Music, censorship and human rights


Photo: Oslo World Music Festival

Music is an integral part of freedom of speech, an instrument for empowerment and social change, and the cornerstone of cultural and individual identity – which is why music censorship can have such a devastating effect on human rights. This issue - under the heading ‘Forbidden songs’ - is the theme of this year’s Oslo World Music Festival, which will be a week-long celebration of musicians who have faced censorship.

Art is at the centre of what it means to be human, and music is perhaps the strongest, most visceral form of art there is – it has an unmatched power to move, inspire and unite.

Music is an important part of human rights. Firstly, it is an integral part of being human: music is the cornerstone of cultural, communal and individual expression. Having a culture and identity is an absolute necessity for living any kind of fulfilling life, something that is explicitly recognised in the International Covenant on Econominc, Social and Cultural Life.

Music is the free expression of ideas, traditions and emotions. - Alexandra Archetti Stølen, head of Oslo World Music Festival

Second, being able to express oneself through music is crucial to any notion of freedom of speech. Music is a powerful instrument for empowerment, mobilisation and social change.

Music itself can be a human rights struggle. When slaves were singing on the cotton fields of Carolina, they were not singing because they were happy – they were singing to retain their dignity and identity, and crucially, slave songs often included coded yet specific directions on how slaves could escape and make their way north.

Stop the press, and you silence opinions. Stop the music, and you silence souls.

Censorship: Moralisation and marginalisation        

Precisely because of its power, music is often the target of censorship. This takes many forms: it is not uncommon for explicit lyrics to be bleeped out or changed for radio - and The Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ was famously banned on US airwaves for its alleged allusion to LSD. In some cases this form of censorship may simply be seen as an expression of paternalistic moralism, but sometimes the line between such moralism and political statement is blurred – for example, Lady Gaga was banned from playing in Indonesia after pressure from various conservative religious groups.

Most musicians start by building an audience at home, and then expand their base until they can tour internationally. For Mahsa Vadat, and Iranian artist who will be playing at the Oslo World Music Festival, the opposite is the case, as women are not allowed to perform in public in her home country. In Iran, her voice, and the voice of millions of women, are silenced.

Even in Norway, we have a history of using music censorship to silence and marginalise whole groups. For much of our history, the indigenous Sami population in the north of Norway has been subjected to systematic political and cultural oppression. As a part of the heavily criticised Sami assimilation policy, many traditional expressions of Sami culture were prohibited. This included joik, a Sami traditional form of song, which was banned in schools until the end of the 1950s – meaning that for generations, Sami children were not allowed to access the very pulse of their own culture. In recent years, Sami music and culture have been allowed to thrive again. Perhaps the most prominent embodiment of Sami cultural rejuvenation is the influential Sami artist Mari Boine, who will be playing at this year’s Oslo World Music Festival.

Silencing dissent

Musical censorship can also target specific opinions, perspectives and viewpoints. For a collection of such cases, look no further than the recently released album Unsongs by the Norwegian artist Moddi, which features songs that have all been banned upon their original release. Many of the writers of these songs are still imprisoned or exiled.

Moddi reportedly got the idea for this album when he discovered that a song written about Eli Geva, an Israeli officer who refused to lead his soldiers into Beirut during the Lebanon war in 1982, was never allowed a release because of its provocative content. That set him on a musical journey around the world, which resulted in an album with twelve banned songs from twelve different countries across the globe – including Russia, Mexico, Palestine and Norway.

Moddi will be playing at Sentrum Scene in Oslo on the 5th of November, and participate in a seminar with other musicians and activists earlier in the week with the theme Forbidden Songs. The full programme of Oslo World Music Festival – which includes Norwegian balkanjazz powerhouse Farmer’s Market, the bona fide pop stars of Mashrou’ Leila from Lebanon and Syrian house legend Omar Suleiman, in addition to seminars and talks on the issue of music and censorship – can be found on their website.