SXSW 2016’s Biggest Stars: President Obama, Atlanta Hip-Hop, and More

Here are the best things we saw at this year’s edition of the massive tech/film/music festival, which ran from March 11-20 in Austin, Texas.

03.20.16 6:36 PM ET

President Obama

Banners hang in the atrium of the Austin Convention Center on Thursday, March 7, 2012 on the eve of the opening of the 27th South By Southwest (SXSW) interactive, film and music festival.  The 10-day event is a magnet for thousands of technology innovators, independent film-makers and up-and-coming musical performers.  AFP PHOTO / Robert MacPherson        (Photo credit should read Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo Illustration by Sara Sayed/The Daily Beast

Perhaps the biggest coup in SXSW history—since Bridesmaids premiered there—was landing President Barack Obama for a keynote conversation kicking off the Interactive portion of the fest. It was a curious time to have the first sitting president at SXSW, to be sure, since last year Edward Snowden held a secret meeting with tech bigwigs there, and the FBI is involved in an imbroglio with Apple over providing a backdoor to unlock one of the San Bernardino shooters’ iPhones. In a conversation with Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith, President Obama warned against adopting an “absolutist” view on the iPhone unlocking issue and “fetishizing” our privacy over “every other value.”

But the real Obama fireworks occurred that evening, after, perhaps, a few Shiners allowed the POTUS to loosen up a bit. At a pricey DNC fundraiser in SXSW, featuring music by the rapper J. Cole, Obama finally went H.A.M. on Donald Trump. He railed against the Republican establishment for feigning shock at Trump’s rise, imitating them by saying, “We’re shocked someone is fanning anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim sentiment!” “How could you be shocked,” Obama added. “This was the guy who was sure I was born in Kenya. And wasn’t letting go…As long as it was being directed at me, [the Republican establishment] were fine with it! It was a hoot!” He then called Trump “a distillation of what has been going on in their party for more than a decade,” where the other side is not only wrong, they’re “treasonous” and “destroying the country.” In true Obama fashion, he also included a dig at Trump’s business record, first rattling off a list of his own accomplishments while occupying the highest office in the land, before announcing, “Imagine what Trump would say if he had this record? Instead of selling steaks!” He laughed, adding, “Has anybody tried that wine?”  —Marlow Stern



via SXSW

The resilience and humanity of the victims caught in the crossfire of one of America’s first campus shootings is highlighted to powerful effect in TOWER, director-producer Keith Maitland’s gripping chronicle of the 1966 University of Texas tower massacre. I served on the jury that awarded this timely doc-animation hybrid the Grand Jury prize this year at SXSW, where it also won the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award for best Texas film, as well as the festival’s Audience Award. Fifty years after the deadly tragedy in Austin, TOWER feels as urgent as ever in an era marked by far too many mass shootings—particularly since, five months from now, new state laws will go into effect allowing the concealed carry of licensed handguns on college campuses in Texas.  —Jen Yamato

Atlanta Hip-Hop


Courtesy of YouTube

Whether it’s up-and-coming acts like J.I.D. and Rome Fortune, or more established ones, a coterie of Southern rappers transformed Austin, Texas, into Atlanta, Georgia, at this year’s SXSW. There was College Park’s 2 Chainz performing a raucous Samsung-sponsored gig alongside his ColleGrove collaborator Lil Wayne; the always rowdy and raucous Rae Sremmurd spraying Bud Light into the crowd while getting ’em jumping with hits “Throw Sum Mo” and “No Type” during a late-night showcase courtesy of the beer; Young Thug, who held a mock jazz funeral down 6th Street in Austin to promote his upcoming mixtape Slime Season 3, while also performing a few tracks at an intimidate Urban Outfitters/Calvin Klein gig; Atlanta-based DJ/producer/Future collaborator Metro Boomin, the man who produced the whole of What a Time to Be Alive, thrilling with several DJ sets; and Future himself, who turned in the festival’s most hotly anticipated show at the YouTube House, laying into hits “Jumpman,” “Bugatti,” and “Fuck Up Some Commas.” As much as it pains me to say this as a New Yorker, Atlanta is hip-hop’s new capital, and has been for quite some time.  —Marlow Stern

Don’t Breathe

Fede Alvarez’s home invasion pic with a twist remained enigmatically untitled until its SXSW premiere, but Don’t Breathe is an apt moniker for the most inventively suspenseful thriller of the festival. In socioeconomically blighted Detroit, three young burglars get more than they bargained for when they break into the home of a blind veteran in search of a stash of cash. Nasty surprises await, delivered in pulse-pounding style. By the time Don’t Breathe hits theaters, maybe Alvarez and Co. will have more thoughtful musings to share than the reductive jokes they made at SXSW about a skin-crawling scene of sexual violence that will have audiences talking after the credits roll.  —Jen Yamato

Next Big Things

Lapsley performs onstage at Coalition during day 1 of The Great Escape Festival on May 14, 2015 in Brighton, United Kingdom.

Ollie Millington/Redferns via Getty Images

Historically, SXSW has served as a great springboard for musical artists, with acts performing up to a dozen shows over the course of a week to industry tastemakers and fans. Acts like The Strokes, Sia, Alabama Shakes, Haim, and J. Cole have been “discovered” at the fest, and while the “discoveries” have been in short supply in recent years, several new names stood out in the 2016 edition. Seattle natives La Luz, who enlisted Ty Segall to produce last year’s LP Weirdo Shrine, combine lush surf pop with an energetic live show; White Lung, hailing from Vancouver, produce raw and visceral pop tunes dressed up in punk clothing; and Lapsley, with her powerful, resonant voice—a bit Lorde, a bit Hannah Reid—is poised to be the next big British import. As far as rappers go, after a dazzling cameo on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, New York native Desiigner proved he’s much more than a Future knockoff.  —Marlow Stern

The Space In Between: Marina Abramovic and Brazil



The art world darling who has influenced pop celebrities from Lady Gaga to Jay Z to Shia LaBeouf takes a road trip through Brazil in The Space In Between. Director Marco del Fiol creates a mesmeric profile of the performance artist’s deeply introspective wanderings from one native spiritual ritual to the next as she lays herself bare to the camera, both physically and emotionally. In moments of humor and pathos, Abramovic allows herself to be seen not only as an artist in search of deep human truths, but as a woman nursing a broken heart. It is, essentially, Abramovic’s Eat Pray Love, and significantly marks a major period of change as she announces her intention to withdraw from the public eye to begin the next chapter of her life and art.  —Jen Yamato

Midnight Special

Midnight Special.

Warner Bros.

The talented Jeff Nichols, the filmmaker behind Take Shelter and Mud, decided to expand his horizons—literally and figuratively—with his latest, a sci-fi chase film involving a villainous doomsday cult, extrajudicial government forces (including Adam Driver as a goofy-great NSA agent), and Michael Shannon as a devoted father protecting his otherworldly son (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) from these nefarious parties. The acting, including by supporting cast members Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton, is first-rate, as is the suspense and intrigue in a film that feels like a hybrid of Starman, E.T., and a Bruckheimer action flick.  —Marlow Stern


In the annals of karaoke at SXSW there have been thin years, and there have been bountiful years. In 2016, the karaoke gods shone down on Austin. The karaoke flowed like Lone Star throughout the festival. There were after parties, like that for documentary Presenting Princess Shaw, where star and viral singing sensation Samantha Montgomery held court with a mic in her hand. There was the RVIP Lounge, a karaoke bar on wheels sent from heaven to roam the streets of Austin, welcoming its karaoke crazies aboard to sing until dawn every night. And there were, as always, the private rooms of the Highball, where indie film maniacs gathered to worship in a satanic church-themed karaoke den. But on the most SXSW karaoke of SXSW karaoke nights, foodie god Anthony Bourdain presided over a live band punk rock karaoke competition with a lineup of judges including Jose Andres, Ludo Lefebvre, and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme. Their winner was Austin writer, mom, musician, and minister Erin J. Walter, who earned that crown with her rendition of the Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare.”  —Jen Yamato