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maj 1998

Music and censorship


by Ole Reitov

The history of musical censorship does not differ from the history of colonialism , religious fanatism and political suppression.
Christian fundamentalists followed or even guided European colonialists for centuries in Africa , Latin America and Asia condemning traditional cultures as superstitious, dangerous and morally corrupt .

And if anyone should think that times have changed drastically you just have to look at today’s fanaticism of the Afghan Talibans who seem to think that music is corrupting people’s mind so much so that the war-tortured people of Afghanistan is even deprived of the pleasure of their own music.

In the Algerian slaughterhouse several leading musicians have had their throats cut and in Sudan the regime and its religious supporters continue to suppress musicians .It was just four years ago that the government controlled media in Sudan created an atmosphere of hysteria by giving extensive air-time to a campaign by Islamic mosque leaders to outlaw secular music altogether.

A teacher at an Islamic primary school responded by going to the Musicians’ club and stabbing to death the well known singer Khogali Osman and injuring several others - including the world renowned oud player Abdell Gadir Salim.

No wonder that the then chairman of musicians union and master musician Mohammad Wardi left the country and now lives in exile , a destiny he shares with hundreds of other great musicians from Iran , Afghanistan , Algeria , Zaire and Latin America.

Is there a link between these extreme attacks on musicians and the repression of rave parties in France , England and Sweden ?
If so, the link is that the establishment always have feared so-called uncontrolled events.

It is true that music can excite people .
It is true that certain types of music events have attracted drug-abusers, drunkards and sex maniacs .
It is true that some people even experience a sort of ecstasy under the influence of music and that certain types of music are created to influence the human mind in such a way that the devotion to God , Allah or more traditional gods may look totally obscene to outsiders.

But is that a reason for censoring records , concerts, discos and dance.
Doesn´t football stadiums , boarding schools and the army attract drunkards and sex maniacs ? And do we stop music or boarding schools for that matter ?

When you look into the history of censored music you can identify several elements or reasons for suppressing musicians :

Fear , xenophobia , intolerance and cultural suppression. And it is about time that it becomes part of the political agenda that musical censorship and suppression of musicians are equally unacceptable to the world society as is suppression of the writers.

In the West Christian fundamentalists and so-called protectors of public moral have been active for hundreds of years and still succeed in getting music and musicians banned and censored by record companies , radio stations , concert halls , festival venues and retail shops.

There is a long history of banned popular music from Elvis Presley to Alice Cooper , Jimi Hendrix , The Beatles and Sex Pistols.

Arguments have varied, methods have changed but anyone who has followed British media since the sixties will certainly have noticed the name of a certain Mary Whitehouse.

As president of National viewers and listeners association she was an efficient campaigner for three decades supported by politicians like Enoch Powell and the then bishop of Hereford , Mr. Mark Hudson.>

The British sociologist Martin Cloonan in his book Banned - censorship of Popular Music in Britain: 1967-92 has documented the often badly researched postulations by Mrs. Whitehorse and her supporters leading to censorship of music and influencing gate keepers BBC Radio 1.

The cause was and still is moral standards more than political harassment , but mentioning the BBC it may surprise many people that the old respected lady of broadcasting fame still continues its own political censorship.

During the Gulf War the BBC Radio training Unit submitted a list of controversial records , a list that became an unofficial list of ban in prime time broadcasting.

Looking at the list one can have a good laugh at the paranoia that seemingly spread through the corridors of the broadcasting house if it wasn´t that the background was so serious.

There could be a reason for not giving airtime to Cher´s old hit "Bang Bang , my baby shot me down" or Roberta Flack’s "Killing me softly". But how Eric Clapton’s version of Bob Marley´s "I shot the sheriff" or Beatles’ "Back in the USSR" could be dangerous to British listeners is a bit difficult to understand.

Classical music is not very controversial in today’s society , but as many of you already know it is a fact that works by Richard Wagner for various reasons are still censored not only in Israel but in many other countries.

Just last week the State opera orchestra in Denmark announced that it would not play its usual opening piece by Wagner at a forthcoming concert at a place of particular national interest in the mainland, Jutland . Holocaust is obvious the reason and Wagner’s  openly anti-Semitic views the cause , but the same orchestra has no problem in performing Wagner night after night at state subsidized performances at the National Theatre in Copenhagen.

But the history of banned classical and contemporary serious music is long and interesting. Political correctness in the former Soviet Union censored as you may know several leading composers.

And just last year the German conductor Gerd Albrecht left his job in Prague after being heavily attacked for promoting the works of the Theresienstadt Stadt composers . A debate which led to a heavy confrontation between Mr. Albrecht and President Vaclav Havel.

Unfortunately Jewish composers even get censored in Israel as is the case of contemporary composers like Arie Shapira .Known for his left-wing and Palestinian sympathies. Shapira has seen several of his works being censored by amongst others the national radio.

The US rap artist ICE T doesn´t , if you excuse the expression , give a fuck , for the first amendment. He has good reasons for that having been harassed by retailers , media and not least strong lobby groups .

Rap artists in the US are harassed by the so-called moral majority. Highly influential individuals have succeeded in convincing major multinational record companies to make use of the sticker man.

The sticker man that pre-censor the productions and put a warning label on before and if the CDs reach the retail stores. I say if, because many retail stores refuse to distribute the CDs . Not necessarily because their owners are racists , moral guardians or hate rap music but because the influential lobbying groups are threatening them with various forms of repression - financial boycott being one of the milder sanction methods.

The examples are numerous , but so far we - the media people - have not put much attention to it. Neither has the research establishment.

We are, however, not blind promoters of absolute freedom of musical expression.We need to discuss hate music .

Music produced in Sweden by neo nazis and distributed to neo nazis all over the world.

We need to discuss how musicologists have been misinterpreted by nationalists in the former Yogoslavia to prove that there are huge cultural differences between the ethnic groups. And we do need to discuss how violently and how sexist rap lyrics affect the listeners. But we do not need automatic answers.

We need theories to understand the mechanisms and effects of censorship.How did censorship during apartheid affect the South African musical creativity ?  How did it affect the people of South Africa in their understanding of their own culture ?

We know it affected musicians heavily - not only those that had to leave their country for decades. But we don´t know exactly how it changed their creativity , their self esteem , their role in society.

What we do know , however , is that when Paul Simon had the guts to break the politically correct, cultural boycott it made the whole world realise that not only did the South Africans suffer from the lack of access to the world - we the rest of the world had been neglected a great contemporary and traditional culture .

And most of us had voluntarily done so . Out of solidarity or of selfcensorship.The angles are many.

But our first and foremost aim is to focus on the repression of musicians that are denied their cultural rights. Musicians and composers that produce music for joy . Music that expresses common people’s strive for beauty . Music that adds another dimension to people´s life and describes life in a way that neither books nor paintings can do.

Musicians have stood up for Ethiopia , ANC , Princess Di , Farmers and AIDS.

It is about time that others also stand up for musicians and that well established artists in this relatively secure part of the world help their colleagues in less protected societies

so that even they can make use of the universally declared cultural rights that they are deprived of today.

by Ole Reitov

The text was originally  a speach at the Unesco Conference "The Power of  Culture" in Stockholm  March 1998. The conference was arranged by the World Association of Newspapers and Index on Censorship.

Læs også:

Censuren lever og har det godt - i USA

Forbudt i radio

Debat om musikcensur

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