With Freemuse’s global forum on censorship, Music Freedom Day 2007, right around the corner, I’ve been pondering over the idea of censorship. The idea of a banned musician is likely to conjure up an image of some frail songwriter holed up in a wretched apartment or hut with a battered guitar, afraid to make his or her way out onto the streets for fear of the secret police, whose mission it is to pick up and torture anyone who dares challenges the local government’s prevailing idea of public good. Now, the very notion of musical freedom denied or extinguished by means of decree or execution raises our hackles here in the West, but what does our own definition of freedom mean to the rest of the world?
Freedom – there’s that peculiar word that pops up at almost every turn these days; the word that’s used as an impermeable protective shield for any idea, point of view or military action. But what does freedom really mean when it comes to music? For most, when we talk about censorship in music we tend to think in very clear lines between right and wrong, as in the pre-invasion religious leaders in Afghanistan who banned music altogether or Senegal’s attempts the past couple of years at censoring outspoken musicians.There’s the recent story about the Mujahideen Bajaur in Bajaur, Pakistan that has insisted that all public transportation drivers end the un-Islamic act of playing music on buses. There’s another story of a religious leader in West Bengal village of Kanupur, who has banned all music at home and in public performance.
Thomas Mapfumo, censored and hounded by the Zimbabwean government fled to the US, only to fear for his life when rumors spread about a murder plot when he chose to return to Zimbabwe. These stories slip in out of the public radar and most have an air of righteous indignation attached to them, as if we alone in the West are the arbiters of good and evil.
I think it’s become too easy for us to look at other governments with disdain in our flinty glares and our lips curled in disgust at their attempts to censor music and punish the musicians who are responsible when the current flow of freedom in the West is thready at best and often choked with illusive brands of censorship. What I struggle with as an American is the question – Is censorship ever right if I don’t like the message?
According to the United Nations’ Covenant on Civil and Political Rights I have the right "to hold opinions without interference" and "the right to freedom of expression." Now here’s the rub, I must in order to exercise these rights I have the responsibility to "respect the rights or reputations of others." It gets even trickier with a restriction on my rights as it applies to the "protection of national security or of public order, or of public health and morals."
That’s pretty vague language. Seen in a shaded light of the right or the left there’s plenty of elbow room in those words about the public good to censor just about anyone. So do we have the right to censor those whose message makes us cringe, that makes us want to riot, that makes us sick?
Some would respond with a resounding yes. The most familiar and obvious for the US was when media giant Clear Channel booted one song after another off their playlists after the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington under the guise of questionable lyrics. A spokesman for Clear Channel came out later and said that it wasn’t really banning songs, songs like Bob Dylan’s "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" but merely making the suggestion, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, that certain songs or lyrics were inappropriate considering the mood of the nation.
But Clear Channel wasn’t done. After Natalie Maines, a member of the country trio the Dixie Chicks, came out and made statements against the Iraq war and George Bush, the group’s songs all but disappeared from Clear Channel stations. For many Clear Channel listeners the company acted in the public good against the so-called traitors, while First Amendment proponents vilified Clear Channel management as corporate despots.
The tide has turned for the Dixie Chicks with a spectacular showing at the Grammy’s, while George W. Bush’s plummeting ratings on the Iraq seem to indicate a changed public opinion. Amazingly, a simple shift in public opinion over the span of two years turned traitors back into musicians. The odd aspect of this was it was a corporation working on behalf of a government that fueled its patriotic fan base to set up and implement the agenda of Clear Channel’s management. So under the guise of public good were Dixie Chicks detractors, who gathered to burn the group’s CD after Ms. Maines’s statement, wrong and now right because they’ve returned as fans and turned against the president’s war?
Let me give another example. In Sweden two members of a rap group are facing trial for hate speech because of the lyrics sung at the reggae festival Rotrock in 2006. Allegedly one of the group’s singers rapped the following lyrics:
"Everybody in Landskrona hates the police, and we will start a war against these pigs" (translated from "Alla i Landskrona hatar poliser och vi ska starta krig mot snuten").
Now Sweden hardly seems like a police state, where underground dissidents whisper to each other in dark alleys or where a riot might break out over tensions due to month-long paid vacations and national healthcare. No, Sweden hardly seems the place, but the courts are pursuing the two just the same under a vague charge of hate speech.
Now let me color the situation with some interesting information. According to Freemuse’s report, "A police patrol happened to be surveying their concert, and the officers gave in a report on the incident." If I were a naturally paranoid person when it came to the unchecked authority of the police, and I am, I would ponder how the police just "happened to be surveying the concert," and if they blandly "gave a report on the incident," or if they charged at prosecutors and the courts with demands that they nail these guys.
I couldn’t begin to tell you whether Emil ‘Emilush’ Göransson, 19, or Alexander ‘Caustic’ Nodbring, 22, were using their stage time to actually incite a war or merely posing as oppressed heroes against a fascist regime, if such a thing were possible for two white European kids, against the backdrop of a reggae festival. Maybe they were just attempting to sell some CDs to the disaffected, dissatisfied youth in the audience that clutch onto the nearest passing fad because it’s something to do on Saturday night and it will repulse their parents.
So, are the Swedish courts merely protecting its security force and public order against these two hate mongers? The better question might be – if the Swedish police continue down this path of "happening" on specific scenes, do they risk becoming the "pigs" these kids need to war against?
Now let’s take a look at reggae musician Beenie Man. United Kingdom police have been investigating the Jamaican singer for his violent, homophobic lyrics. In addition, he has been banned from the MTV Awards show in Miami and could very well lose his record deal with Virgin due to pressure from gay rights groups. Concert bookings in the US and the UK have all but labeled Beenie Man persona non grata, essentially putting an end to the man’s career. Similar artists like Elephant Man, Bounty Killer and Sizzla are also in the crossfire because of their anti-gay lyrics.
The censorship plot thickens when gay activist Peter Tatchell steps into the ring and advances a public endorsement for the criminal prosecution of Beenie man for lyrics, which Tatchell claims, call for or incite violence and hatred against gays.
Let’s just assume for sanity’s sake that Beenie Man is a big, fat jerk and a bigot for singing any song which glorifies violence against any person, but can song lyrics literally be a force of evil, requiring sanction, censorship and prosecution? Can a musician be guilty of creating a potential environment for a crime even though no crime has been committed?
I have, perhaps inelegantly, examined examples of corporate, government and social censorship and have played up both sides, failing to offer up some sort of definitive answer to any of them. I like to remind myself that people, cultures and governments are by their very nature ever evolving. The person who stood on the streets of Berlin in 1940 had to know that if they sung a couple bars of the Marseillaise it would earn them more than a fanny whacking. Now, in some European countries it’s legal to belong to the fascist party but against the law to be a Nazi. Likewise the person who stood up in a crowded room anywhere in the US during the Cold War and sang anything in Russian was bound for somebody’s investigative committee or worse. Now, you could book the official KGB choir to sold-out audiences if made a buck.
Yes, we are part and parcel of this every swirling mass of opposing political opinions, shifting forces and social dichotomies, but finding the right and true line of censorship is as effective as writing on water, because no matter your party, predilection or persuasion there’s someone out there with the what’s-new-and-groovy list from Wackyville that disagrees with you. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy the CD.
Freemuse’s site: www.freemuse.org