Freemuse report on censorship of heavy metal music

Mark LeVine
HEADBANGING AGAINST REPRESSIVE REGIMES – Censorship of heavy metal in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia and ChinaReport no. 9Freemuse, Copenhagen, 2010
ISSN: 1601-2127.
ISBN 978-87-988163-3-1.   

104 pages.

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Review – 4 March 2011:
Review by Rockstar_Scribbler

“Immediately after the first couple pages of Mark LeVine’s “Headbanging Against Repressive Regimes,” I was hooked given the relevance of the material in today’s world…”


How the report was launched on 22 February 2010


By Marie Korpe, Executive Director of Freemuse

The Freemuse conference on music censorship which was held in Beirut in 2005 included a session on heavy metal. A few years earlier there had been series of crackdowns on heavy metal musicians and fans in several Middle Eastern countries. Many questions arose: Who feels threatened by heavy metal? And what is so offensive about it: the music, the way it is performed, its icons, the lyrics with reference to religion and death? On the other hand: Why is heavy metal so attractive to young people, not just in the Muslim world, but globally?

This report by Mark LeVine reveals a different face of the artists behind heavy metal, young engaged people who want change in their restrictive societies. As a Moroccan heavy metal musician explains, “We play heavy metal cause our lives are heavy metal.”

A Chinese musician says, “Youngsters can express their hatred and emotions through metal. The music of Chinese metal groups reflects injustice, political inadequacy and corruption in government.”

Today heavy metal is a global phenomenon, and wherever it has entered the big arenas or underground scenes, it has gained thousands of fans – and enemies too. The “long haired music,” as heavy metal has been described in Malaysia and China, has been banned by both governments. And in several Middle Eastern countries, musicians and fans have been arrested and questioned about – or accused of – devil worshipping, a common public perception that heavy metal is a form of satanic worship or the devils music. Heavy metal continues to be banned from radio and television in China, Malaysia, Iran and Egypt, and public performances are often prohibited.

This report explores the roots, the restrictions and bans on heavy metal in a number of countries. LeVine explores why, whenever and wherever heavy metal has appeared on the globe, it has provoked governments and religious authorities. As important,however, despite sometimes intense pressure, the music lives on and even prospers –gigs being played in underground clubs, basements and private houses – and fearless musicians struggle for the right to express themselves through their music. As the musicians discussed here push the boundaries of acceptable musical performance in their countries, it is clear that, wittingly or not, they are helping to open their cultures and potentially their political systems, along with them.

Read the report – and then follow the latest updates here on
I would like to express my thanks to Layla al-Zubaidi and Martin Cloonan for examining the report.

Copenhagen, 17 November 2009


Mark LeVine has over twenty years of experience as a professional musician, activist and scholar studying the musics and cultures of the Muslim world and global south more broadly. He has recorded and performed with artists from Mick Jagger to Hassan Hakmoun, and is the producer of the new EMI album, ‘Flowers in the Desert’, which features the best heavy metal, hip-hop and hardcore artists from Morocco to Pakistan.

He is professor of history at UC Irvine in California, USA, where he specializes inthe study of globalisation, the role of music and art in the production of culture and politics, and Muslim societies. He is author and editor of numerous books, including ‘Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam’ (Random House, 2008) and ‘Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil’ (OneworldPublications, 2005).


Charting the future in a global context

By Mark LeVine

Heavy metal emerged on the global music scene at the very moment that a global economic restructuring began that would increase poverty and inequality, especially for working class people in the industrial cities of the West and then across the so-called Third World. As the global economy became more skewed culture wars erupted in many countries pitting a rising tide of religious, political and economic conservatism against the social and political liberalism that defined the 1960s.

Hip-hop would become the “CNN of the streets” because of the brutally honest and politicized lyrics of groups like Public Enemy. For its part, extreme metal would become a sort of “musique vérité,” calling attention through its intense, often “brutal” music, vocal styles and lyrics, to the socio-economic and political problems of the societies in which it had emerged. These qualities alone would be enough to put the genre in the sights of “concerned” governments and conservative social forces. Combined with the “outcast” and “badboy” image of many of the bands, and the sexually suggestive or even explicit lyrics that characterized mainstream metal more broadly, it was inevitable that heavy metal would face censorship across the globe, in democratic and authoritarian countries alike.

Despite attempts to silence, or at least tame, the music, metal scenes have remained resilient and vibrant across the globe. From Brazil to Ghana, and in upwards of 150 countries in between, the music has grown continuously during the last twenty years, adding local musical, lyrical and fashion elements while remaining true to the hardcore, anti-authoritarian, do-it-yourself attitude that first made it popular in the United Kingdom and the United States almost two generations ago.


Introduction – Charting the future in a global context

1. What is heavy metal and where did it come from?

    • The economic and social roots of the music
    Overcoming censorship, first in the West and today across the globe

2. Metal in Egypt, Morocco and Iran
From pinpoint violence to co-optation

    • Warriors in a musical Jihad
    • The uneasy coexistence of music and Islamic law
    • Music and struggles over the public sphere
    • Case studies
    • Egypt – From pinpoint violence to corporate sponsorship
    • Morocco – Breaking the rules
    Iran – Where the underground rules

3. Metal in China
Censorship meets the market

    • Metal emerges out of the ashes of the Cultural Revolution
    • Censorship in the context of Chinese law
    • The politics of music in China today
    • Challenging Chinese identity
    • The limits of tolerance and repression
    Commercialism versus – or supporting – state control

4. Metal in Indonesia and Malaysia
Hard rock and “soft Islam” against a history of political suppression

    • Indonesia – Highly politicized music in transition to democracy
    Malaysia – The game is still fixed

Conclusion – Metalheads counter repressive tolerance

Annex: Heavy metal on

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