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Post-Pandemic, Nigerian Artists May Still Face Visa Challenges

An apparent crackdown on visa overstays is muddying the waters and hitting the wallets of Afrobeats artists trying to tour the U.S.

In February, before most of the world had banned cross-border travel to try to contain the coronavirus outbreak, four members of Nigerian megastar Davido’s team waited patiently in Lagos, Nigeria, for a response from the U.S. State Department on whether they would be allowed to travel to the United States.

They had all applied for visas to join the Afrobeats performer on an 18-city swing through the United States. Among the applicants was Davido’s longtime bodyguard, Tijani, who had worked for the star since 2013, making trips all over Africa, as well as to the United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates. That seemed to bear little weight. Tijani, along with the three other team members, was denied entrance.

With the breakout success of Afrobeats, more Nigerian artists have the coveted North American market in their sights. But touring the United States has become increasingly difficult. Work permits for Nigerians are taking longer than ever to be processed, no matter how big the star, says Asa Adika, co-founder of Plug Entertainment, which manages Davido. Visa approvals, he says, are more elusive for up-and-coming talent as well.

There is growing evidence that the Donald Trump administration is targeting Nigeria as part of a broader crackdown on immigration. The difficulty in obtaining visas, which began in 2017, is costing artists and managers tens of thousands of dollars. Delays can lead to changed flights and canceled dates, and visa application fees are nonrefundable.

With concerns building over how effective Nigeria has been at containing the coronavirus — for however long it takes to develop a vaccine — Nigerian artists and their support teams are likely to face even more scrutiny from the current U.S. administration, according to interviews with over a dozen African music promoters and immigration lawyers.

“Since we have a new government, Trump, everything about immigration is just tightening up, especially anything that has to do with visas if you’re coming from Africa,” says Anderson Obiagwu, a Houston-based promoter who has worked with Nigerian artists including P-Square, Davido and Wizkid through his firm Big A Entertainment. “They’re just doing everything they can to frustrate you.”

The experience of Davido’s team is hardly unique. Mr Eazi, another high-profile Afrobeats performer from Nigeria, says it took him six months to get his visa approved to perform at Coachella in 2019. He applied for a visa in the fall of 2018. A half year and several canceled or postponed performance dates later, he received approval to travel just a week before his Palm Springs, Calif., debut.

“The visa process is now crazy,” says Mr Eazi. “The new climate of regulations is really frustrating, especially for new artists.” According to one industry executive with knowledge of Mr Eazi’s Coachella visa application, no timeline is ever offered for the visa process. “Whereas a Norwegian pop artist may get a visa in a week or a month, even with a small profile, these guys can have a huge presence and fan base in the United States, but it can sometimes take up to eight months,” says the executive, who requested anonymity to not prejudice applications for artists he represents. He says he has started warning Nigerian support acts they will likely be unable to participate in future tours by higher-profile artists.

Nigeria’s Legacy Of Visa Overstays Driving U.S. Officials’ Concern 

The Trump administration’s broader efforts to curtail immigration is likely driving the scrutiny on Nigerian artists’ visa applications. In 2018, Nigerian citizens accounted for about one-quarter of all U.S. visas granted to African applicants for business or pleasure, and 15% of Nigerian visa holders overstayed their permitted time in the United States. In fact, one in 10 of all such overstays involved Nigerian citizens, according to Homeland Security data. (Brazil and Venezuela are the worst offenders, followed by Nigeria.)

Last April, The Wall Street Journal reported that White House officials had considered how to constrain visa applications from several countries, including Nigeria, through a reduction in the permissible length of stay. A month later, U.S. officials in Nigeria announced that all applicants would require in-person interviews, and then in August the application fees for Nigerians tripled. This February, the United States upped the ante further, introducing a ban on certain types of applications from Nigeria, including immigration visas.

While the change was not designed to affect touring music artists, Billboard has spoken to promoters, managers and musicians who say that an already difficult process has become steadily more restrictive.

“It used to be so so easy — I used to get a lot done in a year,” says Joy Tongo, a New York-based producer, agent and promoter who has helped about 20 Nigeria artists with their visa applications, including Wizkid and Burna Boy. “Now with the current administration, they scrutinize everything.”

Internationally renowned musical groups typically petition for a U.S. work visa called a P1B (the P stands for “performers”), while high-profile individuals are sometimes encouraged to seek O1B visas, designed for artists possessing extraordinary ability. An O visa, which permits the holder to come and go more frequently and is valid for three years, is often seen as a path to a green card. Meanwhile, a P visa remains valid for just a year, and applicants are required to show that they intend to leave the United States after their stay, says Michael Covey, whose law firm handles around 5,000 performer applications a year. Both categories require applicants to petition the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with evidence that they are sufficiently qualified. Supportive paperwork includes artist profiles in the media, album reviews or previous tour posters.

Once the petition is provisionally approved, a State Department consular officer in an embassy or consulate — Abuja or Lagos, in the case of Nigeria — has the discretion to approve or reject a visa application. This can provide another barrier to entry, as under section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act a visa can be denied for applicants who are deemed to have “not overcome the presumption of immigrant intent,” according to the State Department’s guidelines. Covey says these kinds of denials, known as section 214(b) denials, are increasingly common for Nigerian applicants — particularly for support players, backup bands or artists with a lower profile.

The Chicken-And-Egg Problem For Visa Approvals

When it comes to the fast-growing Afrobeats genre, the hottest North American touring spots for Nigerian musicians include New York; Boston; the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region; Atlanta; Orlando, Fla.; Miami; Houston; Dallas; and Los Angeles. As the popularity of Afrobeats continues to scale up, so too do the venue sizes and the required down payments.

Promoters and immigration attorneys who work with Nigerian artists say this can present an expensive chicken-and-egg dilemma: visas become contingent on confirmed booking dates, but some venues demand nonrefundable guarantees from artists who haven’t yet been approved for U.S. entry. “They want you to get the contracts with the venues, they want them for each and every venue that you’re going to be performing at, before they give the visa,” says Big A Entertainment’s Obiagwu. “That’s the biggest Achilles’ heel.” He cited several instances where artists received U.S. visas so late that they had been unable to attend — let alone promote — their own shows.

“A lot of concerts that were meant to happen have not happened,” says Niyi Fatogun, founder/CEO of Vibesland Entertainment in New York. In 2017, Fatogun was planning a North American tour for Nigerian rapper Skales and applied for visas on behalf of both the performer and his manager. The Canadian government approved the request, he says, but U.S. authorities requested more information, and the delay upset his plans. “Time runs out, and [the] contract expired, and I left the petition alone,” Fatogun tells Billboard, explaining that it was prohibitively expensive to hire an attorney to pursue the case any further. He had to refund ticket holders for U.S. performances, and his costs eventually ran into the tens of thousands of dollars, he says.

These Requests for Evidence, or RFEs, in response to an initial petition for an O or P visa began to be issued by USCIS at an alarmingly high rate last summer, according to David Telfer, an L.A.-based immigration attorney. “All of a sudden something changed overnight,” says Telfer, whose practice focuses on visas for musicians. “The bar was raised.”

A month prior to the processing change, a new acting director, Ken Cucinelli, had been appointed to run USCIS. Telfer estimates that the frequency of this kind of secondary screening from USCIS went from 5% of his firm’s visa applications before July to around 50% in August.

Most requests for more information about an artist, says Telfer, are written by agency officers, but are not well grounded in statute or legal precedent and seem to be arbitrary. “As these cases start getting denied unrealistically, unreasonably, you’ll start seeing petitions to federal court,” says Linda Rose, whose eponymous law firm has a music and entertainment team.

A USCIS representative told Billboard that processing times for O and P petitions were currently just as fast, on average, as they had been in 2017, and said the agency had approved more O and P petitions in the past three years than it had before. But the agency did not address any of Billboard’s specific questions about the processing of petitions by Nigerian applicants.

And the USCIS response does not seem borne out by promoters who spoke with Billboard. According to Vibesland’s Fatogun, mounting visa difficulties have “discouraged a lot of promoters from investing in artists from Africa.” Fatogun says the increasingly technical legal arguments required to win approval have led him to work with more specialized law firms. With expedited processing charges now feeling almost obligatory, filing fees are almost $2,000, with legal fees adding another $2,500 to $3,500.

“Right now, for me to apply for a Nigerian artist, I’m kind of scared,” says Leyla Konjo, an Ethiopian promoter based in Houston who has worked with African artists for the past eight years. She says she has faced serious financial difficulties because of visa denials. “For each artist I have to spend $6,000, including lawyers’ fees,” she says. “You can’t get that money back.”

Konjo says she has gone from bringing over a dozen Nigerian musicians to the United States in 2017 and in 2018 to only three last year. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, she had seven artists hoping to tour that were waiting for their work permits. They include award winners like Peruzzi, Skales and Idowest. “Some of them are A-list artists,” she says. “But I don’t know if they’re going to be denied.”