In this Crazy Tour Stories segment, the pop soul artist, Sammy Rae, shares one of her stories from being on the road. You can check out the story, after the break.
Here’s a story about the worst day of my life.
It starts at JFK airport with half of my band, and it ends 18 hours later in JFK airport with half-dead shells of half my band.
We had been booked by a luxury hotel chain, through an events promotion group we had worked with many times, to play a summit for hotel owners in Nassau, Bahamas. Let’s call this promotion group Gigs R Us. They hit us up to play the summit in Nassau after a well-received showcase at another hotel in NYC, and we were ecstatic. Our first all-inclusive stay in a foreign country, complete with accommodations for 5 people and 4 nights, and it was very well paid. All in exchange for a half-hour set. As you can imagine, we felt like we had skipped the line to superstar treatment. We signed the contract and quickly started making arrangements to expedite passports, get bags packed, and buy sunscreen for a dream vacation in early March. A few weeks before the event, Gigs R Us emailed me to say they were creating work visas for us and asked me for lots of information. A few days later, they explained that we didn’t need work visas and we should just state that we were visiting Nassau for pleasure, and not mention our employment contract. I thought little of it.
We arrived at JFK around 6am and met with our liaison from Gigs R Us. Let’s call him Mike. Mike was to escort us through customs at Nassau airport, get us all in our car, and communicate to the hotel for us during our stay as we prepared for our gig. We shared a small breakfast, boarded our 8am flight in layers, ready to shed them when the temperature jumps 30 degrees once we de-boarded in the tropics. We arrived in Nassau and waited in line for customs. We were myself and two singers with only a suitcase each, a guitar player and a sax player, each holding their instruments. We, three vocalists, reached the customs officer and exclaimed ‘traveling for pleasure’ and state our hotel. Stamps. ‘Welcome to The Bahamas.’
We marched through and down to baggage claim, admiring the glorious plants outside the windows and eager for the warm air. As we wait for our other two band members, I get a text from our sax player.
‘We’re hung up with our instruments. We’ll meet you at the hotel.’ I thought little of it and the girls and I head towards a door to get a cab with Mike.
Moments later, another text. ‘Were f*cked. They’re coming to get you.’
As if in a thriller movie, I look up and immediately see three guards in full dress approaching us.
‘Are you with the musicians?’ I couldn’t lie. We were all next to one another in line, had the same hotel as our destination, and came in on the same flight sitting side by side. I knew they were privy to all that. I nodded, they escorted us (with a little force, I’ll add) back upstairs and through customs, to a metal corner bench beside a small office tucked in a corner of the space. My guitarist was there, alone. I asked him where our sax player was, and he explained that he was being questioned. I found out later that he was essentially interrogated for over a half-hour with his passport confiscated in a basement cubicle. A guard came by and confiscated the rest of our passports, 4 band members, and Mike. We were again asked if we were traveling for pleasure or business. Under the impression that Gigs R Us had communicated with the hotel, fully trusting a long-time employer and knowing the nature of the luxury hotel we were playing for, we insisted again that we had no visas because we were traveling for pleasure. As instructed.
Mike is busily texting his contacts at Gigs R Us. My sax player emerged looking sullen and is returned to us on our bench. A guard called me and the two girls into a questioning room and delved into our employment history, how we know one another, and why we’re there. We continued to insist that we are friends and musicians on holiday. They are short-tempered and went so far as to tell one of my girls that ‘being a barista is not a real job’ and that ‘they know she is hiding something.’ At the time, she was a full-time barista playing with the band on the side, she wasn’t lying.
When we returned to the bench (now having been there nearly 3 hours with no answers, no passports, and no food or water after a 2-hour flight), Mike told us some bittersweet news. They will be keeping our passports and instruments at the airport. We signed a contract that said we must be paid, and as this is the fault of both the hotel and Gigs R Us, we will be going to the resort as planned, without the gig. We would be paid handsomely for an all-inclusive 4 day stay in the tropics without playing a show, and our instruments and passports would be returned to us upon departure of Nassau. Customs is in contact with the hotel who had been briefed by Gigs R Us, and we’ll be in a car within a half hour. Great! That’s great. This is soooo great.
Two more hours pass. It’s nearly 4pm, and none of us have eaten since 7am. One of us had a small water bottle, and we’ve been making trips to the bathroom one at a time to fill it up in the sink. At one point a guard returned and noticed one of us was in the bathroom, and not on our bench. He nearly shouted and told me, ‘You should be lucky we’re not supervising your trips to the restroom. If I come back again and you’re not all together, there’s a nice metal toilet in a small room in the basement, and you can all share that for the night.’
A threat. I called my lawyer to brief him, and he was not thrilled. He gave me the number of the ambassador of U.S. Citizens in the Bahamas if things got any hairier. And boy, did they.
We 5 players and Mike, without instruments or passports, are waiting for our Suburban to take us away and pay us to wine and dine in paradise for a week (and then get hella paid). We’re hungry and tired.
We’ve been on this bench under close monitoring for nearly 5 hours. A guard returns and drops the hardest news I’ve heard in my career.
‘We feel we have been lied to all day. You’re all on the next flight back to JFK.’
In shock, we go silent. I start to cry, and my guitarist stands up and follows me a few feet away to comfort me. A guard yells across the room, ‘She needs to control her emotions!’ One of my players asked, ‘She can’t cry?’ He flew over to her and demanded, ‘Sit down. What did you say to me!?’ He’s inches from her face. I rushed over to cool off the situation, and we all sit on our bench with arms folded in silence, and fear. I call the U.S. Embassy. Two of us call our attorneys. I get through to the embassy, they get through to customs. ‘They feel like they’ve been lied to all day and they’re sending you back to your point of origin. It’s their sovereign right to do so.’
After another hour of waiting (we’ve been on the bench for 7 hours total), Mike is in tears, feeling like he had failed us. He did. But mostly, Gigs R Us failed us. Because they wanted to avoid the small cost of 5 legal work visas. We 6 are escorted by 5 armed guards through the basement of the airport, through personal pat-downs, and board a plane back to JFK. Mike told us that Gigs R Us would reimburse us for all travel and expenses, as well as the gig. (Ultimately, they did.)
I order $45 of pretzels, fruit snacks, and cheese sticks to my seat on Gigs R Us. None of us have eaten or drank much water in 12 hours. We land at JFK around midnight, 16 hours after we departed. We say little to each other as we deboard. We call $100 UBers to our beds to go home and surprise our roommates 4 days early (also on Gigs R Us). We received no apology from the hotel that hired us. Gigs R Us paid us our contracted rate for the gig but never offered to put us up in tropicalia again. They sent us each a voucher for an hour at a spa in Chelsea, and we were suddenly the poster-children for their company. We were on the front page of their website, pictured in the header on their email newsletters, and even won ‘Our Favorite NYC Artist of 2019’. Quite a slap in the face.
Needless to say, we have never worked with them again. No matter where I’m traveling, for work or pleasure, with or without a visa, customs, and airports, in general, raise my anxiety.
The band and I have talked about taking a real, honest to goodness vacation in the Bahamas one day, but neither Gigs R Us nor our airline can give me a straight answer as to whether we’ve been blacklisted/forbade entry by the Embassy.