Answer to a comment about Pussy Riot

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PUTIN’S SWAP

From Lara
Really they are killing and torturing people in Russia for their sexual orientation and your just as bad as them your a bigot they are just standing up for their rights maybe you should go live there for a while and see how you like not having your rights
To Lara,

Welcome to Unruly Hearts, Lara!

First off, it would have been more productive if your comment about Pussy Riot had included information about the group’s agenda rather than insults.  The article you read was written by Carles of Hipster Runoff and published in our music magazine with the intention of getting our readers to comment about it.  We received many private comments from readers, most of them criticizing PR, others in favor.  Ahhh… I’ve been to Russia several times, to visit friends.

This has been our response to the readers who took the time to respond to the controversial article:

Prof Mark Levine at UC Irvine, hit the nail on the head. According to Levine, “there are hundreds of artists who perform under threat to their freedom and lives, who also deserve our solidarity.” Levine correctly points out “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. Several American and European artists have come forward in support of Pussy Riot but many others have remained silent when it comes to supporting fellow artists under threat. If you go to the international organisation Freemuse website you’ll find a long list of artists under threat in more than 100 countries. We couldn’t agree more with prof Levine, “It’s easy to support a 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.”

People are being tortured and killed in many countries, yet the West seems to be interested only in those cases were the government is an “adversary”  —  not an “allied”.  In your case, Russia is the United States’ main adversary, the reason why you have received so much attention.  Were any of those artists persecuted, tortured and jailed [See MUSE], received by the Mayor of NYC or the editorial board of The New York Times?  No way.  The hype about Pussy Riot was about degrading Russia, while the host country keeps hundreds of detainees, blindfolded and in the prison in Guantanamo base.  Try asking the Obama Administration to allow you to visit the Guantanamo prison so you can see it by yourself. Did you know that President Obama authorized the killing by drones of American citizens suspected of “terrorism”?  Did you know that gay people are beaten up and even killed in the United States?

We do not agree with Pussy Riot’s style to protest against the Russian government. We think you can achieve much more (your target is the Russian people (first), then the people in foreign countries) if you have better ways to make known your agenda.  Having sex with multiple partners in a public place in front of children will not attract those who, even though agree with your agenda, do not support your style.

We are interested in knowing and learning about Pussy Riot’s agenda, and invite you and your friends to send us a draft for publication. We are particularly interested in the writing of  Yulia Gradskova:
Punk Prayer Politicizing Social Life: Faith, Religion, and the Church.
Women and God.”  [published by Baltic States]  and the following comment:

The politics of the Orthodox Church today, unfortunately is such that what most important [in religion] is forgotten: personality and its immanent freedom. Christianity is not a static doctrine, but a religion of free spirit and free choice. The person in Christianity is not a slave, but a participant of God’s mission, a creator.

Are you sure? Can you elaborate on it?

Thanks,
AA
Unruly Hearts

Rock the Mullahs – Can heavy metal music help transform the Middle East?

Pink Floyd’s album The Wall takes on a whole new meaning when brought to life by an Arab metal band in Lebanon. Imagine 100,000 teens—Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Druze—headbanging in sync, pumping their fists in unison, screaming, “Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!” even as another civil war, waged by their parents, threatens to tear their country apart yet again.

Welcome to the new Middle East, a region where, by some estimates, nearly half of the population is under the age of 25. This is a highly literate, politically sophisticated, technologically savvy, and globally plugged-in generation. It speaks English; it knows its way around the Internet; and, according to historian and part-time metal head Mark LeVine, it wants to rock.

LeVine, a professor at University of California, Irvine, has spent the last few years headbanging his way from Morocco to Pakistan and almost everywhere in between. The premise of his book about the Middle East’s underground music scene, Heavy Metal Islam, is simple. “To understand the peoples, cultures, and politics of the Muslim world today, especially the young people who are the majority of the citizens,” LeVine writes, “we need to follow the musicians and their fans as much as the mullahs and their followers.”

Follow them he does, and with all the dogged determination of a seasoned Grateful Dead fan. In Cairo, he rocks with Hate Suffocation, “the best death-metal band in Egypt, if not the Middle East and North Africa,” dancing along with a gaggle of screaming girls dressed in tight jeans, torn Iron Maiden T-shirts, and Islamic headscarves: Muhajababes, LeVine calls them. In Beirut, still “one of the world’s cutting-edge locations for dance music, hip-hop, and alternative rock,” he jams onstage with perhaps the biggest hard-rock band in the Middle East, The Kordz, as they rip through a set in front of thousands of Lebanese kids still reeling from the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In Iran, he watches a gang of teenagers gathered illegally at a park for an impromptu rap battle in Persian, the beats echoing through someone’s mobile phone. When the dreaded basij, or morality police, show up, everyone scatters.

The danger of arrest, even execution, is real for these young metal heads, and not just in Iran. In Egypt, more than 100 people were arrested when pictures surfaced of a heavy metal concert where fans seemed to be carrying an upside-down cross. “Devil worship!” the Egyptian police cried, rounding up kids as young as 13 and throwing them in prison. In 2003, Moroccan authorities arrested 14 heavy metal musicians and fans and charged them with “shaking the foundations of Islam” and “attempting to convert a Muslim to another faith” with their music, as though heavy metal were a religion.

Yet these musicians and their fans continue to thrive in such authoritarian societies precisely because, as LeVine notes, this is the first generation to arise in the Middle East that has managed to tap into the promise of globalization. For example, when the pioneering Iranian heavy metal band O-Hum (Illusion), which blends hard rock and traditional Persian melodies with lyrics swiped from the famed 14th-century Sufi poet Hafez, released its first album, the album was, predictably, rejected by Iran’s Ministry of Culture. Iran’s draconian censorship laws allow the government to ban any music it deems offensive or un-Islamic. If a song has “too many riffs on electrical guitar” or if the musicians display “excessive stage movements,” then the CD is confiscated and the band prohibited from any public performances. But rather than surrender their album to the Ministry of Culture, O-Hum uploaded their songs on to the Internet and allowed fans—not just in Iran but throughout the world—to listen to the album for free.

The mullahs rightly fear the heavy metal scene in Iran because it reflects the mood of a volcanic youth culture fed up with religion and desperate for alternative ways of expressing itself. A member of Iran’s most popular metal band, Tarantist, tells LeVine, “Metal is in our blood. It’s not entertainment, it’s our pain, and also an antidote to the hypocrisy of religion that is injected into all of us from the moment we’re born.” One of the patriarchs of Morocco’s heavy metal scene, Reda Zine, puts it this way: “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.”

But can music contribute to cultural and political transformation in the region? It’s hardly the first time the question has arisen. Where Tom Stoppard, looking back at Eastern Europe’s revolt against Communism in Rock ‘n’ Roll, answered yes, LeVine is not so sure. The problem, as he sees it, is the failure of the politically active heavy metal scene and the more progressive yet entrenched Islamist opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to make common cause. Indeed, the two are more often in competition with each other, with the Islamists, many of whom have struggled for decades against their authoritarian regimes, fiercely antagonistic toward the young, politically minded metal heads who seem to enjoy a level of freedom that the Islamists could only dream of. A band like Hoba Hoba Spirit, Morocco’s insanely popular rock/reggae/African/post-punk rockers, can draw 100,000 kids to one of their concerts, whereas members of Morocco’s chief Islamist opposition party, the Justice and Spirituality Association, are prohibited by law from congregating in groups of more than three people. While Egypt’s most famous political prisoner, Ayman Nour, rots in a prison cell for his work promoting democracy, his teenage sons, Shady and Noor, are free to preach a watered-down version of their father’s message to thousands of Egyptians through their popular metal band, Bliss.

The animosity between the Islamists and the metal heads is partly a result of a generational divide and partly a matter of their differing political and cultural agendas. (The metal heads are hardly interested in building an Islamic state.) But the truth is that these two dissident groups who seem to occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum have more in common than one would think: Both have similar aspirations to build a freer, more democratic society, and both have had their political views shaped by the same sense of despair and lack of opportunity that exists throughout the region.

And yet there seems little chance of a convergence between the two, though not because of an inherent conflict between religion and rock ‘n’ roll. As a Muslim sheikh in Lebanon proudly declares, “We’re doing heavy metal, too.” Rather, it is because the Islamists seem not yet ready to expand their political ideals to include activist kids who prefer Ozzy to Osama, while the metal heads are not yet willing to apply their music (and, more importantly, their credibility with the youth) to help the Islamists challenge their governments.

That is too bad. Because as we learned in Eastern Europe, music has the power to express ideas (especially subversive ideas) in a manner that mere words cannot; it can serve as a net to gather disparate elements together under a single identity and with a single purpose. LeVine imagines a day when the mutual mistrust between the metal heads and the Islamists will transform into cooperation, when they will fight the power together as one united oppositional force. But reading Heavy Metal Islam, one cannot help feeling that day is far away.

HEAVY METAL ISLAM

“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.