Why music can’t be stopped
March 5, Oslo: On 3 March 2015, Mun Awng, a well-known Burmese exiled singer, will hold his first concert in Burma in more than 25 years.
It is fitting that Mun Awng’s Burmese concert will be held on 3 March, Music Freedom Day. The day was an initiative of Freemuse, an organisation that advocates freedom of expression for musicians, in 2007, and is a celebration of the freedom to create and to play music without intimidation or persecution.
Freemuse and other organisations document cases of imprisonment, attacks, and censorship as various governments and non-state actors attempt to silence the music. And yet, despite these obstacles, songs of a political nature make it to the airwaves and musicians defy bans. Today we celebrate those who find a way to share their music with the rest of us.
Voices in exile
When obstacles are insurmountable, sometimes flight is the only option. That was the case for Malian band Songhoy Blues, an Index on Censorship Arts Award nominee. The title of their debut album Music in Exile tells the group’s story “in miniature”. The band, originally from Gao in northeast Mali, was forced to move to the capital when Islamist militants took control of the north and banned secular music. In the words of the band’s singer, Aliou Touré, leaving was “a question of life and death”.
The unique power and cultural influence of musicians in Mali explains whythe invading Islamist groups were particularly keen to block their activities. Mali’s Festival of the Desert, which had attracted worldwide attention and big-name Western acts, came to an end. The official sentence for breaching the music ban was a public whipping, although Songhoy Blues’ founding member and guitarist Garba Touré was threatened with having his hand cut off if he continued playing.
Happily, the situation in Mali has since improved. It is safe for the band to return to Gao or Timbuktu, and to play music there as well. However, the Festival of the Desert has yet to be reinstated in Mali, and it is important that the World not forget what happened there. Songhoy Blues and other Malian groups have been involved in the making of a film, They Will Have To Kill Us First, about the music ban in northern Mali.
Women’s voices underground
And there are Iranian female singers who live and perform abroad. Iranianslisten to them on satellite, which is also forbidden. There have been some improvements for musicians under President Rouhani’s administration, including permission for some women to partake in certain public solo performances, but there is a long way to go.
Iranians are very attached to their country, and if they leave, they do so with a broken heart. If they can stay, they do, because they believe that’s how they can help their country. [French photographer Jeremy Suyker who has been documenting the creativity triggered by restriction]
Getting around Pakistan‘s YouTube ban
In areas like north-west Pakistan, many artists face threats from the Taliban, who deem certain forms of musical expression to be “un-Islamic”. Attacks on musicians, music shops and venues are a concern.
Migrating to Internet spaces, as many Pakistani musicians have done, has had its own challenges. Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr have been banned in the past; and the nationwide ban on YouTube is the longest-running act of online censorship in Pakistan‘s history. Pakistanis lost access to the site in September 2012 after clips of the controversial film “Innocence of Muslims” prompted a government ban.
There are some ways to get around the ban. YouTube still gets traffic in Pakistan through alternative routes, such as proxy websites that allow users to bypass the ban. Nevertheless, traffic has dropped dramatically. Like so many others, rapper and songwriter Adil Omar relies on posting music videos on social networking sites. Since the ban, response to his music plummeted. “I’m getting about a tenth of the promotion I was getting before and I have about a tenth of the sales I was initially getting,” the singer said.
In the meantime, musicians can take hope from young enterpreneurs like Zeejah Fazli. In 2004 he launched an NGO to create opportunities for musicians beyond weddings and corporate events, and organised Islamabad’s first large-scale music festival. Or singer and composer Haroon Rashid, whose initiative, Taazi.com, is an artist-friendly website where musicians can upload their work and collect royalties.
A Virtual Museum of Censorship
The first step in battling censorship is knowing what has been censored. That is the idea behind a Virtual Museum of Censorship that was recently launched in Lebanon, and is still a work-in-progress. As the instructions on the site state, “Here, you will be able to look up material that was censored since the 1940’s. If you don’t know exactly what you are looking for, you may indulge your curiosity by simply browsing for censored material by genre or by period. ” The music category lists examples of censorship from 2004 onwards. Cases such as the 2010 temporary ban on a Lady Gaga song for heresy and theblacking out of Juliette Greco’s name on album covers, due to the fact that she had performed in Israel.
What you can do
This is just a glimpse of some of the creativity and tenacity shown by artists faced with state censorship and restrictions. If you’d like to read more on freedom of artistic expression, search for stories tagged with ‘art’ or ‘artist’ on ifex.org, and support the important work Freemuse is doing on behalf of censored and imprisoned musicians everywhere. It is noteworthy that a lot of the organisation’s campaign work is never publicised as it would further endanger artists already living under precarious conditions.