Freemuse at WOMEX 2016: Unspoken Censorship

On 21 October 2016, Freemuse vice-chair Daniel Brown, participated in a WOMEX 2016 panel and open forum dialogue entitled, ‘Unspoken Censorship: How can artists and media counter it –  and safely live to tell the tale’, to discuss the forces at work behind censorship in music worldwide, over time and today.

Panel description
The banning of music or specific songs for political reasons, is a clear form of censorship. But there are other forces at work – commercial, cultural, as well as political – that make voices silent. This session reflects on some of the less prominent but no less dangerous censorship environments worldwide – self-censorship, social correctness, public (mass) opinion, even the abuse of artistic freedom by some – that impact artistic expression and reportage.

The panel will interact with the audience in an open forum dialogue to help find ways of creating local and cross-border collectives to support and assist artists, culture professionals and arts media to remain free.

The following is Daniel Brown’s talk during the panel discussion:

In a moment I will elaborate on some of the kinds of “unspoken” censorship – self, religious, social, cultural and gender-linked – which Freemuse has been monitoring since 1998. I have been asked to provide some examples from the hundreds we have followed, cases which don’t come under the banner of “Political” censorship with a capital “P”. Cases like Art Attack from Kenya whose video version of a gay rights song “did not adhere to the morals of the country” when released earlier this year.

First though, a reminder that this host country Spain has known its share of the strangest kind of “unspoken” music censorship in the not-so-distant past, a reality that can echo experiences of the unadmitted/unspoken censorship in the West. We were all reminded of this thanks to a recent exhibition which just closed its doors in Barcelona, ’Vibraciones prohibidos’. It is perhaps an indicator of how Spain is only just now grappling with a past that ended almost 40 years ago. At the time, the country was in the grips of a moral code imposed by the Catholic Church. The authorities had four censors working fulltime between 1960 and 1977, censors who ended up banning over 4,300 songs, sometimes for the most astonishing reasons.

What, for example, does the just-nominated Nobel Prize winner for literature, Bob Dylan, think about the censors banning his song ‘Just Like a Woman’ because of its “homosexuality”? A ban that is as much linked to the approximate ability of the four zealots to understand English. The latter was the reason they also rubbed out ‘Heroin’, by Lou Reed: when the New Yorker sang “for the kingdom”, they detected a word they couldn’t make out, “foiking”. They assimilated it to the “f” word and out it went.

The Beach Boys were also treated mercilessly, seeing their classic ‘Good Vibrations’ lambasted because the group was part of an “underclass with drug addicts, sex and lewd dancing.” The band obviously had to be removed from the radar of the vulnerable Spanish youth of the time.

Less anecdotally, the censors axed ‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’ because of its reference to their wedding in Gibraltar, at a time when the Franco regime hoped to regain foothold on the Rock.

This oppressive past has made the country particularly sensitive to recent penal reforms around the Citizens Safety Law. The 2015 legislation was criticised by the UN for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorist offenses, linking them to “incitement, glorification and justification”.

The bill has mystified a good part of the arts, media and musical communities. The thrash-hardcore band Soziedad Alkoholika saw a concert cancelled recently because military police predicted public disorder “endangering people and property”. This is not the first time this band has become entangled with the law and I refer you to Rex Bloomstein’s documentary ‘An Independent Mind’ for a better understanding of their socially engaged music.

Bizarrely, the band insisted the good-natured ruckus that accompanies their concerts is part of being Basque. “But,” the band’s lead singer told Al Jazeera “in 25 years in this game, we’ve never deliberately caused a disturbance. The state is slandering and criminalizing us.” As the journalist notes, Basque groups continue to be censored with regularity in the “new” Spain. Soziedad Alkolholika have taken their protests to the Supreme Court and have been acquitted. Here, we see the link between moral and political values seemingly blurred and nuanced.

This is not the case in Kenya. In the east African state, the criminalisation of homosexuality (up to 14 years in gaol for “practising”) has spilt into the music world. In February, Art Attack released a remix of the gay rights song ‘Same Love’, which has been a massive global hit. It was banned from the airwaves by the Kenyan Film and Classification Board because “it does not adhere to the morals of the country”. The Board also persuaded YouTube to put a disclaimer across the video clip: “Warning: this video contains imagery and messages that may be unnecessarily offensive.” The governmental watchdog has repeatedly attacked works that touch on LGBT subjects, a topic that concerns people all the way up the political pyramid.

The same government justification of morality, this time religious, has hit Turkish musician Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer. Here, the case was more pernicious. Tuzer was caught between a sympathetic Ministry of Culture and a hostile religious enforcement authority called Diyanet, or the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Tuzer was to play at the Serralves Museum in Porto in March 2016, but the Diyanet overruled the country’s cultural authorities and stopped the musician leaving for his gig.

These words resonate with those used since the 1980s on American CDs with the plethoric spread of Explicit Lyrics stickers. The stickers were the result the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) bowing to pressure exercised by the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC). This conservative lobbying force seems to have been a precursor of alarming developments with YouTube where a self-styled moral police force has been operating in an opaque and inconsistent manner.

The British vocalist of Sri Lankan origin, MIA, found her music video ‘Born Free’ rejected because of its violent content and professed herself baffled at the literal interpretation of her message. In the clip, the popular singer imagined red heads becoming victims of a hunt, pogroms which alluded to the kind still seen today. Eminem, meanwhile, fell foul of television censors with his teaser for his 2009 album ‘Relapse’. In the video clip, we see him in a bathtub full of blood. The ban pushed the rapper to circulate it on the internet underground and it boosted his sales no end.

One of Eminem’s fans was a certain Sonita Alizadeh. This Afghan teenager from Herat fled with her parents to Tehran at the height of Taliban rule. There, Sonita, inspired by Eminem and the Iranian rapper Yas, began rapping in secret whilst she cleaned the offices of film-maker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami. Shortly after, and for a second time, her mother tried to sell the 16-year-old as a child bride to sponge up a debt she had to pay. Maghami discovered Sonita’s ordeal and bought her some time as they made the clip ‘Brides for Sale’. The song went viral but put such pressure on the singer she accepted an offer from the US NGO Strongheart Group to move to the US. There, she is currently studying in Utah to become a lawyer. You might have heard of Sonita thanks to the film Maghami made on her story which won this year’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

These are a couple of the dozens such tales, which we at Freemuse have been monitoring since 1998. And, by the way, women singers, their defiance and their victimisation for “moral deviency” are at the centre of the upcoming Music Freedom Day we celebrate every March 3rd. This will be the 11th year we mark this day.

Another, more pernicious, form of censorship we study is self-censorship where artists clean up their lyrics. Examples date back to Little Richard and his 1957 hit ‘Tutti Frutti’ where he replaces the explicit lyrics he saved for his live appearances with “alop-bam-boom”. Self-censorship is often provoked by radio gatekeepers, an eccentric race which musicians often toy with. Jay-Z changed his song ‘Nigga What, Nigga Who’, to ‘Jigga What, Jigga Who’, playing on his nickname, Jigga. Still, some people found it insulting, linked as it is to the racial slur against black people “jigaboo”. But it sailed by radio monitors and reached the US Billboard number one spot.

Then there is fear of corporate pressure which pushes artists to self-censor. In the US record industry, the fear of financial loss and stigma has pushed the same Eminem to doctoring songs like ‘My Fault’. The original lyrics described an overdose due to the ingurgitation of psychedelic mushrooms, the doctored version re-appeared as an allergic reaction to normal mushrooms on a pizza. The latter enjoyed prime radio time.

Self-censorship in Egypt, meanwhile, is motivated by traditional, cultural and religious pressures. “Clean” songs and music productions are rooted in ethics of cleanliness which underline growing religious conservatism.

While in Singapore, the Media Development Authority created a scheme to coerce musicians into self-censorship, self-classification and self-licensing. The move was denounced by the collective Arts Engage, which claimed: “It is like they are taking somebody from within the group to be the policeman”. Thanks to the collective action of 45 bands in Arts Engage, however, the MDA committed itself to withdrawing the scheme.

So what could be the reasons behind the increase in so-called lesser, “unspoken”, forms of censorship? There are a plenty of theories in a relatively new field of study. Much research is still ongoing, especially in universities such as Bergen and Oslo University College in Norway, and Aarhus in Denmark. Here are a few suggested reasons:

  • You can find a link to an upswing in conservative populist movements currently sweeping through Europe, the US and Russia. These have given rise to pressure groups that lobby governments and attack artists or their works. They denounce so-called deviants, via media or social networks, for their music (and art in general) seen to be corrupting core values in society.
  • There are cultural motivations in conservative communities. In Iran and Afghanistan, for example, TV producers are fired if they play or perform songs that are deemed too western.
  • There are religious pressures, some of which I’ve already spoken of. We see this in certain conservative Arab states, but also in Ireland. There, it was not so long ago that the singer Sinead O’Connor was vilified and hounded by Catholic conservative groups for tearing up the picture of John Paul II on television.
  • There is a general lassitude within music communities which perhaps reflects a similar passivity in the general public. No longer do we see the kind of mass movements against war or social injustice which we witnessed in the Sixties. This is reflected in the relatively quiet reaction of musicians to injustices on a similar scale. Thus, the moral majority has become stronger, the protest movements – and their musical mouthpieces – weaker.
  • We’ve seen renewed clampdowns by governments like those in Beijing and Moscow which nervously monitor civil and music societies with zeal. With the explosion of internet and its social networks, the authorities have become much more vigilant. Last year, the Chinese Ministry of Culture drew up a list of 120 banned songs which “promote obscenity, violent crime and harming social morality”. Not to mention the pressure exercised on the Tibetan music community which increases, it seems, as Western media and public attention on Tibet is cranked up. You have groups there like the Nepal Tibetan Lhamo Association who removed all hints of political or cultural symbols from their live performances. They even replaced the word “Tibetan” with the less charged term “Himalayan”. Despite this, the group continue to be harassed with police barring people from going to their performances. A Freemuse study put China at the top of the 2015 repression table in this field. Almost half of our censorship cases are from there, followed by Iran, Russia, Burundi, Turkey and Syria. And this type of repression affects the entire society. Overall, we have seen a 98% increase in attacks on artists, including musicians, in the past year. There has been a 20% rise in registered killings and abductions. But a 224% increase in censorship acts. These are acts which wear down musicians, of course. They also take the form of endless court cases, police questioning, refusal to authorise concerts, harassing fans, producers and music label owners.
  • The final reason could be that authoritarian regimes find this type of harassment more effective than the extreme violence we saw in the 20th century (in Zaire, Indonesia, USSR, Germany, etc). Nowadays, the leaders in Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Malaysia, Venezuela, Morocco, etc, are faced with a civil society that is internet-savvy. It has global media, websites and blogs at its fingertips. So, mass incarcerations and disappearances are not as easy to organise (though some might argue this is not slowing down Erdogan in Turkey these days). Governments have become aware that negative images, relayed by the media, also have a negative economic impact which can be diluted with an ersatz attempt at portraying a fair system of justice. I invite you to look up an excellent op-ed on this topic in the New York Times published on May 24 2015 and co-authored by Science Po University’s professor of economics, Sergei Guriev, and Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at the University of California. They date the sea-change to Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who reigned between 1959 and 1990. His combination of parliamentary institutions with strict social control, occasional arrests and repeated lawsuits drove musicians into exile or silence.

In conclusion, then. I’ve tried to map out the nuances between these highly authoritarian countries, countries with strong conservative lobbies, and countries with more pernicious forms of censorship, dominated by moral concerns, populist agendas, financial priorities and conservative knee-jerk reactions. In such a short time, I can only skim the surface of this complex and dense subject. But the need to address it remains paramount. And we at Freemuse can only applaud and support this initiative by Sonya Mazumdar of EarthSync to create cross-border local and national collectives supporting music communities which struggle to remain free and are at the cutting-edge of society’s artistic dreams. Thank you.

WOMEX is an international networking platform for the world music industry. The annual five-day event comprises a bustling Trade Fair, Showcase Festival, Conference, and Film programme, as well as festive Opening and Award ceremonies.

Twenty-two WOMEX editions have affirmed the value of networking across borders, be they musical, political, cultural or commercial. Since 1994, WOMEX has been travelling all across Europe from Berlin (1994), via Brussels (1995), Marseille (1997), Stockholm (1998), Berlin (1999 + 2000), Rotterdam (2001), Essen (2002 + 2004), Newcastle (2005), Sevilla (2003 + 2006 – 2008), Copenhagen (2009-2011), Thessaloniki (2012) to Cardiff (2013), Santiago de Compostela (2014 + 2016) and Budapest (2015).