In ancient Greece, Plato warned of the danger to the state of 'musical innovation'.
More recently, Leopold I of Belgium wrote to queen Victoria: 'Beware of artists, they mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous.'
It’s no secret that countless governments have tried to suppress the voices of artists for fear of the power they might have to sow seeds of questions and different ideas in the minds of all people.
3 March was Music Freedom Day, founded by Freemuse, an independent organisation arguing for freedom of artistic expression and cultural diversity. It’s thanks to their work that we have an increasing body of information about the suppression of artistic voices all around the world.
In February, Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono expanded the artistic form of his struggle against corruption in Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime. He wrote and sang a reggae song entitled ‘Dem Loot’. This sparked the hashtag #demlootchallenge, empowering socially-conscious musicians across diverse styles to share their voices.
There are rap, hip-hop and electronic remixes of words that speak about ‘power to the people’ as well as highlighting truths such as ‘people are dying’.
One of the more traditional Southern African harmony songs references ‘Senzeni na?’ (‘What have we done?’), which many of us will know as it was sung during the South African struggle against apartheid.
On 4 January, the latest music video, ‘Patiroop’ (‘Reform’), from the ‘Rap Against Dictatorship’ collective was banned on YouTube’s Thai domain following an alleged legal complaint from the government. The song, ‘Patiroop’ (‘Reform’), criticises Thai royalty and speaks about issues raised by the pro-democracy movement. It also raises questions about (ironically) government censorship of online posting, legal prosecutions, media censorship and accountability for the spending of taxpayers’ money. The music video was filmed during the recent protests in Bangkok calling for democratic reform.
“Every time a government tries to silence a musician, a writer, an artist, they remind us that art has the power to change the world.”
Freemuse write, in their ‘state of artistic freedom’ report: 'Misuse of anti-terror legislation continues to oppress opposing and minority voices, with 43 artists silenced as “terrorists” and three deaths in 2020.'
Freemuse have chosen 'Imagine A Pandemic Without Art' as the Music Freedom Day theme this year. This is to highlight the plight of so many musicians working in precarious conditions.
This might seem like a departure from their usual work, but for me it highlights the bigger ‘censorship’ that we all experience to greater or lesser degrees.
Censorship comes in many forms beyond those most obvious ones of silencing performers.
Fear can be a bigger hindrance in a society that punishes or marginalises voices of dissent, and people working in short-term, temporary or precarious working conditions are of course more likely to self-censor to retain employability.
In Turkey, on 2 March, German-Kurdish singer Hozan Canê was released from prison after two years for being a ‘member of a terrorist organisation.’
When she was arrested, in the run-up to the 2018 elections in Turkey, Hozan said, as so many artists have before her: 'I am not a member of any organisation. I am merely an artist doing art.'
Jiyan, a fellow singer, was arrested at the same time for performing a song with the word ‘Kurdistan’ in it, on the grounds it was ‘propaganda for a terrorist organisation.’
Every time a government or dictator tries to silence a musician, a writer, an artist, they remind us that art has the power to change the world.
Every story we hear, every idea, has the chance to sow a seed of change, of learning, of divergence from the dominant narrative.
We never know who will hear our songs, or what seedlings or forests may grow from the seeds we scatter, but there’s always the possibility that something new could grow.
That’s why powerful people sometimes try to silence us, and that’s why we always keep on singing and amplifying the voices of those they thought they could silence.