsorship from US military and defense contractors amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

SXSW organizers in March expressed support for the right of artists to express “free speech,” but also defended its US Army sponsorship, describing it as part of their “commitment to bring forward ideas that shape our world.”

Three months after the protests, SXSW announced this week that they had dropped the US Army as a sponsor ahead of the 2025 festival.

“After careful consideration, we are revising our sponsorship model,” read an official statement shared on the SXSW website. “As a result, the US Army, and companies who engage in weapons manufacturing, will not be sponsors of SXSW 2025.”

When reached by CNN, a spokesperson for SXSW declined to comment further on the decision.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the US Army did not address the separation from SXSW, but said they will continue to seek opportunities in creative industries.

“We appreciated the opportunity to join South by Southwest in 2024. With U.S. Army Futures Command headquartered in Austin, we value any opportunity to join with our community to ignite discovery and make new connections,” Lt. Col. Jamie Dobson, US Army Futures Command spokesperson, said. “The Army will continue to seek opportunities to meet technology innovators and leaders, explore new ideas and insights, and create dynamic industry partnerships because tomorrow is worth protecting.”

Two sources familiar with the festival’s change in sponsorship told CNN that the move was not a criticism of the Army, and should not be seen as a victory for protesters against the festival or the US government. One source noted that the change signals a desire to find a commercial sponsorship partner for SXSW’s future.

The Texas-based music and tech festival has expanded in recent years to include screenings and events from major Hollywood studios and networks. The festival brings more than 300,000 attendees to Austin for a lineup of conferences, panels, music showcases, film premieres and exhibitions. Selena GomezMeghan, Duchess of Sussex and investor Mark Cuban were among the participants at this year’s festival. SXSW recently announced a European expansion of the festival, which will host its first London edition in June 2025.

Music group insults Israel while hailing SXSW’s decision to drop US Army

Shortly after SXSW’s announcement that the festival was parting ways with the US Army, one of the most vocal bands to boycott the 2024 festival earlier this year took to social media to comment on the change with an inflammatory message.

“US ARMY is OUT of SXSW,” the Irish hip-hop trio Kneecap posted to X on Wednesday, with a handshake emoji next to an emoji of a Palestinian territory flag. “F–K ISRAEL,” the post concluded.

Though Kneecap is just one smaller-known band, their rhetoric in response to SXSW dropping army and weapons manufacturing sponsorship reflects the tension felt across creative industries, which has hit an all-time high during the Israel-Hamas war.

A spokesperson for SXSW declined to comment on Kneecap’s post or whether the band would be invited back next year, but a source indicated that the anti-Israel language displayed in the group’s post would be in violation of the festival’s code of conduct.

Known for their provocative lyrics and strident messaging on politics and social causes, Kneecap has a history, prior to October 7, of criticizing Israel and flying Palestinian flags during their concerts and wearing Palestinian colors during public appearances.

Earlier this year, the rap trio wore pro-Palestine badges on Ireland’s “The Late Late Show” – after Irish news outlets reported that the performers had been warned by producers that their late-night performance would be cancelled if they wore the badges on live TV – but they did so anyway. A spokesperson for the Irish broadcasting company, RTÉ, told Ireland’s The Journal at the time, “During the live performance and the subsequent interview, the band chose not to comply with that agreement.”

The pro-Palestinian movement is popular among some Irish who view Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as analogous to Britain’s historical relationship with Ireland. In 2023, The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) announced that their “Irish Artists Pledge to Boycott Israel” had passed 1,500 signatories, including Kneecap.

When contacted by CNN, Kneecap manager Dan Lambert said the group stands by their social media post.

Lambert added that the group has not been contacted by SXSW or asked to perform at next year’s festival, but noted “it is way too early” and said if they should receive an invite, they have not decided whether they would attend.

Festival sponsorship criticisms

SXSW isn’t the only music festival that has seen artists pull out over sponsorships since the Israel-Hamas war began.

This past May, more than 100 artists pulled out of The Great Escape festival in the UK, due to the event’s sponsorship by Barclays Bank over alleged ties to arms manufactures that work with the Israeli military. Barclays later suspended its sponsorship of all music festivals put on by Live Nation, according to Reuters, and says it does not invest its own money in defense companies supplying Israel in Gaza.

However, unlike other artists who boycotted The Great Escape, Kneecap continued their participation in that festival, offering an explanation that their livelihood depends on festival performances.

“It’s easy for middle class people with a steady nine-to-five income to write online that we should be boycotting stuff,” one of the bandmates told The Irish News in an interview in May. “But this is our work. Obviously, we pulled out of SXSW because it was literally sponsored by the American army, but we’re not f–kin’ ridiculous either.”

Back in March when artists were boycotting SXSW, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took to social media to comment on the SXSW protesters, prompting the festival to publicly disagree with the governor.

“Bye. Don’t come back,” Abbott wrote on X at the time. “We are proud of the U.S. military in Texas. If you don’t like it, don’t come here.”

“SXSW does not agree with Governor Abbott,” the festival’s X account posted in response. “We fully respect the decision these artists made to exercise their right to free speech.”

At that time, SXSW said it supports “human rights for all,” adding that “the situation in the Middle East is tragic, and it illuminates the heightened importance of standing together against injustice.”

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