From the afternoon-sunlit rooftop patio of a club called Light, a crew of gansta-style rappers is shouting "One is for the money / Two is for the show / Three is for the money / Four is for the hos" while across the street a rock drummer is throwing himself with abandon into their set's climax, and down the block an aging man with an acoustic guitar is softly revisiting Don McLean songs for change. The sounds reverberate off downtown Austin's glassy Frost Bank Tower and collide in a cacophony stirred by a strong westerly wind.
I came to the massive SXSW (South By Southwest) music festival to promote The Casualty Process, an electronic rock duo from Iran, whose U.S. debut was scheduled for a showcase this evening. But after nine months of struggle with a cumbersome immigration bureaucracy, requiring a costly trip for an interview at the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey, and another to Malaysia to retrieve a police report proving good behavior during a stay in late 2009--which turned out to be unavailable, The Casualty Process finally received their artist visas a day before their show--too late to get out of the country.
As I listen to the street-level mashup, I'm thinking of Isaiah Berlin's most enduring essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," first published in 1958, in which he distinguishes between negative liberty, the absence of interference in one's life by others, and positive liberty, the availability of a number of worthwhile options and the ability to pursue them. Negative liberty of expression and movement are worth little without some positive liberty to be heard and some places to be heard.
There is also a paradox of positive liberty. At the annual music festival boasting thousands of bands appearing at hundreds of venues almost around the clock, audiences face the challenge of having too many options, some of them worthwhile--I saw a marvelous showcase of international hip hop curated by the excellent NomadicWax Records--and some of them not. And those artists who have the real option of being here must overcome the challenge of being heard over the din of all the others who do.
The man with the mic initiates the familiar call-and-response:
"When I say 'South By' you say 'What?'
And the crowd calls, "What?"