On 3 March 2015, Mun Awng, a well-known Burmese exiled singer, will hold his first concert in Burma in more than 25 years.
Mun Awng became known in the 1980s for his protest songs calling for democracy, peace and an end to military rule in Burma. After taking part in the 1988 democratic uprising that was crushed by the military, he fled the country, having grown increasingly frustrated with the censorship board's control over song lyrics. He was granted asylum in Norway, where he continued to write songs calling for democracy in Burma.
It is fitting that Mun Awng's Burmese concert will be held on 3 March, Music Freedom Day. The day was an initiative of Freemuse, an organisation that advocates freedom of expression for musicians, in 2007, and is a celebration of the freedom to create and to play music without intimidation or persecution.
Freemuse and other organisations document cases of imprisonment, attacks, and censorship as various governments and non-state actors attempt to silence the music. And yet, despite these obstacles, songs of a political nature make it to the airwaves and musicians defy bans. Today we celebrate those who find a way to share their music with the rest of us.
Voices in exile
When obstacles are insurmountable, sometimes flight is the only option. That was the case for Malian band Songhoy Blues, an Index on Censorship Arts Award nominee. The title of their debut album Music in Exile tells the group's story "in miniature". The band, originally from Gao in northeast Mali, was forced to move to the capital when Islamist militants took control of the north and banned secular music. In the words of the band's singer, Aliou Touré, leaving was "a question of life and death".
The unique power and cultural influence of musicians in Mali explains why the invading Islamist groups were particularly keen to block their activities. Mali's Festival of the Desert, which had attracted worldwide attention and big-name Western acts, came to an end. The official sentence for breaching the music ban was a public whipping, although Songhoy Blues' founding member and guitarist Garba Touré was threatened with having his hand cut off if he continued playing.
Happily, the situation in Mali has since improved. It is safe for the band to return to Gao or Timbuktu, and to play music there as well. However, the Festival of the Desert has yet to be reinstated in Mali, and it is important that the world not forget what happened there. Songhoy Blues and other Malian groups have been involved in the making of a film, They Will Have To Kill Us First, about the music ban in northern Mali.
Women's voices underground
Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian authorities have placed restrictions on women singing. These first prohibited all singing but evolved into a ban on women singing solo in front of men who are unrelated to them.
As a result, you'd be hard pressed to find documented examples of women singing solo in post-revolutionary Iran. When it has occurred, it has either taken place in underground venues or gone unpublicised. But their voices have not been stopped. There are the sopranos who practice in a shabby apartment in Tehran. Their coach, opera director Hadi Rosat, spends almost all of his time lobbying for permits from the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, which must authorise all artistic productions. There is the singer Hannah Kamkar, who performed a Persian ballad solo as part of a play - albeit from behind a black curtain. As word of mouth spread, people bought tickets just to hear her. Sometimes it's a matter of ensuring that "the woman's voice isn't detectable", according to one concert organiser. Over the years, women have sung together with men and other women to mask their own voices.
And there are Iranian female singers who live and perform abroad. Iranians listen to them on satellite, which is also forbidden.
There have been some improvements for musicians under President Rouhani's administration, including permission for some women to partake in certain public solo performances, but there is a long way to go.
Getting around Pakistan's YouTube ban
In areas like north-west Pakistan, many artists face threats from the Taliban, who deem certain forms of musical expression to be "un-Islamic". Attacks on musicians, music shops and venues are a concern.
Migrating to Internet spaces, as many Pakistani musicians have done, has had its own challenges. Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr have been banned in the past; and the nationwide ban on YouTube is the longest-running act of online censorship in Pakistan's history. Pakistanis lost access to the site in September 2012 after clips of the controversial film "Innocence of Muslims" prompted a government ban.
There are some ways to get around the ban. YouTube still gets traffic in Pakistan through alternative routes, such as proxy websites that allow users to bypass the ban. Nevertheless, traffic has dropped dramatically. Like so many others, rapper and songwriter Adil Omar relies on posting music videos on social networking sites. Since the ban, response to his music plummeted. "I'm getting about a tenth of the promotion I was getting before and I have about a tenth of the sales I was initially getting," the singer said.
Bytes for All, an organisation that fights for digital rights in Pakistan, has worked to lift this censorship -- running a poster campaign and fighting against the ban in the courts.
"No solution but to persist with YouTube ban" - update from Senate's proceedings. B4A quoted.
http://t.co/sWAzd36WYl #NetFreedom @MLDI— Bytes for All, PK (@bytesforall) February 7, 2015
In the meantime, musicians can take hope from young enterpreneurs like Zeejah Fazli. In 2004 he launched an NGO to create opportunities for musicians beyond weddings and corporate events, and organised Islamabad's first large-scale music festival. Or singer and composer Haroon Rashid, whose initiative, Taazi.com, is an artist-friendly website where musicians can upload their work and collect royalties.
A Virtual Museum of Censorship
The first step in battling censorship is knowing what has been censored. That is the idea behind a Virtual Museum of Censorship that was recently launched in Lebanon, and is still a work-in-progress. As the instructions on the site state, "Here, you will be able to look up material that was censored since the 1940's. If you don't know exactly what you are looking for, you may indulge your curiosity by simply browsing for censored material by genre or by period. "
The music category lists examples of censorship from 2004 onwards. Cases such as the 2010 temporary ban on a Lady Gaga song for heresy and the blacking out of Juliette Greco's name on album covers, due to the fact that she had performed in Israel.
What you can do
This is just a glimpse of some of the creativity and tenacity shown by artists faced with state censorship and restrictions. If you'd like to read more on freedom of artistic expression, search for stories tagged with 'art' or 'artist' on ifex.org, and support the important work Freemuse is doing on behalf of censored and imprisoned musicians everywhere. It is noteworthy that a lot of the organisation's campaign work is never publicised as it would further endanger artists already living under precarious conditions.