To sing or to die: now I will begin. There’s no force that can silence me. —Pablo Neruda, “Epic Song”
In a world so torn by poverty and war, perhaps music can seem like a secondary concern. But as Christians know so well, music feeds the spirit, comforts the downtrodden, strengthens the weary, and can give words a power they do not possess on paper. Imagine life without your favorite hymn or the song that safely chan-
neled your teenage rebellion, or the anthem of peace or protest that still stirs you. Imagine life without Bach or Handel, or Neil Young, or Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” (dismissed in its day by Time magazine as “a prime piece of musical propaganda”).
Imagine if someone literally took away your song. Wouldn’t you hunger for it like bread?
When a government or powerful religious or ethnic group tries to turn off the music, the stakes are high. Music is another way to hear the news and a means to find common passion between very different peoples. In this way silence, or a restricted diet of state-approved tunes, can diminish us. But the more immediate and sometimes tragic cost is borne by the artists around the globe who have faced intimidation, loss of livelihood, imprisonment, torture, and even death for recording, performing, or distributing their music:
Why do tyrants fear the singer? Why do those who would control institutions and culture fear artistic expression often as much as they fear a free press? Because music has power to influence emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Anabaptists facing severe persecution in the 1500s wrote and sang a prodigious number of hymns—despite the fact that to be heard might result in death—celebrating their faith and preparing them for the possibility of martyrdom. U.S. civil rights protesters and South African freedom fighters used singing as a vehicle of unity, courage, and defiance as they faced down dogs, guns, and mobs. And, lest we forget that any power can be used for good or evil, Rwandan radio broadcast songs encouraging the killing of Hutus by Tutsis before and during the 1994 massacres.
ON THE OTHER hand, music is not a magic remote control, capable of changing hearts and minds with a single note, a single song, or even an entire symphony. A musician may influence those who listen, but no musician or songwriter is capable of single-handedly turning our sons into skinheads, our daughters into anarchists, or ourselves into saints or sinners.
Jonathan Trew, writing in the Nov. 14, 2004, edition of the Scotland on Sunday newspaper, captures the ambiguity inherent in understanding the power of music: “…to suggest music does not influence actions is nonsense. It is a question of degree. The most sickening lyrics will not make the man in the street act them out, but homophobic, misogynistic, or violent lyrics feed into and affect the wider culture. Rap music doesn’t cause gun crime any more than the Sex Pistols caused anarchy, but both impact on society.”
Acknowledging that impact, even if limited, many of us would only applaud when German police raid the homes of people suspected of posting neo-Nazi music onto the Web, British and American concert promoters cancel events featuring Jamaican dancehall performers whose lyrics advocate the murder of gays and lesbians, or feminists and religious groups decry misogynist lyrics found in some rock and rap songs.
But these cases in which governments, promoters, or the listening audience attempt to limit the distribution of potentially injurious music have to be balanced against the broader history of censorship and repression of cultural expression. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the rights of “freedom of opinion and expression” and “free[dom] to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts.” The only limits or exceptions to these rights, set forth in the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are propaganda for war and incitements to discrimination or violence because of national, racial, or religious hatred. Says Dr. Martin Cloonan, of the anti-censorship organization Freemuse: “to be anti-censorship is not to say ‘anything goes.’”
But human rights guidelines reserve censorship for only the most extreme cases because censorship itself is a blunt instrument that can be deadly. It can be wielded to help consolidate political and economic control by silencing—even eliminating—dissenters or groups whose mere identity or religious beliefs challenge the dominant powers. Violence and repression are experienced daily by musicians who want to sing the songs of their people or their faith, decry government corruption, or express a political opinion that is at odds with those in power.
The music targeted by censors doesn’t need to have overt political content. Sometimes it doesn’t even have lyrics. In Iran, anyone who wants to play music, record, or hold a concert featuring any genre of music must get permission from the intelligence arm of the Iranian Ministry of Culture. In fall 2004, planned performances in Tehran by an Italian jazz quartet and a Swiss classical ensemble were both cancelled because official permission was suddenly withdrawn or delayed at the last minute. In April 2004, China’s Ministry of Culture ordered the China National Orchestra chorus to pull out of a planned concert. The presumed reason was that the program included a composition with Christian allusions, “Easter Chorus,” written by Chinese-born Canadian Huang An Lun.
MUSIC UNDER PRESSURE can be cheerfully commercial. The U.S. group Dixie Chicks faced boycotts by fans and radio in 2003 after one member’s critical comment about President Bush at a London concert became news. This summer in Nablus, West Bank, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades broke up a concert by Palestinian pop singer Amar Hassan (second-place winner in a Lebanese TV American Idol-type show). Before the concert they had approached Hassan and reportedly ordered him to change his repertoire and replace all love songs with political pieces. Shaima Rezayee, a young woman who was a presenter on an Afghan music video show, was shot in May. The killing was believed to be connected to the displeasure of fundamentalists with both the music presented and her mere presence as a woman on TV. In July her male co-host fled to Sweden to escape harassment and death threats.
Musicians can be treated as tools of political maneuvering. In Nigeria, Afrobeat star Femi Kuti—son of the late legendary musician and political activist Fela Kuti—has had one song banned for years for racy content, while raunchy Western songs continue to receive airplay. Kuti contends that it is a back-door means for the government to disrupt his work, which often features political songs with commentary on government corruption. During the run-up to last March’s parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe, several popular musicians were recruited to write songs supporting President Robert Mugabe’s campaign; they subsequently suffered a nosedive in their careers as fans refused to buy their records or attend their concerts. But if they had declined Mugabe’s request, their music likely would have been banned from radio, which is state-owned. In Belarus, the government of dictator Aleksandr Lukashenkobanned from radio the music of several of the country’s top bands after they performed at a concert protesting Lukashenko’s rule.
The common thread in all these situations is the desire by an institution or group to control and suppress free expression. Those fortunate enough to live in a relatively stable democracy have the option of debate—sometimes messy but rarely dangerous—over whether artistic content is somehow beyond the pale. But when debate is dangerous, or when even one’s faith or language is considered a threat, the key question is put into high relief: Which are more dangerous—songs or those who would silence them?
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners
To Learn More...
This independent organization, based in Denmark, advocates on issues of freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide.
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (click on “Culture”)
The UNESCO site has resources on topics such as cultural heritage protection laws, the role of culture in development, and projects to promote the arts and creativity.
Music for Change
An “arts organization that aims to promote understanding and respect for cultural diversity through music.”