Free Muse Global List of Artists Censored, Prosecuted, Jailed, Kidnapped, Tortured, Killed…

“The world’s leading organization advocating freedom of expression for musicians”


Turkey: Grup Yorum members allegedly tortured in custody
A singer and a violinist with the band Grup Yorum claim they were tortured in police custody after they were detained during an unauthorized demonstration in İstanbul
27 September 2012

Cameroon: Singer Lapiro de Mbanga gets asylum in the US
Lapiro de Mbanga, who was imprisoned in Cameroon for three years for a song criticizing President Biya, has been granted asylum in the USA. 13 September 2012

Music & Islam – what’s the big fuss?
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to attack musicians and music shops, but what is the position oF music in Islam? 04 September 2012

The case of Pussy Riot – behind the scenes
Summing up: A talk with Freemuse’s Campaign Officer about how Freemuse has worked on the case of Pussy Riot since three members of the band were detained in March 2012. 30 August 2012

Russia: Pussy Riot on everyone’s lips
Pussy Riot’s court case in Moscow placed musical freedom of expression high on the agenda of the Western media during July and August 2012. 23 August 2012

Afghanistan: Religious leaders stopped ‘immoral’ eid celebration concert An eid celebration concert by Shafiq Mureed was cancelled after local mullahs had labelled his music ‘immoral’
22 August 2012

Cuba: Banned exiled singers allegedly stricken from censorship list
The BBC reported on 8 August 2012 that several Cuban radio stations confirm they no longer face restrictions on playing music by exiles
22 August 2012

Iran: Banned Israeli Persian-language album gains popularity
The music of Rita Jahan-Foruz – an Iranian-born, Israel-based singer – is becoming increasingly popular in both Iran and Israel, as tensions grow between the two countries 21 August 2012

Mali: Rose Skelton reports from Bamako: Can musical Mali play on?
Islamism is on the march and threatening to wipe out the country’s cultural heritage, wrote freelance journalist Rose Skelton in British newspaper The Independent. 21 August 2012

After Pussy Riot, artists must stand for each other, everywhere
Commentary by Mark LeVine inspired by the high profile court case of Pussy Riot: The music industry professionals together need to adopt a universal code of conduct. 17 August 2012

Russia: Pussy Riot found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison
On 17 August a judge announced that the members of Pussy Riot are guilty, and that they “deeply insulted the faith of believers with their disrespectful criminal act” 17 August 2012

Iraq: Black Metal’s anti-religious message meets Islam
28-year-old Anahita is the voice behind the black metal solo project Janaza. She is probably Iraq’s first female black metal singer – and possibly the only one. 13 August 2012

Morocco: Popular musicians silent about imprisoned rapper
In Morocco the rapper El Haked is in prison since May 2012 for his highly political lyrics – but so far very few popular musicians are speaking out about this. 08 August 2012

Russia: Prosecutor seeks three years sentence for members of Pussy Riot. On the seventh day of the legal proceedings, the prosecutor called for a three year prison sentence for the three members of the Pussy Riot punk collective. 07 August 2012

China: Danish singer banned by censorship authorities
The Danish singer and rapper Linkoban performed twice in Beijing in July 2012, despite the fact that she had been banned by the Chinese censorship authorities. 02 August 2012

Morocco: Rapper El Haked’s sentence upheld in Casablanca’s court of appeal. On 27 July 2012, the Casablanca court of appeal upheld the one year prison sentence given to the rapper El Haked in May for a song which is ‘detrimental to public servants’. 01 August 2012

Freemuse: Grounds pass to the United Nations The United Nations has granted a ‘Special consultative status’ to Freemuse. 30 July 2012

Russia: Freemuse calls for free and fair trial for Pussy Riot
Freemuse sends appeals to President Vladimir Putin calling for a fair and free trial for the three band members of Pussy Riot who are to remain in detention until January 2013. 30 July 2012

Kyrgyzstan: Court bans rap song for ‘hate speech’. A court in the city of Osh, where violent ethnic clashes claimed hundreds of lives in 2010, has banned an Uzbek-language rap song for inciting hatred
27 July 2012

Angola: Rapper arrested for drug smuggling: ‘I was framed’
On 11 June 2012, Luaty Beirão, a popular Angolan rapper known by the artist name Ikonoklasta, was alledgedly framed by authorites for drug smuggling. 16 July 2012

China: Increased control on music publishing in Tibet. New measures by Chinese authorities involve significantly increased controls in the Tibetan music publishing, reported Human Rights Watch on 13 July 2012. 14 July 2012

Turkey: Dancing to Kurdish music labelled as propaganda for terrorism
Bedrettin Akyüz, 20, is claimed to have spread propaganda for PKK by dancing the halay [a traditional dance] accompanied by Kurdish songs
13 July 2012.

Iran: Cancellation of several pop concerts. A new wave of concert cancellations started from Tehran and has spread throughout the country, reported Small Media from London. 05 July 2012

Lavon Volski. Video interview with Lavon Volski, blacklisted guitarist and vocalist of the band Krambambula from Belarus. 04 July 2012

Afghanistan: Music is making a comeback. Central Asia Online reports: After decades of civil war and the Taliban’s ban on music, Afghanistan is trying to resuscitate music. 04 July 2012

Kenya: Three musicians accused of propagating hate speech
Three popular musicians in Kenya have been accused of propagating hate speech against the prime minister. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission is investigating. 02 July 2012

Turkey: Ferhat Tunç sentenced to two years in prison. A court in the eastern province of Malatya sentenced the Kurdish singer on terrorism related charges due to his invocation during a speech he held in 2011. 27 June 2012

Russia: Detention of Pussy Riot members extended again
On 20 June 2012, a court ruled to keep three detained band members of Pussy Riot in prison until 24 July while the police probe continues. 25 June 2012

Pakistan: Popular singer gunned down in music market. A young popular singer, Ghazala Javed, was shot dead on 18 June 2012 along with her father by two unknown armed men. The motive is still unknown. 19 June 2012

Press release: World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression in Oslo. Artists who have been censored because of their artistic work will enter the stage when the first ever World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression is held in Norway. 18 June 2012

Turkey: Acclaimed pianist charged for blasphemy. Composer and pianist Fazil Say faces trial on 18 October 2012 on charges of insulting religious values, with a possible 18-month prison sentence
13 June 2012

Morocco: Call for solidarity with Mouad Belghouat, known as El Haked
This letter was sent by Freemuse as a call for solidarity from artists performing at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music 2012 in Morocco. 09 June 2012

Mali: Music banned from the radio in Timbuktu. Rebels in northern Mali are now aggressively promoting their hard-edged brand of Islamic law, Shariah, which means music has been banned from the radio. 06 June 2012

Pakistan: Death sentences for dancing at a wedding party. Pakistani media is bringing confusing reports from northern Pakistan about a tribal court which allegedly handed down death penalties for dancing at a wedding party. 04 June 2012

Denmark: Support from Roskilde Festival Charity Society for artists at risk. Freemuse received a grant of 66,000 euro from Roskilde Festival Charity Society to sustain and develop networks in West Africa, MENA, Pakistan and Afghanistan. 01 June 2012

Freemuse: The invisible work behind the scenes. It started as another day in the Freemuse office. Then, within hours, we received terrifying pictures of rappers in Angola and Sierra Leone, who had been seriously beaten. 01 June 2012

Press release: Eurovision: A pretty face cannot hide the ugly reality. As Europe is celebrating the annual Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan, several musicians from the country have gone into exile. 24 May 2012

Angola: Rap artists attacked again by Angolan pro-government militias
On 22 May 2012, 15 men armed with pistols, machetes and iron rods attacked a group of 10 young people, among them the two rap artists Casimiro Carbono and Explosivo Mental. 24 May 2012

Turkey: 17-year-old charged for exchanging Kurdish songs on Facebook
Turkish prosecution wanted to imprison 17-year-old Kurdish boy for 40 years after he was accused of eight charges, including the exchange of Kurdish songs on Facebook. 23 May 2012

Algeria: Call for the respect of freedom of artistic expression
“Algerian intellectuals, journalists, cultural activists, artists and writers ring the alarm and request from the Ministry of Culture in Algeria to lift its control over the cultural sector…”
21 May 2012

Azerbaijan: Rock musician flees to Germany over concerns for his safety. Rapper and guitarist Jamal Ali fled his home country on 16 May 2012, he told the British newspaper The Guardian via Skype from Berlin. 21 May 2012

Malaysia / Philippines: Religious groups unite in bid to silence pop singer Christian and Muslim groups attempt to ban American superstar Lady Gaga’s shows during her Asia tour, calling her music the ‘work of Satan’. 21 May 2012

Turkey: Students charged for singing Grup Yorum song. Three students are accused of singing an old song and chanting slogans which allegedly are “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation”
18 May 2012

Belarus: Longing for change. Due to blacklisting in their homeland, the Belarusian folk-rock band Krambambulya held three exile concerts in Lithuania to celebrate the release of their new album
16 May 2012

Turkey: Another legal action against singer Pınar Aydınlar
A lawsuit was filed against folk singer Pınar Aydınlar (Sağ) and the Group Munzur members Özlem Gerçek and Erkan Duman demanding up to five years imprisonment. 16 May 2012

China: Tibetan singer arrested and taken to unknown location
Fear for the safety of Tibetan singer Lo Lo who was arrested on 19 April 2012 and whose whereabouts and fate since then are unclear
14 May 2012

Morocco: One year prison sentence for rapper who criticized police
The sentencing of rapper El Haked on 11 May 2012 to one year in prison for “insulting the police” shows continuing intolerance for those who criticize state institutions. 12 May 2012

Iran: Death sentence against Iranian rapper in Germany. A cleric issued a death sentence against Iranian rapper and rock guitarist Shahin Najafi for having produced a song which is believed to be offensive to Imam Naqi. 10 May 2012

Belarus: Trial of pro-opposition singer-songwriter. Pro-opposition singers Ihar Simbirow and Dzmitryy Bartosik were arrested during an open-air performance near Minsk on 6 May 2012. 08 May 2012

Call for establishing Scandinavian safe havens for persecuted musicians SKAP, Freemuse and the Swedish Arts Council urges the Swedish government to allow the Swedish cities to receive threatened composers and musicians. 23 April 2012

Iran: Singer Arya Aramnejad prosecuted for his songs 28-year-old Iranian singer Arya Aramnejad, who was recently released after his second term in prison, has been informed he has been given a one-year prison sentence. 23 April 2012

Russia: Detention of Pussy Riot members extended to three months
The detention of members of Pussy Riot has been extended until 24 June. The three women have been in custody for over a month
20 April 2012

Morocco: Drop charges against detained rapper. Repressive speech laws enforced despite rights-friendly constitution. Statement and report by Human Rights Watch concerning the imprisoned rapper El Haked. 18 April 2012

Morocco: Rapper El Haked arrested again 24-year-old rapper Mouad Belghouat, the Moroccan rapper known as Lhaked or El Haked, was arrested again because of one of his songs. 13 April 2012

Myanmar/Burma: ‘Will censorship of music end?’ asks BBC reporter in Rangoon BBC News’ Jonah Fisher has interviewed Ye Ngwe Soe, lead-singer of the punk band No U Turn, one of the best-known acts on the Rangoon punk scene. 13 April 2012

Sweden: Concerts with Jamaican reggae singer Sizzla cancelled
In March 2012, Jamaican reggae singer Sizzla was stopped from performing in Sweden, second time around in the same month, because of his infamous homophobic lyrics. 12 April 2012

India: Petitioner seeks ban on song that allegedly incites to violence. A South Indian super-hit song should be banned for its violent lyrics that “incite aggression”, stated a public interest litigation petition filed before Kerala High Court. 11 April 2012

Mali: Islamists have banned music in northern region. In Kidal, heartland of the Islamist Ansar Dine group, music has been replaced by prayer readings on the local radio. The group wants to impose strict sharia law across Mali. 11 April 2012

Belarus: Blacklisted band holds three ‘exile concerts’ in Lithuania
A blacklisted rock band from Belarus was refused permission to perform in Minsk and decided instead to move their concert location to neighbouring Lithuania. 10 April 2012

Mexico: Musician kidnapped and tortured. Julio Cesar Leyva Beltran, a singer with the Mexican band Los Ciclones del Arroyo, was kidnapped and tortured after refusing to perform a song requested by a group of people. 10 April 2012

Turkey: Grup Yorum member still in detention. Musician Seçkin Aydoğan, member of Group Yorum, was not discharged at the first hearing of the lawsuit against him and four others in İstanbul 15th High Criminal Court. 10 April 2012

Somalia: Bomb blast at concert in newly opened national theatre
“The blast happened as musicians were singing and spectators were clapping for them,” told Salah Jimale to The Guardian. Ten people are reported to have been killed. 04 April 2012

Brazil: Ban on songs that encourage violence against women and gays
The Brazilian state Bahia has approved a law banning the use of public funds to pay for events where songs that offend women and gays are played. 02 April 2012

Malaysia: Committee to evaluate whether song should be banned
The song ‘Bawaku Pergi’ is suggested to be banned because it contains lyrics which could encourage young people to run away from home. 02 April 2012

South Korea: Teenagers prohibited from attending American pop concert
American pop singer Lady Gaga’s upcoming Seoul concert has been restricted to over-18s because one of her songs is condidered “inappropriate” for minors. 02 April 2012

Turkey: Attack on Grup Yorum member in prison. Grup Yorum made a written statement announcing that a member of their band, Seçkin Aydoğan, was attacked in the prison where he is being detained
02 April 2012

Indonesia: Dangdut songs banned for ‘corrupting society’. 10 popular Dangdut songs were banned in a province of Indonesia for being ‘pornographic’. 29 March 2012

Kuwait: BBC reports how musicians in Kuwait struggle with censorship
BBC News reports in a three-minutes video from Kuwait how government censors are proving a big barrier to commercial success for some artists. 29 March 2012

Pakistan: Artists camp reflect on aspects of intolerance and terrorism. In Peshawar, Pakistan, on 7-27 May 2012, a two week camp for international artists aims to discuss and understand the phenomenon of terror. 28 March 2012

Angola: Rappers beaten up before manifestation. Six musicians and activists who were in a meeting to prepare for a public protest demonstration were violently attacked by unidentified aggressors on 9 March 2012. 26 March 2012

Lebanon: Protest against increased censorship. In light of a notable increase in censorship in Lebanon, a number of musicians and other artists decided to put on a show in Beirut entitled ‘I am Free’.
26 March 2012

Azerbaijan: Three young musicians and activists detained. A rapper, a guitarist and a blogger were detained after protests in Baku on 17 March 2012 and are held in Sabael District Police Office, allegedly after having been tortured. 22 March 2012

Tunisia: Culture minister defends artistic freedom. “There will be no restrictions on creative freedom,” said Tunisia’s culture minister after he had been under fire for saying he would exclude sexy pop stars from a festival. 22 March 2012

Iraq: Operations targeting ‘Emo’ teenagers hit heavy metal fans
Brutal persecution and killing of ‘Emo’ teenagers has put musicians and fans of heavy metal music under critical danger in Iraq
20 March 2012

Somalia: New stage for music and threatre in Mogadishu
On 19 March 2012, live music sounded in Mogashu, Somalia’s capital, when the country’s national theatre was reopened
20 March 2012

Pakistan: We want to defeat terrorism through music, says culture minister. Interview with Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Khyber Pakthunkhwa’s culture minister, who wants to reverse the policies of the former MMA government which banned musical concerts. 19 March 2012

Mexico: Popular music group banned in Chihuahua. Authorities in Chihuahua has banned the popular group Los Tigres del Norte from performing in the state capital after the band sang ballads glorifying drug traffickers. 15 March 2012

Zimbabwe: Platform for free artistic expression awarded
When the Book Café in Harare reopened on 8 March 2012, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai gave an insightful speech centering on censorship of music and arts. 14 March 2012

Senegal: Musicians at the forefront of protests. In Senegal’s controversial presidential elections, musicians have suffered threats, attacks and arrests, while an increasing number of songs are being shared. 13 March 2012

Turkey: Prisoners punished again for singing Kurdish songs
17 inmates of Kocaeli T Type Prison have received disciplinary charge by the warden of three more months in prison for having been “singing and dancing illegally”. 13 March 2012

Pakistan: Four CD shops destroyed in explosion. Four music CD shops were completely destroyed after an explosion in a market in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhuwa province. 12 March 2012

Russia: Punk band arrested after protesting against Putin
Shortly before the presidential elections in Russia, authorities put an end to punk band Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin protest concerts by arresting six members of the band. 07 March 2012

Somalia – Music Freedom Report: Music too powerful to ban
Video from Somalia – part of the series of Music Freedom Reports which was published in March 2012 on the occassion of Music Freedom Day 2012. 07 March 2012

The Liberty For Arts Award 2012 goes to Freemuse Director Marie Korpe
“With this price we express our deepest gratefulness to Mrs Marie Korpe for her philanthropic dedication to the threatened musicians,” wrote Fairplay Foundation. 07 March 2012

Music Freedom Day 2012 marked in 22 countries world-wide. Reports and documentation of Music Freedom Day 2012 which was marked on 3 March 2012 with events, concerts and radio programmes in 22 countries around the world. 06 March 2012

Turkey: Şanar Yurdatapan: ‘There is a lot of work to do for all of us’. In 2012, there were no acticities marking Music Freedom Day in Turkey. “This means the work is not over yet,” wrote Sanar Yurdatapan in his chronicle on the day. 03 March 2012

West Papua: Violence and oppression against musicians in forgotten conflict. Video from West Papua – a supplement to Clara Moksha’s Music Freedom Report which was published on 3 March 2012.
02 March 2012

Mexico: Conductor kidnapped by drug cartel. In July 2011, a successful Mexican musician residing in Germany was abducted by gunmen while on holiday in northern Mexico. 01 March 2012

Venezulea: Reggae singer Onechot shot in the head. On 27 February 2012 the reggae singer Onechot (real name: Juan David Chacón) was attacked by a group of criminals who shot him, wounding him in the head. 01 March 2012

Azer Cirttan. Video interview with exiled singer and composer Azer Cirttan from Azerbaijan. 29 February 2012

Iraq: Documentary film about a musician’s struggle to keep music alive. Produced in Iraq in 2011, the 15-minutes documentary ‘Sing your song’ details the obstacles a musician and his band face because of pressure from extremist Islamist groups. 29 February 2012

Jason Carter: Music censorship in North Korea – a personal video reflection. British guitarist Jason Carter has produced a personal video documentary about a trip he made in North Korea in 2007, which reflects on music censorship. 28 February 2012

South Africa in 1989: CD album banned for offending Christians
Because of its title, the album ‘Bigger than Jesus’ by Kalahari Surfers was banned in 1989 for blasphemy and for the offending of Christians. The music was later re-released. 27 February 2012

Freemuse campaign: Release the Iranian singer Arya Aramnejad
Freemuse calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Arya Aramnejad, a famous singer who has been imprisoned since 8 November 2011. 25 February 2012

Kuwait: Music distributor pulls out of Kuwait because of censorship
Music Master, a leading Dubai-based music distributor, has stopped its Kuwait operations because state censorship of albums and artwork makes it impossible to operate. 20 February 2012

Press release: UN expert group: “Cameroon should compensate Lapiro”
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued a legal opinion declaring that the detention of Lapiro de Mbanga was a violation of international law. 16 February 2012

Turkey: Musician of Grup Yorum detained. Seckin Aydogan, a member of the band Grup Yorum, has been in detention for six weeks. Band members pledge to hold solidarity concerts. 14 February 2012

Bahrain: Campaign for woman convicted for listening to ‘revolutionary’ music. Fadhila Mubarak’s 18-month prison sentence for protesting and listening to ‘revolutionary’ music was upheld by the Court of Cassation in Bahrain’s capital Manama. 03 February 2012

Tunisia: The rapper Volcanis arrested on drug charges. On 25 January 2012, security agents handcuffed and arrested the young rapper Volcanis in his home, allegedly “in a matter of law” and not for the content of his rap songs. 30 January 2012

Egypt: Stopped performing “in a kind of limbo”. The Egyptian band Sandouk Eldonia stopped playing their political songs after the revolution broke out. “Mubarak is now gone, but the same is our vision,” they say. 25 January 2012

Pakistan: Punjab Assembly bans concerts in educational institutions
On 24 January 2012 Punjab Assembly passed a resolution that bans holding of ‘objectionable’ musical concerts in educational institutions. 25 January 2012

Somalia: Religious extremists storm music radio station
The militant extremist group Al-Shabaab carried out an illegal takeover of Radio Afgoye, the only radio station in the lower Shabelle region, because it broadcasted music. 21 January 2012

Pakistan: Music returns to some of Pakistan’s tribal areas
In parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas, music is starting to return, reported Free Speech Radio News in a well-produced radio report on 16 January 2012. 18 January 2012

Related post: “Globally, there are hundreds of artists under far greater threat to their freedom and lives who deserve the same attention.”

Read More: Free Muse

Read more: Freemuse statistical report: Violations on freedom of musical expression in 2011

“Globally, there are hundreds of artists under far greater threat to their freedom and lives who deserve the same attention.”

Pussy Riot members. Photo: Misha Japaridze, file/ AP

There are hundreds of artists who perform under threat to their freedom and lives, who also deserve our solidarity.

After Pussy Riot, artists everywhere must stand up for each other

By Mark LeVine

It’s impossible to know yet whether the wave of international support received by the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot during their just completed trial impacted the verdict in any way. But it’s clear that the plight of the three young women who each now face the remainder of two years’ imprisonment has ignited the passion of US and European artists, from Sting to Madonna, who have publicly called for their freedom.

Western artists can and should support their Russian comrades. But the support received by Pussy Riot is sadly an aberration. As a rule, European and US artists have been strangely – and inexcusably – silent when it comes to recognising the plights suffered by their fellow musicians and performers around the world, where freedom of expression receives little protection, censorship is prevalent and artists routinely face the threat of prosecution and jail from their governments, and more dangerously, threats to their physical safety and even lives by conservative social forces.

Ole Reitov, of the international NGO Freemuse, which advocates on behalf of freedom of expression for musicians and composers – including Pussy Riot – believes the problem is rooted in the reluctance of managers and lawyers to encourage political engagement by their A-list artists. “But even when you reach them, a lot of ‘great names’ have a blind spot in terms of freedom of expression for fellow artists, which was in fact one of the motivations for creating Freemuse.”

System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian agrees, declaring that “too few organisations organise just around musicians”. In his view, “Artistes should boycott performing in countries that do not allow free expression of their opinions. This is one reason System of a Down has never played in Turkey. If we can’t use the word genocide on stage without threats of arrest or worse, it is not a conducive venue for artistic expression.”

In focus: Russia’s Pussy Riot

Certainly, the right to artistic freedom is one of the most basic human rights, enshrined in Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declare in part: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers… Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.

Human rights, but not for artists?

Well-known artistes, including Bono, Adam Yauch, Bruce Springsteen and others, have long lent their name to human rights organisations and campaigns such Amnesty International and the Campaign to Free Tibet. But many have generally remained silent when it comes to supporting fellow artists under threat. If musicians are all “from the same tribe”, as the world music pioneer Manu Dibango put it, the richer members of the tribe have not been nearly as kind to their poorer relations as they ought to be.

And so even now, as artistes – most recently, including Madonna – are flocking to support Pussy Riot, they continue to ignore the plight of other artistes presently in jail. If you go to the Freemuse website, you can see how many artists are under threat and how broad the range of countries is in which their rights are repressed. According to their latest estimate, violations are occurring in some 120 countries, with Afghanistan, Cameroon, China, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Somalia, and Turkey among the most repressive.

As I discussed in a column last month on the plight of Moroccan rapper El Haked, well-known artists continue to perform in countries where others have been jailed in much the same manner as the members of Pussy Riot, without saying or doing anything on their behalf. It’s easy to support a cool riot girl band in a country that is a traditional adversary of the “West” and where a primary concern seems to be women’s rights, but when it comes time to support a rapper jailed by a “friendly” Arab monarch, suddenly even the most extroverted singers seem to get stage fright.

Writers take the lead

We can compare the lack of uniform support for fellow musical artists to the far more developed and coherent support for writers world-wide by fellow members of their craft – as embodied in the organisation PEN, the world-wide association of writers, which for ninety years has acted “as a powerful voice on behalf of writers harassed, imprisoned and sometimes killed for their views”.

PEN is run by journalists and writers, who are generally more articulate and well connected to their writing colleagues than musicians. Musicians have neither the organisation nor social and political power (or often education) to similarly promote their interests. Even the most political artists, from Marcel Khalife to Rage Against the Machine, focus on broader political issues rather than their fellow music-makers.

At the level of the music business, it’s even harder to get people involved, since, as a “business” – especially one whose century-old model is crumbling beneath it – music industries in most countries need airplay on government-controlled radio stations and support to fight against piracy, to stay afloat. This situation provides little incentive to rock the political boat.

As one activist put it, rarely you might get a music executive such as Richard Branson who will sign the Sex Pistols and use their political “infamy” to help sell records and brand his company as hip and cutting edge, but such figures are increasingly rare these days in the mega corporate-dominated music industry.
Putin weighs in on Pussy Riot case

The problem is that, as long as long as artists, and the music industry more broadly, don’t take this seriously at the organisational and institutional levels (when is the last time that the Grammy Awards, ASCAP, BMI, SECAM, or even the X-Factor or American Idol ever mentioned artists under threat?), musicians will continue to face the same and even graver threats to their freedom as Pussy Riot, without anyone in the wider world taking notice or helping to publicise their plight.

A uniform code of conduct, now

In order to change the dynamics, musical artists, singers, composers, producers, arrangers, engineers, DJs, managers and music industry professionals need to together adopt a universal code of conduct that will ensure that they are aware of the situation in all countries in which they work, perform and sell their products and provide a standard set of guidelines and references for behaviour to prevent the continuation of the present situation, in which some artists get global attention to their plight while others suffer in silence.

Such a code could include the following provisions:

A declaration of support for all artistes who engage politically. As Madonna put it in supporting Pussy Riot, “art should be political”, and even artists who aren’t willing to put themselves on the line benefit when there is greater freedom for their colleagues to do so. The musical community must no longer sit idly by and allow fellow musicians to face such challenges and threats alone.

Artists need to stay abreast of developments affecting fellow artists and music industry professionals around the world and use their often extensive social media, concert and other appearances to help publicise specific threats or actions as they arise.

They should develop much more coordinated relations with organisations, such as Freemuse, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to ensure that they are aware of threats to artists in countries in which they are touring, recording, or otherwise appearing professionally, and to use all means available to support them and call attention to their plight while in these countries.

Artists need to encourage their fans to become more involved in the plight of musicians globally and in their own countries, and educate them about the dangers of censorship and how to fight it.

Most important, artists need to support all artists who are being persecuted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, political affiliations, non-violent social and political activities, or expression of personal, social or political views, even when their views might not agree with their own.

Boycotts, a divisive issue

There is one issue that will no doubt divide artists and that is the call to refuse to perform in a country in response to its policies on various issues. Here the obvious example is the BDS, and specifically boycott, campaign against Israel, which has led some big name artists to cancel performances in the country in protest of its ongoing occupation.

Russian Orthodox Church organises against Pussy Riot punks

As of now, there are few if any calls for artists to boycott performances in a country besides the Palestinian BDS call, and artists such as Tankian, who have a special commitment to a particular issue such as the Armenian genocide or Tibet. As one A-list manager explained to me: “The most important thing for most artists first is to be heard, and boycotting goes directly against that.”

While politically engaged artists such as Jello Biafra came to support BDS after examining all the arguments, less militant artists have been turned off by the sometimes aggressive attempts to persuade them. For the record, Pussy Riot supporter Madonna played Israel on May 31, while the Chili Peppers are scheduled to perform in Tel Aviv in September.

But if calls for boycotts were to multiply – if, for example, there was a call to boycott Russia by activists in response to the jail sentences handed down against Pussy Riot – artists would be in a very difficult situation.

Today more than ever, artists survive on touring rather than selling records. If a group tours globally the chances are high that they will perform in a fair number of countries with problematic records on issues such as freedom of speech (China, Russia, Morocco, Poland, Dubai, Turkey, Abu Dhabi, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Cameroon and many other countries come immediately to mind).

And of course, for “anti-imperialist” artists there would be little choice but to boycott the US and most NATO countries – some 50 countries presently contribute troops to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, for example – as well as Russia and China, given their clearly imperialist foreign policies.

Such a list would, of course, leave very few countries left to tour.

Because of this, it is unlikely that most artists will begin agreeing to boycott systemic human rights violators; nor is it that clear that citizens in such countries would prefer artistes to stay away until the situation improves (in Morocco, for example, most activists I’ve spoken with do not advocate boycotting its famed festivals – with the exception of the giant Mawazine festival, which is clearly used as a propaganda tool by the government).

Moreover, artists from smaller global south countries who literally must survive on a few prestigious festivals each year would find it practically impossible to boycott them on political grounds, no matter how sympathetic they might be to the plight of local artists.

Ultimately, individual performers will have to determine whether the situation in a particular country is serious enough for them to sacrifice the income and experience of performing there in order to support fellow artists or oppressed citizens or occupied peoples.

But particularly today, when the internet and social media have made it so much easier to spread the word about oppression to fans and the broader public, it’s no longer excusable for artists to remain silent most of the time, and only lend their support when the world is already watching or the artists involved are particularly media-friendly. Certainly many Russian artists feel this way. As dance-pop artist Sasha Gradiva explained when she heard I was writing this column: “I feel a deep connection with these girls… and would welcome the creation of a community of artists and musicians whose aim was supporting artists who have been persecuted because of their art.”

I’m sure the members of Pussy Riot were thrilled that Madonna wore a balaclava in their honour at her Moscow concert, and that Red Hot Chili Peppers donned Pussy Riot t-shirts at their Russian concerts (we’ll see if the Chilis show a similar concern for Palestinian prisoners – inclusing artists – when they perform in Israel). But, globally, there are hundreds of artists under far greater threat to their freedom and lives who deserve the same attention.

It’s time to pull the mask off music censorship globally; if the trial of Pussy Riot can encourage greater attention and solidarity from privileged Western and global artists to the plight of their comrades living in the cultural and political trenches, the group will truly have earned their place in the pantheon of musical, and political, heroes.

Published by Al Jazeera

About the author:

Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

In focus: Russia’s Pussy Riot

Published on Aug 7, 2012 by AlJazeeraEnglish

In Moscow, the trial of the activist-feminist group known as Pussy Riot continues into its second week. The case has captured both domestic and international attention, with the Russian opposition rallying around them as an anti-Putin symbol. Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan takes a closer look at what these women are all about.

Russian Orthodox Church organises against Pussy Riot punks

Published on Apr 22, 2012 by AlJazeeraEnglish

Thousands of Orthodox Christian worshippers have turned out in the Russian capital Moscow for a prayer to support the controversial Church in what it perceives to be an attack on its authority.

They refer to a confrontation involving Pussy Riot, a local punk rock band who took over the capital’s main cathedral to sing their songs in a political statement in February.

Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton reports from the Russian capital.