Artists are truth tellers risking their lives for us

Our consideration of the human rights in any country should include the freedom of artists to express their heart, writes Deeyah Khan – a critically acclaimed music producer, composer and an Emmy award-winning documentary film director – in this statement she submitted to the United Nations in March 2014.

Video recording of Deeyah Khan’s speech at the United Nations.

“Art is as necessary to democracy as a free press. Artists play a very underestimated role in civil society. On the ground, artists find themselves alone. (…) That art is so powerful is also demonstrated in the efforts that are taken in crushing it.”

By Deeyah Khan

Art is a powerful form of communication which has a unique ability to transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries, an exploration of what it means to be human. Art can be brash or sublime, basic or intricate, and is one of the first forms of human expression and which remains rooted in the creative potential for innovation and transformation. It has an extraordinary capacity to express resistance and rebellion; protest and hope. It can start conversations; it can bring subjects into the public sphere, expose abuses and to point towards new worlds: to touch people in a deeper and more affecting way than academic and political discourse, to move us to tears, to laughter and to action. There is a reason why artists, intellectuals and women are usually the first targets of oppressive regimes, of fundamentalist groups and of reactionaries of all stripes, who cannot bear any positions that threaten their perceived monopoly on truth or which expose their corruption and cruelty.

So, where art is transgressive, it is decried as immoral, seditious or contrary to religious rules. Artists are silenced by many means, from harassment to imprisonment, from censorship to accusations of blasphemy; which can itself be a death sentence. This precious human resource is formed from deep continuities with our artistic traditions with the fertile exploration of new forms to make up the glorious potential of creativity: surely one of the pinnacles of human achievement and experience. The English radical poet Shelley considered poets to be the unacknowledged legislators of the world: the future is in the present as the plant lies in the seed, he said; and art has the potential to realise this future, a future of equality, diversity and unity. In this sense, artists should be considered providing a vital, but under-appreciated contribution to the functioning of civil society.

Artists everywhere, and in all periods, have taken a role in standing up for human rights and human dignity through their explorations of the human condition, particularly in times of unrest, oppression and chaos. It is no wonder that its liberating and unbounded potential to speak truth to power is feared by those who remain invested in the suppression of the human spirit. Where the media is controlled, art becomes the last voice of freedom; more trusted than official outlets, a channel for dissidence, a telling of alternate histories, alternate futures. Where women’s voices are silenced, women’s self-expression is an act of defiance, of refusal of the strict limitations of gender roles. Where societies are based in fear and oppression, art is a seed of hope for a better world (by pepa). The creative process itself generates a sense of inner liberation which lays the seeds for calling for broader liberties. Art is a form of expression which is often one of the most available, even to the poorest individual: the tools required can be as simple as a voice, a pencil or a humble drum.

The potential for change that art can bring is shown by the extraordinary means taken to crush it: such as attacks by militant religious extremists on artistic expressions and artists in countries such as Mali and Pakistan. Last year almost 20 artists were killed. Thousands more were censored, or persecuted. Many incidents are never made publicly known – those who experience daily threats from fundamentalists in Northern Mali, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan or who are victimized by the internal conflicts of Syria or Sudan, amongst many other assaults upon artistic freedoms the world over.

When musicians, who are questioning political repression and corruption through their music, are imprisoned in Russia, Turkey, Vietnam or Tunisia, it is an attempt to silence voices, which can document oppression and express hope, and dictators wish to conceal their oppressions as much as they wish to stamp out hope. During the early days of the uprisings in the Middle East, for instance, musicians – like ‘El General’ of Tunisia – played an essential role as truth-tellers, exposing political and financial corruption as well as providing rallying anthems, providing a sense of solidarity and unity to those on the street. In the words of a rapper from Gaza, who has since been forced into accepting protection by Gothenburg City Council: “I am the CNN of the street”.

The first ever UN report on freedom on artistic expression and creativity published by the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of culture last spring was a long-awaited achievement, raising many crucial questions, calling upon governments to take action; and for violations to be recorded. However, international reports on violations of human rights tend to focus on media freedom, to the exclusion of other forms of expression. The vitality of artistic creativity is necessary for the development of vibrant, plural cultures. Artists – in the words of the Special Rapporteur – “have proven their ability to bring counterweights to existing power centres in many developing countries and inspire millions of people to discuss, reflect and mobilise”.

Organisations such as Freemuse, Arterial Network and the National Coalition Against Censorship have been established to document violations, but in comparison to the numerous organisations documenting and defending freedom of expression for journalists and more conventional political activists, artists have few organisations to monitor violations worldwide, and to provide support to people at risk, and to lobby for the changes in laws which limit the freedom of expression and for the changes in policy which would make states take responsibility for the protection of artists and of artistic freedoms.

The freedom of expression has become a focal point of clashes between groups in society, reflecting internal conflicts whether these are religious, cultural or political conflicts in nature. Pavlos Fyssas, known as Killah P, an activist against fascism, used his rap music career to criticise the rise of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party, in Greece. He was stabbed to death by a party member. While the attention of the international media has focussed on the restrictions upon Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the imprisonment of punk activists Pussy Riot, somewhat out of the media eye, several of Mali’s world famous musicians joined forces in creating awareness of the cultural disaster of the country.

It should not be the case that only the persecution of famous artists raises outrage: a barely literate Afghan wedding musician threatened by the Taliban deserves the same support and the same attention as globally known artists, even though these rarely attract the same diplomatic attention. In a world which fears women’s participation, and women’s voices, being a woman and an artist is itself a political act, an act of resistance against the strict gender roles and limitations placed women in our world. For more than 30 years, Iranian women have not been permitted to sing solo, nor to perform before mixed audiences. We also need to recognise that it is not necessarily only the state or fundamentalists who pose a threat to free expression: for some, particularly women, the threat against their safety comes from their own relatives. Pashtu singers like Ghazala Javed, killed by her husband after she filed for divorce; Shamim Aiman Udas, killed by her brothers in a so-called ‘honour’ killing at a time when Pashtun militants were engaged in a campaign of harassment of musicians.

The marginalization of women artists, the censorship of free expression, the harassment of artists, has effects beyond those who are victimised and their families, it impoverishes debate, and delimits some of the most profound expressions of the human spirit. I believe that art is as necessary to democracy as a free press. And yet it is suppressed across the world, sometimes in more discreet ways than through the violence expressed against individuals in Mali and Afghanistan. Art is suppressed through the institution of blasphemy laws, through the high pressure tactics of special interest groups who consider their own sentiments more valid than freedom of speech, leading to subtle and devastating self-censorship; where those who distribute and market art, through galleries, publishing houses and concert venues, are rendered fearful of the implications of the most iconoclastic forms of art, which are often the most generative.

Art and freedom of expression are vital elements of any functioning democracy, and priceless human treasures. Our consideration of the human rights in any country should include the freedom of artists to express their heart. The persecution of artists must be recognized as political rather than as a facet of tradition or faith: as acts of repression against dissidents, differing from more overt political activism only in the method of expression; methods which are as old as humanity and deeply engrained into every culture and tradition, which have moved, inspired and unified people for generations. As a woman, and an artist, I believe in the power of art to bring about social change, and I believe that it is in our common interest as human beings to ensure that artists have the freedom to speak out; to release the plant from the seed.

Deeyah Khan wrote this statement about the role of art and artists in civil society for her presentation at the United Nations Human Right Council in March 2014. But, as it can be seen on the video above, because of time constraints and personal preference, Deeyah eventually decided to leave the manuscript and just speak from the heart.

» We recommend you also read this compelling and well-written story about Deeyah’s life as an artist:
Rebel filmmaker & music producer Deeyah shares life on International Women’s Day

Norwegian-Pakistani meeting in the UN building

Deeyah Khan also gave a presentation at a side-event which The Permanent Mission of Norway in Geneva and The permanent Mission of Pakistan in Geneva hosted on the occasion of the international Women’s day on 8 March. The problematic situation for artists as human rights defenders was discussed at this event as well.

“We must include artists as defenders that need protection and recondition. They are defenders at risk,” stated Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, at this event.

» ‘Defending women human rights – effective strategies and challenges across regions’.

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