After Pussy Riot, artists must stand for each other, everywhere
It’s impossible to know yet whether the wave of international support received by the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot during their just completed trial impacted the verdict in any way. But it’s clear that the plight of the three young women who now face two years’ imprisonment has ignited the passion of American and European artists, from Sting to Madonna, who have publicly called for their freedom.
Western artists can and should support their Russian comrades. But the support received by Pussy Riot is sadly an aberration. As a rule, European and American artists have been strangely — and inexcusably — silent when it comes to recognizing the plights their fellow musicians and singers around the world, where freedom of expression receives little protection, censorship is prevalent and artists routinely face the threat of prosecution and jail from their governments, and more dangerously, threats to their physical safety and even lives by conservative social forces.
Ole Reitov, of the international NGO Freemuse, which advocates on behalf of freedom of expression for musicians and composers (including Pussy Riot, believes the problem is rooted in the reluctance of managers and lawyers to encourage political engagement by their A-list artists. “But even when you reach them, a lot of ‘great names’ have a blind spot in terms of freedom of expression for fellow artists, which was in fact one of the motivations for creating Freemuse.”
System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian agrees, declaring that “too few organizations organize just around musicians.” In his view, “Artists should boycott performing in countries that do not allow free expression of their opinions. This is one reason System of a Down has never played in Turkey. If we can’t use the word genocide on stage without threats of arrest or worse, it is not a conducive venue for artistic expression.”
Certainly the right to artistic freedom is one of the most basic human rights, enshrined in Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declare in part: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers… Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” (un.org/en/documents/udhr).
Human rights — but not for artists?
Well known artists, including Bono, Adam Yauch, Bruce Springsteen and others, have long lent their name to human rights organizations and campaigns like Amnesty International and the Campaign to Free Tibet. But they have generally remained silent when it comes to supporting fellow artists under threat. If musicians are all “from the same tribe,” as the world music pioneer Manu Dibango put it, the richer members of the tribe have not been nearly as kind to their poorer relations as they ought to be.
And so even now, as artists — most recently including Madonna and Paul McCartney — are flocking to support Pussy Riot, they continue to ignore the plight of other artists presently in jail. If you go to the Freemuse website, freemuse.org, you can see how many artists are under threat and how broad is the range of countries in which their rights are repressed. According to their latest estimate, violations are occuring in some 120 countries, with Afghanistan, Cameroon, China, Iran, Myanmar/Burma, Pakistan, Somalia, Turkey the most repressive.
As I discussed in a column last month on the plight of Moroccan rapper El Haked (see aljazeera.com), well-known artists continue to perform in countries where artists have been jailed in much the same manner as have the members of Pussy Riot, without saying or doing anything on their behalf. It’s easy to support a cool riot grrrl band in a country that is a traditional adversary of the “West” and a primary concern seems to be women’s rights, but when it comes time to support a rapper jailed by a “friendly” Arab monarch, suddenly even the most extroverted singers seem to get stage fright.
Writers take the lead
We can compare the lack of uniform support for fellow musical artists to the far more developed and coherent support for writers world-wide by fellow members of their craft as embodied in the organization International PEN, the world-wide association of writers, which for ninety years has acted “as a powerful voice on behalf of writers harassed, imprisoned and sometimes killed for their views.”
PEN is run by journalists and writers, who are generally more articulate and well connected to their writing colleagues than musicians. Musicians have neither the organization nor social and political power (or often education) similarly to promote their interests. Even the most political artists, from Marcel Khalife to Rage Against the Machine, focus on broader political issues rather than their fellow artists.
At the level of the music business, it’s even harder to get people involved, since as a “business” — especially one whose century-old model is crumbling beneath it — music industries in most countries need airplay on government-controlled radio stations and support to fight against piracy, to stay afloat. This situation provides little incentive to rock the political boat. As one activist put it, rarely you might get a music executive like Richard Branson who will sign the Sex Pistols and use their political “infamy” to help sell records and brand his company as hip and cutting edge, but such figures are increasingly rare these days in the mega corporate-dominated music industry.
The problem is that as long as long as artists, and the music industry more broadly, don’t take this seriously at the organizational and institutional levels — when is the last time that the Grammy’s, ASCAP, BMI, SECAM, or even the X-Factor or American Idol ever mentioned artists under threat? — musicians will continue to face the same and even graver threats to their freedom as Pussy Riot, without anyone in the wider world taking notice or helping to publicize their plight.
A uniform Code of Conduct, now
In order to change the dynamics, musical artists, singers, composers, producers, arrangers, engineers, DJs, managers, and music industry professionals together need to adopt a universal code of conduct that will ensure that they are aware of the situation in all countries in which they work, perform and sell their products, and provide a standard set of guidelines and references for behavior to prevent the continuation of the present situation, in which some artists get global attention to their plight while others suffer in silence.
Such a code could include the following provisions:
• A declaration of support for all artists who engage politically. As Madonna put it in supporting Pussy Riot, “art should be political,” and even artists who aren’t willing to put themselves on the line benefit when there is greater freedom for their colleagues to do so. The musical community must no longer sit idly by and allow fellow musicians to face such challenges and threats alone.
• Artists need to stay abreast of developments affecting fellow artists and music industry professionals around the world and use their often extensive social media, concert and other appearances to help publicize specific threats or actions as they arise.
• They should develop much more coordinated relations with organizations such as Freemuse, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to ensure that they are aware of threats to artists in countries in which they are touring, recording, or otherwise appearing professionally, and to use all means available to support them and call attention to their plight while in these countries.
• Artists need to encourage their fans to become more involved in the plight of musicians globally and in their own countries, and educate them about the dangers of censorship and how to fight it.
• Most important, artists need to support all artists who are being persecuted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, political affiliations, non-violent social and political activities, or expression of personal, social or political views, even when their views might not agree with their own.
Boycotts, a divisive issue
There is one issue that will no doubt divide artists and that is the call to refuse to perform in a country in response to its policies on various issues. Here the obvious example is the BDS, and specifically boycott, campaign against Israel, which has led some big name artists to cancel performances in the country in protest of its ongoing occupation.
As of now, there are few if any calls for artists to boycott performing in a country besides the Palestinian BDS call (see freemuse.org), and artists like Tankian, who have a special commitment to a particular issue such as the Armenian genocide or Tibet. As one A-list manager explained to me, “The most important thing for most artists first is to be heard, and boycotting goes directly against that.”
While politically engaged artists like Jello Biafra came to support BDS after examining all the arguments, less militant artists have been turned off by the sometimes agressive attempts to persuade them (For their part, Pussy Riot supporter Madonna played Israel on 31 May while the Chili Peppers are scheduled to perform in Tel Aviv in September).
But if calls for boycotts were to multiply — if, for example, there was a call to boycott Russia by activists in response to the verdict against Pussy Riot — artists would be in a very difficult situation. Today more than ever artists survive on touring rather than selling records. If a group tours globally the chances are high that they will perform in a fair number of countries with problematic records on issues like freedom of speech (China, Russia, Morocco, Poland, Dubai, Turkey, Abu Dhabi, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Camaroon and many other countries come immediately to mind).
And of course, for “anti-imperialist” artists there would be little choice but to boycott the US and most NATO countries — some fifty countries presently contribute troops to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, for example — as well as Russia and China, given their clearly imperialist foreign policies.
Such a list would, of course, leave very few countries left to tour.
Because of this, it is unlikely that most artists will begin agreeing to boycott systematic human rights violators; nor is it that clear that citizens in such countries would prefer artists to stay away until the situation improves (in Morocco, for example, most activists I’ve spoken with do not advocate boycotting its famed festivals with the exception of the giant Mawazine festival, which is clearly used as a propaganda tool by the government). Moreover, artists from smaller global south countries who literally must survive on a few prestigious festivals each year would find it practically impossible to boycott them on political grounds, no matter how sympathetic they might be to the plight of local artists.
Ultimately, individual artists will have to determine whether the situation in a particular country is serious enough for them to sacrifice the income and experience of performing there in order to support fellow artists or oppressed citizens or occupied peoples. But particularly today, when the internet and social media have made it so much easier to spread the word about oppression to fans and the broader public, it’s no longer excusable for artists to remain silent most of the time, and only lend their support when the world is already watching or the artists involved are particularly media-friendly. Certainly many Russian artists feel this way.
As dance-pop artist Sasha Gradiva explained when she heard I was writing this column, “I feel a deep connection with these girls… and would welcome the creation of a community of artists and musicians whose aim was supporting artists who have been persecuted because of their art.”
I’m sure the members of Pussy Riot were thrilled that Madonna wore a balaclava in their honor and the Red Hot Chili Peppers a Pussy Riot t-shirt at their Russian concerts. We’ll see if the Chili Peppers show a similar concern for Palestinian prisoners, including artists, when they are in Israel. But there are hundreds of artists globally under far greater threat to their freedom and lives who deserve the same attention. It’s time to pull the mask off music censorship globally; if the trial of Pussy Riot can encourage greater attention and solidarity by privileged Western and global artists to the plight of their comrades living in the cultural and political trenches, the group will truly have earned their place in the pantheon of musical, and political, heroes.
This article was first published in Al-Jazeera, and can be viewed, with links to relevant websites, here. The article was also published on freemuse.org and in Huffington Post, and is republished here with permission from the author
Read more: About Pussy Riot on artsfreedom.org
The Record – 17 August 2012:
Musicians Who Paid The Price Before Pussy Riot
Radio interview with Banning Eyre, senior editor of the public radio show Afropop. By Elizabeth Blair
Baeble Blog – 17 August 2012:
Pussy Riot sentenced to two years in prison, and around the world of banned musicians
“In solidarity with Pussy Riot, we give you a few musicians who are noteworthy not just for their talent, but for bravery that sustained them through forced silence, prison camps, and all the physical and psychological abuse of governments who were scared shitless by their fearless melodies.” By Amanda Scherker
The Atlantic – 20 August 2012:
The Kony-ification of Pussy Riot
“How Western interest in their story risks both misunderstanding the group’s mission and misdirecting attention away from the dire challenges Russian political activists now face.” By Joshua Foust
The Irish Times – 23 August 2012:
Pussy Riot are mere magnets for West’s hypocrisy
“ ‘Freedom of speech’ has been on the outraged lips of legions of western celebrities since three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail for hooliganism last week. But just how committed are the western chattering classes to freedom of speech?” By Rory Fitzgerald
Ahram Online – 30 August 2012:
Silence of the Lambs: Pussy Riot, a classical scenario of how freedom of expression is oppressed
The Pussy Riot controversy follows the classical mould of the struggle for freedom of expression, and unveils a typical authoritarian machine, where political autocracy and religious powers unite. By Ati Metwaly.
MTV Iggy – 31 August 2012:
What the arrest of three punk performance artists reveals about protest and freedom of expression right now
“On a deeper level the case brings certain things to light which would otherwise be harder to see, which is, of course, what both protest and art seek to accomplish, and why authorities fear both in way that doesn’t always make a lot of sense…” By Beverly Bryan.