“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”: Victor Hugo
Recently, an all-female punk band kicked the Russian government’s ass with their provocative performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow.
Their angry anthem – “Punk Prayer: Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!” shed more light (if not lyrical mockery) on the Russian regime close ties with the Orthodox Church. After a video of the performance went viral, three of the group members were arrested and charged with hooliganism. Meanwhile, another two of the band members had fled Russia.
The grrrls’ action was not particularly everyone’s glass of Vodka. As much as the action depicts a strong explicit opposition to Putin’s regime, a local poll in Russia indicates 70% of the public’s perception of the Orthodox Church has not changed since the incident occurred and only 5 % of the population feels the band should not be punished.
But this article is not going to deliberate on how successful Pussy Riot had been in influencing public opinion, nor will it dealt with whether they deserve the arrest for doing what they did.
I will embrace the spirit of rebellion and proceed on how the Pussy Riot controversy triggers interesting dimensions about freedom of expression, human rights and the music industry.
The arrest of Pussy Riot left a strong impact on the Western entertainment world. Madonna was the first to condemn the arrest as inhumane. Later on, big names such as Paul McCartney and Franz Ferdinand shared their digital solidarity with the Anti-Kremlin punk band via Twitter. Black Keys boycotts gigs in Russia while Bjork went a little bit entrepreneurial and sell Pussy Riot t-shirts online, to raise fund for the band’s legal fees.
But apart from the excitement of having our music idols standing by the punk band, the whole furore ignites further introspection on how the entertainment industry at large responds to this controversy. Despite the encouraging turn, there is obviously still a huge vacuum where support for musicians in such predicament is concerned. To a certain extent, the passionate support for Pussy Riot shown by the Western celebrities was also construed as hypocritical or a quick PR strategy. But the skepticism displayed was not truly unfounded. Before Pussy Riot, there are already other musicians out there, spending their lives behind bar for resisting the system, whose plight remain unnoticed or ignored by the rest of the world.
A short academic interview I had with “Freemuse”, a year ago, revealed such lack of support for musicians at risk around the world. Freemuse is an NGO, based in Denmark that dedicates its advocacy expertise to musicians who are threatened by state oppression and censorship. The NGO works really hard in establishing strong relations with unions, music foundations or legal and human rights bodies.
Musicians such as Pussy Riot, not only need moral support when they are slapped with a criminal charge, denied visa or faced imprisonment; they also need money and institutional support. And this is where I believe the entertainment industry is divided. Yes, multi-billionaire celebrities are willing to part with a portion of their money for what the market might label as popular branding strategies but, helping out poor musicians beaten by the Burmese military? That could be quite a lot to ask.
Mark Levine gave an astute observation of this phenomenon in his commentary over what prevailed in the Pussy Riot case. In his article, he reiterated how well known artistes such as Bono or Bruce Springsteen, are strong advocates and supporters of human rights initiatives but are silent about the human rights violations suffered by their own fellow musicians. To elaborate further on this, some artistes have even set up foundations to support poverty eradication, improve access to education or for other noble causes across the globe. Not to trivialise these commendable contribution to social change, the same show of support and dedication would also be just as meaningful if it is lent to musicians around the world who are facing imprisonment, persecution or censorship in their respective communities. In fact, with the support given, these “audio rebels” would be able to sustain their activism elsewhere and further spread the movement for change. For a start, we need to do some serious mowing in our own backyard too. Malaysia’s track record in reprimanding musicians is just as worrying.
As reported by Freemuse website, musicians at risks are at the moment suffering in about 120 countries around the world due to state suppression or religious and cultural censorship. At the moment, issues related to music or musicians that take centre stage at international forums such as UNESCO, for instance, are more often than not; revolve around ownership of music, cultural heritage or as of music as a resource for livelihood.
In human rights reports related to freedom of expression, human rights abuses suffered by journalists, filmmakers or authors received greater attention than musicians. But as evident from the experience of those agents of change; institutional recognition of musicians as human rights defenders would give more weight and support to their claim for freedom.
Looking at the growing number of musicians being harassed or censored by their repressive governments, I believe much more effort needs to be galvanized in framing problems faced by musicians as not merely an aesthetic, moral or religious clash, but similarly like other human rights defenders, an attempt to disintegrate yet another form of popular resistance that might be a lot more influential in the public realm than we ever realized.
Death or glory, becomes just another story hey Strummer, Punk is making a comeback!
Mark Levine. “After Pussy Riot, Artistes have to stand for Each other, Everywhere”. Please refer to the following website: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-levine/pussy-riot-verdict-guilty_b_1798040.html
West Hypocrisy Over Pussy Riot issue? http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/21/west-hypocrisy-pussy-riot
What Do Russians think about Pussy Riot? http://www.forbes.com/sites/markadomanis/2012/07/31/what-do-russians-think-about-pussy-riot-the-answer-might-surprise-you/
For more coverage on musicians at risk around the world, do visit http://www.freemuse.org