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Music censorship and the power of music

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 08:12
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Music has always been a target for censorship with many debates about appropriate use of language, religious references, violence, sexuality and civil rights being the main areas of contention. Every time music is censored, there are many heated discussions and debates, especially within the creative industries.

So what is art and what is its purpose? 

The Oxford Dictionary defines art as ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

The Cambridge Dictionary says that art is: ‘the making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings.

Merriam Webster is similar but interestingly adds the word ‘important’: ‘something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.

So, as artists, to put it simply, we are creating something that expresses how we feel. Surely everyone should be allowed to do that? We can look back at some early examples of censorship and see how ridiculous they are now.

Press delete before you publish

Around 1780, the classical composer, Mozart had to delete sections of one of his operas because his patron, the Emperor, decided it just had ‘too many notes’. 

In 1955, the police threatened to arrest Elvis Presley if he did not stand still while he performed. The movement of his hips was a continual issue and was considered shocking

Even now, we see more and more examples of censorship worldwide, due to differences in political views, religion, sex or violence, to name a few. There are many examples of musicians being censored due to a variety of reasons and I would like to mention a few.

Different country, different rules

On 30 January 2019, Iranian band Askair, performed a concert in Tehran. Their music has now been banned by the Ministry of Culture because the band’s female guitarist (Parsa), sang a solo at the end of a song. Under Iranian law, women are not allowed to sing on their own in front of men - and during major concerts in Iran, a member of the Ministry of Culture always attends to ensure these laws are being upheld.

The Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, were famously arrested and sentenced for hooliganism following a performance in 2012. Their lyrics communicate their thoughts on issues including feminism, LGBT rights, and their opposition to Vladimir Putin and his links to the Russian Orthodox Church. In a recent interview, Pussy Riot said:

’As an artist, as a modern artist, I can say that it's impossible to sing songs on "right" or "wrong" subjects. Any gesture is justified if it corresponds to the artistic value that you put into it. Any censoring is hell and total darkness’

In Vietnam, a Latin based genre called ‘Bolero’ established in the 18th century, by the 1930s had evolved into a romantic style of music which discussed feelings and love using poetic lyrics. By the 1970s, it became known in Vietnam as ’yellow’ music as a sign of protest against ‘red music’ promoted by the communist government during the Vietnam war. The music was banned in 1975 and anyone caught playing or listening to it, would be punished. 

In 1965, Nguyen Van Loc - a Vietnamese musician - formed a band to play at weddings and parties. The band consisted of two guitarists and a singer. In a recent interview for the BBC, he said:

‘Our repertoires included pre-war love songs and foreign romantic songs that we thought were beautiful and human. We knew that [this] kind of music was not allowed as they banned everything from the past. But we still loved it - we were not doing politics, we were only two guitarists and a singer’

They were arrested in 1968. Nguyen Van Loc was sentenced to 10 years and Phan Thang Toan the band leader, was sentenced to 15 years for ‘poisoning the young generation with pessimistic and reactionary songs, promoting a retrogressive and sex-orientated lifestyle’. 

Investigating cause and effect

In London, Drill Music has been under the microscope and this year, artists Skengdo and AM were given custodial sentences for ‘performing drill music that incited and encouraged violence against rival gang members and then posted it on social media’. The injunction also prohibits Skengdo and AM performing or broadcasting songs with lyrics mentioning rival crews, rappers in those crews or even describing “intrusions on to any other gang or group’s perceived territory”, including their postcodes.

What is especially interesting about this case, in the UK,  is that this is the first time in British legal history that a prison sentence has been issued for performing a song. The Metropolitan Police have also been exploring the connection between gang violence and videos, and have so far removed over 90 videos from YouTube. In a recent article in the Guardian, Det Supt Mike West said :

‘We are not seeking to suppress freedom of expression through any kind of music. We only ask for videos to be removed from social media which we believe raise the risk of violence’

The power of expression

Music has an incredible power and should never be underestimated. It is a language. An art. A communicator of emotion. While we are dancing or singing along to a track that makes us feel good - this is powerful. When we have experienced a loss and cry while listening to a depressing song - this is powerful.  

It can affect our emotions in many ways, but beyond the simplistic happy and sad range. Think about the strength people all over the world feel when hearing Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ or the inspirational ‘We Shall Overcome’?  

Music captivates us, motivates us, inspires us and it is a language that communicates across all boundaries, across the world - makes us feel. It is so powerful in fact, as we can see above, it is feared and banned. The truth of a song is more powerful than we know, and it is possibly the greatest tool we have to change the world. Food for thought.

‘Music is life itself’
Louis Armstrong


Trained in dance, drama and music Fiona Ross has been working in the creative arts Industry for many years with her first professional job at the age of two. Currently working in the jazz industry, she has released four critically acclaimed albums in the past three years and performed in London’s top jazz venues. Fiona is also a freelance journalist for three major jazz publications and passionate advocate for mental health promotion and is a patron for the mental health organisation Insomniac Club.

She is involved in teaching, leadership and arrangement in education and was Head of British Academy of New Music, London, for nearly nine years (Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora, Jess Glynne etc)


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