Calls for censorship of ‘indecent’ songs
Indecency is prohibited by law in many societies around the world, but where to draw the line and when to actually ban a song because it is considered indecent, profane, immoral or offending against the recognised standards of propriety… this is an on-going debate which presently is discussed many societies, all over the world.
Freemuse recognises that there may be occasions on which free speech can legitimately be restricted. To be anti-censorship is not to say “anything goes”. In the present ‘indecency debate’, Freemuse has no intention of pointing out who is right and who is wrong, but merely to document that this discussion is taking place, and in this way show the differences and similarities of the arguments.
Below you will find a number of recent examples of music censorship and ‘indecency discussions’ which has been published recently. The debate is particularly heated and intense in countries such as Ghana and Liberia in West Africa, in most of the Middle East, in Asian countries such as India and Cambodia, and in USA.
Arab music videos (article excerpt)
List of other ‘indecency’ stories on freemuse.org
Musicians who “portray negativity and filth” should be stopped
In Ghana, a newspaper commentator asked the government and the national musician’s union to find ways and means of sanctioning against Ghanaian Hiplife musicians who are found to be “eccentric and permissive.”
Michael Akenoo does not have much good to say about the favourite music style of many young Ghanaians – hiplife.
“Hiplife is really subtly and covertly destroying the moral fibre of the country,” he warns in a commentary on Ghanamusic.com. “Ghana will experience moral depravity and degeneration if nothing drastic is done now to forestall this “madness” that has crept into the Ghanaian musical scene.”
Michael Akenoo therefore suggests that the Musician’s Union should “devise an effective mechanism of examining all the artistic creations of Ghanaian musical artistes with the view to promoting progressive Ghanaian cultural values” and “find ways and means of sanctioning Ghanaian musical artists who are found to be eccentric and permissive in their musical compositions.”
According to Michael Akenoo, the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Culture should help ensure that Ghanaian musicians “conform to decency and sanity in their creative endeavours”, and “give adequate financial and moral support to the musician’s union, MUSIGA, so that it can function effectively to monitor and check recalcitrant musical artistes who violate the rich values in their compositions.”
The diction and themes employed in the creation of Hiplife music is permissive and dangerous to Ghanaian cultural values and practices, he states in his commentary, and explains that “music is a powerful cultural tool which can be used negatively to destroy the moral fibre of a society and ultimately lead that society to degeneration and ruin.”
As an example of music he would like to hear more of, Michael Akenoo mentions an old highlife composition of Jerry Hanson and the Ramblers Dance Band entitled ‘Work and Happiness’. This song, he says, “greatly inspired Ghanaian workers to work very hard for the development of the nation”.
Women exposing their vital body parts
He is asking what the Ghanaian government in collaboration with the Musicians Union of Ghana has put in place to ensure “doing away with songs and videos that show women exposing their vital body parts to the whole world.”
Moral censorship in Ghana in recent years
From vulgar street songs in the 1920’s to present day hiplife songs which are banned from the airwaves because they are considered immoral. Professor John Collins reveals the history of ‘moral censorship’ in the West African country
By John Collins
Here I will turn to what might be called the hegemonic attitude of the older generation towards the popular music styles create by the youth, usually expressed as moral indignation over the lyrics of the songs that dwell on the them of sexual love. Although the lyrics of the older (pre-1980’s) styles of highlife were not generally on the topic of romantic love [i] some popular highlife love songs of the past were considered immoral. These songs were generally composed by people who were in the twenties or thirties and an early example is the previously discussed ‘vulgar street song’ song ‘Yaa Amponsah’ composed by a group of young cocoa-brokers in the 1920’s, the lyrics of which were cleaned up by the school-teacher Ephraim Amu.
Another that was banned by state radio was the 1950s song ‘Se Wo Ko Na Anny Eyie A San Bra (If You Go And It Doesn’t Work Out, Come Back) by the then youthful E. K. Nyame which was frowned upon (but not banned) by older Ghanaians as it explicitly mentions a wife’s desire for her husband to kiss her on the mouth, a foreign custom that at that time was not considered something to be mentioned openly.
A few years after the prolific highlife composer King Bruce formed his Black Beats band in 1952 two of his Ga songs banned from state radio. One was ‘Telephone Lobi (Sweethearts)’ which Bruce explains is ‘a bit risque, especially where the man says he wants to see the women in the flesh’. Another was his highlife ‘Srotoi Ye Mli’ (There Are Varieties In Everything) about differences in things like wine, vegetables and fruits. Although it was not Bruce’s intention, when the general public people heard words in the song like ‘sweet’ and ‘not so sweet’, ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ they thought the song was about sex – and thus the song was censored from the state airwaves. [ii]
A more recent examples of a popular song banned from the airwaves include the 1980s highlife by A.B. Crentsil with its obvious sexual innuendo about ‘Moses’ using his rod to open the ‘Red Sea’ that is bordered by a ‘black bush’.
Another is the 1999 hit ‘Abiba Yeah, Wa Donkoto Ye Fre Me’, (Abiba, your lovely motions sweet me) by the up-and-coming highlife star Rex Omar which mentions (in Akan) the word ‘vagina’. This was even banned by some of the private FM radio stations that had begun to spring up in the country during the mid 1990s.
Since the mid 1980s two ‘techno’ varieties of highlife have been created by young people: namely a disco/drum machine style known as ‘burger’ highlife [iii], followed in the mid 1990s by a vernacular rap known as ‘hiplife’ (i.e. ‘hip-hop highlife’). The lyrics of both these genres are predominantly on the topic of romantic love and often involve sexual innuendo. It is largely the older generation of Ghanaians that dislike these new styles of highlife, with its imported hairstyles, baggy clothes and ‘gangsta-rap’ attitudes. As a result and from pressure from older members of the public some burgher highlife and hiplife songs have been being banned from radio, both the governmental and privately owned ones.
An example of a banned burgher highlife was the immensely popular 2000 release by Daddy Lumba called Aben Wo Ha (It is Cooked) which is a thinly disguised song about women being sexually excited. In the case of hiplife music the lyrics are not only sexually explicit but also often misogynist [iv].
Some examples of this includes ‘Police Aba’ in which Nsiah Piese raps on the topic of women being sexually attracted to a policeman’s baton, and ‘Abuskeleke’ by Sydney which deals with the latest female fashion of baring the waist. [v] Yet another recent example is Tic Tac’s hiplife song ‘Philomena’ which criticises the current imported female fashion of allowing genital and under-arm hair to grow. The song was associated with a dance in which the dancer scratches his or her pubic area.
Philomena Kpintinge (Ladies name)
Philomena, change your ways
(Extracts, translated from the Twi language by Emmanuel Gyan)
Not only are some hiplife songs occasionally banned from FM radio stations but there have been a number of newspaper reports commenting on them. A few mention that these local rap songs give the youth a voice, but most accuse hiplife of being ‘lewd’, ‘profane’ and ‘degrading’ to women. [vi]
Indeed, in December 2002 the Executive Director of the Ghana branch of the International Federation of the Women Lawyers (FIDA) stated that some hiplife lyrics ‘debase femininity and the bodies of women …(and) constitutes violence against women on the airwaves’ [vii].
FIDA threatened high court actions against some radio stations and disc jockeys. Both FIDA and the Musicians Union of Ghana (MUSIGA) have also asked the Ministry of Information and the Ghana Media Commission to closely monitor the local FM stations for indecent lyrics. But as the journalist William Asiedu commented [viii] hiplife songs that are banned or “come under fire for spawning immorality amongst the youth… make good sales throughout the country… and become instant hits and chart busters’ ”
This text is an excerpt from ‘One Hundred Years of Censorhip in Ghanaian Popular Music Performance. In Popular Music Censorship in Africa’, Ashgate Publishing Company, UK and USA, (eds) Michael Drewett and Martin Cloonan, 2006, pp.171-186. It will be included in the new version of John Collins’ book ‘Highlife Time‘ (not yet published).
John Collins has been active in West African popular music since 1969 as a musician, bandleader, studio-owner, writer and social scientist. Between 2003-5 he was Head of the Music Department of the University of Ghana in Legon. He still teaches at the University and is also the Chair of the BAPMAF Highlife-music Institute in Accra, and plays with a local highlife band called Local Dimension.
[iv] Hiplife is mainly a macho affair and there are only one or two female rappers (eg. Abrewanana). On the other hand female singers dominate the local gospel highlife that has emerged since the 1980s creating a literal gender split in contemporary Ghanaian popular dance music
[v] Other hiplife songs that, according to the Ghana Showbizz newspaper editorial ‘Hiplife Shame’ (f Jan. 13, 2001) promote promiscuity and teenage sex are: Appiah Fordwour’s ‘Gyese Edu’ (person’s name) , Cool Joe and Michael Dwamana’s ‘Te Bi Di’ (Take and Eat) , Max Kofi’s ‘Akadaa Ketewa Bi’ (Youngster) , Kaakyire Kwame Appiah’s ‘Nketewa Do’ (Small Love) and Lord Kenya’s ‘Bokoboko’ (Slowly) .
Media outlets punished for playing “vulgar music”
Liberia’s Minister of Information repeatedly has threatened to shut down legitimately registered media houses on account of the type of music they play, reported Center For Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP) from Monrovia in January 2008.
At a press conference, Minister of Information Rev. Laurence Bropleh threatened “tough actions” against radio stations that play what he referred to as “vulgar music”, arguing that “such music is not good for Liberian society”.
CEMESP notes that these threats are unlawful and undermine the health of Liberian democracy. Bropleh must accept that other Liberians have a fundamental freedom of choice, which includes the right to disagree, or to think otherwise in determining what is good for them to say or to listen to.
For further information contact CEMESP, Benson & Buchanan Streets, P.O. Box 3480, Monrovia, Liberia, tel: +231 651 4357, e-mail: centerforpeacebuilding [at] yahoo.com
Center For Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP), Monrovia – 14 January 2008:
Uganda’s most provocative song banned
While Minister for Ethics and Integrity Dr James Nsaba Buturo banned the very popular song ‘Emboko’ in an attempt to enforce morality, Ugandans wonder how the ban is going to be effected.
There is not a single obscene word in the song ‘Emboko’. The words are merely close in pronunciation to obscene ones, but when they are said in full, they are just innocent words for “cane,” “dust,” “foundation”, and so on. The song is performed as if the singer was a school teacher who pretends to teach a class the meanings of words and their pronunciation.
‘Emboko’ has been around for a couple of years, sung in karaoke halls by its composer, Master Blaster. When he had it recorded and published in 2007, it quickly became a very popular hit, playing in taxis, at parties and in the bars. The Ugandan radio stations are still too cautious to play it, as the reprisals could be severe, both from advertisers and the authorities. “It seems like nothing can stop it challenging the national anthem,” reported the newspaper Nation Media in March 2008.
Nation Media labels the song as “the most provocative song to gain notoriety in Uganda’s music recording history.”
Nation Media – 28 March 2008:
‘Adulterous songs’ banned from karaoke bars
Cambodia’s government has outlawed the public playing of songs that encourage “infidelity”.
The titles of the first three songs to be banned leave little to the imagination, reported the Asia correspondent of the British newspaper The Independent, Andrew Buncombe:
“If I Can’t be First Can I be Second”, “Love Another’s Husband” and “May I Have a Piece of Your Heart Too”, were all written to be sung by women looking to entice men who may be married.
Having banished the songs from the thousands of karaoke bars across the country, the authorities are now seeking other similar tunes that may be deemed unsuitable.
“We are searching for other songs which might affect people’s honour, especially that of women,” Kep Chuktema, the governor of Phnom Penh, told a local Khmer language newspaper.
One official told the Koh Santepheap newspaper: “People can still play the songs in private. I don’t think music has much to do with it, but it is an official request that has to be followed.”
The Independent – 1 March 2008:
Implications of Arab music videos
In 2003, Charles Paul Freund wrote an article about ‘eroticim’ and the new world of Arab videos. “It is the political implications of these videos that make them so interesting,”. he wrote. Here is an excerpt from the article:
(…) More and more Arab women singers are presenting themselves in provocative terms, as figures who express and assert themselves erotically through fashion, movement, expression, and voice. Nawal Zoghby, one of the region’s biggest stars (she’s been Pepsi’s spokeswoman there), appeared in a hip-shaking video last year dressed in a tight and, by Mideastern standards, revealing leather outfit. She was backed up by a trio of black women singers in leather who were even more provocative. Suzanne Tamim offered a video (set partly in an American-style drive-in theater) in which she spent most of the running time striking a series of cheesecake poses in a tight outfit. This year’s most notorious video thus far features a woman named Haifa Wehbe whom nobody in the region takes seriously as a singer at all. (She claims only to be an “entertainer.”) The whole point of Wehbe’s video is to show her dancing in a rain-soaked outfit (inspired perhaps by the “wet sari” sequences of popular Bollywood movies) while staring into the camera with her sultriest expression.
Many of these women singers, it should be noted, are Christians, and their videos are set in an obviously secular context that is sometimes specifically Western. But this new world of Arab videos is a pan-Arab project. The recording label for all these acts, Rotana, is based in Dubai, the Gulf state with the region’s most open economy. Rotana’s acts can be seen throughout the Arab world but are showcased via ART-TV, a multiformat Arabic-language satellite service established by Saudi investors, based in Jordan, and with studios in Cairo, Beirut, and elsewhere in the region. Most of the video production houses are in Lebanon, and the videos’ credits (often in English) reflect diverse crews of Muslim and Christian Arabs, along with a smattering of Turkish names. The most notable director of these videos is Said El-Marouk, a Muslim filmmaker based in Germany whose work stands out because of its scale, spectacle, and excess. (He’s the Ken Russell of the genre.)
Muslim women singers are also starting to bring erotic provocation to traditional, even specifically Muslim, contexts. A singer named Samr, for example, has released a video in which she appears dressed as the bride in a traditional Mahgrebian wedding celebration, complete with intricately decorative henna. Although she is clothed modestly and moves with decorum, her song is about her happy anticipation of her wedding night. Samr winks repeatedly at the audience even as she adopts an expression of mock modesty, rolls her eyes happily, and invites the audience to share in her anticipation of pleasure. Given that a woman’s enthusiasm for sex is often considered suspect by traditionalists, Samr’s performance is astonishing.
In short, there is a revolution going on in popular Arabic music videos (known in the Mideast as “clips”), and it suggests a larger upheaval that may be taking place among their consumers. Although dramatic social and cultural changes are particularly visible in songs and videos by women, they involve the songs and performances of Arab men too. Sex may be the most immediately striking aspect of these productions, but it is the least important aspect of their revolutionary potential.
After all, eroticism, even blatant eroticism, is not new in contemporary Arab culture; it is a well-known element of the region’s feminist fiction and is used by such authors as Hanan Al-Shaykh and Nawal Saawadi. But avant-garde fiction like theirs tends to remain within a limited, sympathetic subculture. Arabic pop videos, on the other hand, are produced for pleasure (not to speak of profit) and consumed by an immense audience that can turn such works into political artifacts on a grand scale.
Indeed, it is the political implications of these videos that make them so interesting. What these videos offer their audience is an imagined world in which Arabs can shape and assert their identities in any way they please. The question is whether the videos are a leading cultural indicator of social and political change that enables Arabs to do the same in the real world.
The imagined Arabs in these often handsomely mounted productions stretch from the plausible to the fantastic: not only Arab femmes fatales in designer lingerie but cool Arab race car drivers, Arab cowboys, and Arab motorcyclists decked out in Harley-Davidson paraphernalia. There are Arab football players; Arab lovers driving a pickup truck through the American desert; Arab heroes of Gothic vampire melodramas being stalked by beautiful ghouls; veiled Arab women of the Islamic golden age; Arab couples searching for each other in a chromed, retro 1950s universe; Arabs haunted by mysterious desert symbols that hold the key to forgotten identities; medieval Arab countesses in their Spanish castles; and even science fiction Arabs confronted by mustachioed alien children from outer space. (…)
Reason Online – June 2003:
“Sex may be the most immediately striking aspect of these productions, but it is the least important aspect of their revolutionary potential…”
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