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African artists and the UK visa application process

PAM investigates the challenges African artists face when applying for a UK visa, finding a recurring general assessment: "it's a nightmare".

A while back, an article was published about the visa-related difficulties faced by African musicians to perform in France. Throughout the many artists, managers, festival organisers and official representatives we interviewed, the same general assessment returned: “yes, the situation’s far from ideal but it’s much worse in the United Kingdom“. That is why we now dive into the issues related specifically to British tours, in a chronological manner, to better empathise with the hurdles experienced by African artists.

The first issue generally arises at the very beginning of the visa process. Artists are expected to fill out an online application form, which in itself gives rise to some difficulties. “This by far is the most daunting part of the process for me. My application was 14 pages long! It took me about 4 days to complete“, Nairobi DJ Coco Em says. The problem mostly resides in the fact that there is no one to talk to. Even after having completed the form, the visa applicant is most often expected to reach an external company, working on behalf of the embassy. 

TLS-Contact is one such service provider, and probably the most established. However, despite operating in 150 centres spread across 90 countries, a significant number of African countries are left without an agency. Malian artists are expected to make the trip to Dakar, Senegal, in order to submit their final application. Corinne Serres works as a manager for Mad Minute Music with African artists (such as Ballaké Sissoko) to arrange for international tours. She is well aware of this particular challenge. “I have to do the math: I will take advantage of the opportunity of having a European tour before a show in England, for example, by sending them to the Parisian agency to make the necessary arrangements, but it’s a headache and each time we take incredible risks”.

The final face-off with the TLS-Contact agents is generally quite anticlimactic as the service provider holds limited power. “The people at the TLS-Contact centre usually don’t speak much with you and ultimately you are never in front of the person who will decide your fate,” Coco Em says.”People at TLS-Contact are only here to guarantee the application is complete before they send it”, she explains. For a fee, the applicant may ask for assistance. “I did that once and I got someone on the line who told me the request was still pending and that was it”, Corinne Serres explains.

A tedious process

Yet, putting together a visa application is far from a walk in the park and the lack of assistance throughout tends to make the process all the more difficult. “Most info on visa application processes are on websites and blogs sharing information which could be inaccurate”, Coco Em explains. “There is little guidance to find the appropriate application forms. Sometimes you get different addresses for the official embassy. It is a bit frustrating because if I get any of this information wrong it could cost me time and potentially money in the event that I apply through a scammer.”

The goal for the applicant is to provide proof they have the means to support themselves for the time allotted by the visa and of their intent to return home. Yet, for many artists, the process seems excessively inquisitive. 

The questions I was answering ranged from: When do you plan to arrive and leave from the UK? To; Total amount of money you get in a year? What is the total amount of money you spend every month? What is the ownership status of your home? And many more questions…To complete this form I also needed to give the full address of where I would be staying in the UK as well as all the details of the person who was sponsoring my stay in the UK”, Coco recounts.

After the application form was fully and correctly filled out, I had to compile evidence of support I would receive from my sponsor including details of what support is being provided and how; evidence that my sponsor is not, or will not be, in breach of UK immigration laws at the time of my visit; evidence of funds clearly accessible by me, evidence of the relationship, if any, between my sponsor and me, confirmation from any sponsoring organisation in the UK outlining the full nature of the business activity I am undertaking; confirmation from my employer confirming the reason for my visit, outlining the full nature of business activity whilst in the UK, including any payment or expenses that I will receive. In addition, I needed proof of financial funds in my accounts by submitting bank statements that dated three months back from when I was applying for the visa.”

Corinne Serres who accompanies many African artists considers the task of successfully applying for a UK visa almost impossible for creatives that are not backed up by producers or managers. “They’re going to ask you for the whole thing. ‘Artist, prove that you have recorded albums, prove that you have been in the band for a long time, prove that you have enough income in your own country, prove that you are not going to stay there, provide documents (you may not necessarily have)’. Anyway, it’s a nightmare.” 

An obscure affair

Even after having completed the application, the outcome of the visa procedure remains clouded in mystery. Last August, Ghanaian singer-songwriter Eli A Free, member of the Nyamekye Junction trio, was unable to follow his German bandmates in the UK for their debut tour. “The Home Office said they couldn’t ascertain whether I would come back to Ghana, which is interesting because I don’t know where I would run away to”. He was given no possibility to appeal the decision. 

When asked about the percentage of visa requests granted to African musicians, the UK Home Office was unable to provide a complete set of data relating exclusively to artists, giving credence to the argument the process is somehow lacking transparency. Indeed, several immigration routes are theoretically available for an African musician wanting to go and perform in the UK depending on their specific needs. As of now, they can enter the country as a Standard Visitor, a Permitted Paid Engagement Visitor, a Skilled Worker, a Creative Worker or a Global Talent. However, non-artist migrants follow the same routes, except for the Creative Worker visa which represents a small part of African artists coming to the UK as such. This specific visa is only intended for those able to ascertain, with a Certificate of Sponsorship, they can “make a unique contribution to the UK’s rich cultural life, for example, as an artist, dancer, musician or entertainer” for a maximum 12-month stay. 

In 2022, only 58% of Creative Worker visa requests were granted to Ghanaians who applied. Ghana is one of the countries with the lowest acceptance rate, followed by Congo, Uganda and Nigeria, totalling an acceptance rate under 70%. Despite being the 6th country in terms of the number of Creative Worker visa requests, with 902 applications in 2022, Nigeria’s acceptance rate is 69%.

One thing worth noting is that is it harder for a young unmarried African man to be granted a visa to the UK. Women are not exempt from some degree of profiling. Coco Em remembers a time when she was being interrogated by airport officials in Nairobi airport about an upcoming flight. “A lady airline official (from Etihad) told me that ‘we know what you girls like to go and do there’. She told me that a girl just like me had gone to Europe and flushed her passport into the toilet and that they had to be sure that I was not going to do the same”.

As is often the case, the chance of success is greater with the backup of a privileged network of individuals. “In England, event organisers are made far more accountable than in other countries,” Corinne Serres explains. “With the sponsorship certificate, these organisations have to guarantee that everything will go well on their side“. Indeed, a sponsor licence is often required from a UK organisation looking to employ an individual to work in the UK. Some big festivals and cultural events are exempt from providing such licences if they are registered on the Home Office’s list of permit-free festivals. To claim eligibility to this list, the event in question must have been established for at least three years, have had an audience of at least 15,000 at each of the last three festivals and expect to have an audience of at least 15,000 during the course of the next event. Some event organisers have thus harnessed some amount of influence within institutions to be able to get some information into the visa grant procedure. “There are big, big English producers who bring in a lot of foreign artists, who, in a way, can have privileged access“, says Corinne Serres who has worked with some of them. “They can exert some level of influence but it puts them in a delicate position“. The production company she is referring to is Serious Ltd. and their director David Jones, known for their work with the EFG London Jazz Festival, who has not been returning our requests for interviews.

Some dire ramifications

One other issue resides in the unreliable processing time of visa deliverance. Last year, Coco Em missed a show at the Fabric London because of visa delays. “After the whole process was done, they handed me my passport and I was told that a decision on my visa would be made in 15 days, but those 15 days had turned into six weeks with no word on the progress of the application, or who to reach out to for concrete answers.” Despite being well established in the circuits, Corinne Serres also fell victim to unexpected delays when she tried to organise the arrival of the Congolese band Lova Lova in the UK for the Womad Festival and the Shambala Festival last year. The band members’ visa applications were submitted on the 12th of May for concerts scheduled for the end of July and August. Each visa was delivered one after the other: “we received one at the beginning of June, another later the same month and the third in July but the fourth one only arrived after our Womad’s date and we couldn’t be there“.

The consequences of missed shows for artists are disastrous. The financial burden is generally substantial. “Going to perform in the UK will cost me (approximately and excluding ground transport) around USD 1,119 (with USD 219 just for the visa application)”, counted Coco Em. “This is on the lower side!“. The cost greatly depends on the visa chosen (Creative Visitor, Permitted Paid Engagement, Global Talent, Skilled Worker or Temporary Work – Creative Worker) but also on how quickly the application is processed. “With the Certificate of Sponsorship, it’s around USD 300 for a theoretical processing time of three weeks, around USD 550 to expedite the process in five days.” Applicants are never eligible for a refund in case their application is denied.

Above all else, these missed opportunities impede the chance of success for African musicians. “As a band, I would say that being able to perform to people everywhere is something every musician would love and hope to do“, says Eli. The Ghanaian singer, who still doesn’t know when a new UK tour will take place admits to “a setback“. “We were hoping to make some fans in the UK and meet other musicians, interacting with each other, because this is how progress is made against those odds, how the project is made by having people hearing the music and react to it“.

African artists arrive in Europe exhausted after having to figure out these difficult travel logistics and are expected to put on high-quality entertaining performances still“, explains Coco Em who reveals still feeling hurt over the way she was sometimes treated. “They had reduced my years of hard work and efforts in honestly securing multiple travel documents to nothing more than a black African girl going to confuse white men and disappear in Europe ‘like we usually do’.

The difficulties faced by African artists are also detrimental to the cultural diversity present in the UK as a whole. The situation is expected to get gradually worse in every English-speaking country. In the United States, organisations have been raising the alarm. “It’s going to become a real issue, especially for lesser established bands as the risks are too great, we cannot spend USD 70000 to send a lesser-known artist on tour”, Corinne Serres explains. “In the UK, it’s just not doable: there is no such big market for world music, it’s five concerts a year for an artist or a band at most”.

Coco Em feels that denying African artists the stage encourages the spread of false narratives that need to be challenged. “The genesis of ‘world music’ was from culture vultures who not only made millions from this new genre, but they successfully misled a generation of people about the meaning and origin of the samples they used.” To the Kenyan DJ, the consequences are many as those false narratives undermine the way African people are portrayed. “I am an African living on the continent. I cry for Africa because either we are being portrayed as savage people who walk barefoot, battle with flies and have fat corrupt leaders, or we are kings and queens – black girl magic beings. It is as if the world cannot believe that we are capable of being regular, sometimes boring human beings.

The Home Office renounced its right to specifically challenge the issues raised by the panel of people interviewed and its spokesperson issued a broad statement about the country’s current policy in regard to foreign artists in general:

Musicians and performers are a valued and important part of UK culture with the country attracting world-class entertainers and musicians from around the globe. This is why we offer a dedicated immigration route for creative workers. All visa applications are carefully considered on their individual merits in accordance with the immigration rules. The application process is designed to ensure that all visa decisions can be made using the most accurate information and is fair for all applicants.”