Thursday, September 11, 2008

Censorship and music

In late June the Washington Post carried a story (picked up by numerous other publications) regarding a Sudanese singer/songwriter who is attempting to sow the seeds of peace through his music. Abazar Hamid has a constant struggle with government censors to approve the recording of his songs, with his goal being "using music to transform a country so often at war with itself." The on-line article, which includes a video clip of his performance, speaks of his spending time with the "Hakama" singers, women whose songs have lyrics exhorting the Arab militias, or "Janjaweed", to war, and trying to pursuade them to sing such songs of his as "Peace Darfur."

As noted in the previous post, musical censorship, official or unofficial, has occurred widely at various times in world history. America's greatest living folk singer, Pete Seeger, had enjoyed widespread success in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a soloist and member of hugely popular group The Weavers. However, after appearing in 1955 before the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy in his singular search (now widely acknowledged as a "witch-hunt") for suspected communists, Seeger was subsequently cited for contempt of Congress, and his broadcast appearances in particular were severely curtailed, not through official government restrictions, but by self-censorship by the networks, in an era when many artists, including ten Hollywood writers in particular, were blacklisted. Even as late as 1967, a scheduled September television performance of Seeger's song against the Viet Nam war, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," was cancelled by the network, though after pressure from various quarters advocating freedom of speech, Seeger did perform it on the Smothers' Brothers show in January 1968.

Government censorship of religious music in particular was policy in the Soviet Union prior to its final collapse in 1991. Last December VOA's Adam Phillips produced a fine report on immigrant Christmas music in New York City, giving examples of holiday music that had been long suppressed during the Soviet Era.

Currently, in Pakistan, as noted in a 2007 State Department Report, "throughout the reporting period, Islamic extremists attacked shops in the NWFP [Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] which sold local and foreign music and video cassettes. Shop owners were warned prior to attacks to stop selling items considered to be un-Islamic". And during the summer, the BBC reported bombings of video and CD stalls. Yet in spite of the repeated attacks, music continues to be an important cultural expression of the dominant Pashtun culture in these areas, as a search of YouTube will verify. In fact, the contradictions and tensions between orthodox Islamic values and the widespread popularity of music in most of the greater Muslim world provide a fascinating inquiry into the interactions therein between cultural and religious values.

In short, throughout history, music somehow has a way of prevailing in most cases over attempts to suppress it, given its unique ability to express the vitality and hopes of the human spirit.

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