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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
After Pussy Riot, artists everywhere must stand up for each other
There are hundreds of artists who perform under threat to their freedom and lives, who also deserve our solidarity.
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2012 14:14
Pussy Riot's plight has ignited the passion of artists, from Sting to Madonna, who have called for their freedom [EPA]


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 each now face the remainder of two years' imprisonment has ignited the passion of US 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 US artists have been strangely - and inexcusably - silent when it comes to recognising the plights suffered by their fellow musicians and performers 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 organisations organise just around musicians". In his view, "Artistes 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." 

In focus: Russia's Pussy Riot

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".

Human rights, but not for artists? 

Well-known artistes, including Bono, Adam Yauch, Bruce Springsteen and others, have long lent their name to human rights organisations and campaigns such Amnesty International and the Campaign to Free Tibet. But many 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 artistes - most recently, including Madonna - are flocking to support Pussy Riot, they continue to ignore the plight of other artistes presently in jail. If you go to the Freemuse website, you can see how many artists are under threat and how broad the range of countries is in which their rights are repressed. According to their latest estimate, violations are occurring in some 120 countries, with Afghanistan, Cameroon, China, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Somalia, and Turkey among the most repressive.

As I discussed in a column last month on the plight of Moroccan rapper El Haked, well-known artists continue to perform in countries where others have been jailed in much the same manner as the members of Pussy Riot, without saying or doing anything on their behalf. It's easy to support a cool riot girl band in a country that is a traditional adversary of the "West" and where 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 organisation 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 organisation nor social and political power (or often education) to similarly 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 music-makers.

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 such as 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. 

Putin weighs in on Pussy Riot case

The problem is that, as long as long as artists, and the music industry more broadly, don't take this seriously at the organisational and institutional levels (when is the last time that the Grammy Awards, 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 publicise 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 need to together 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 behaviour 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 artistes 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 publicise specific threats or actions as they arise.
  • They should develop much more coordinated relations with organisations, 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. 

 Russian Orthodox Church organises against 
Pussy Riot punks 

As of now, there are few if any calls for artists to boycott performances in a country besides the Palestinian BDS call, and artists such as 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 such as Jello Biafra came to support BDS after examining all the arguments, less militant artists have been turned off by the sometimes aggressive attempts to persuade them. For the record, Pussy Riot supporter Madonna played Israel on May 31, 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 jail sentences handed down 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 such as freedom of speech (China, Russia, Morocco, Poland, Dubai, Turkey, Abu Dhabi, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Cameroon 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 50 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 systemic human rights violators; nor is it that clear that citizens in such countries would prefer artistes 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 performers 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 honour at her Moscow concert, and that Red Hot Chili Peppers donned Pussy Riot t-shirts at their Russian concerts (we'll see if the Chilis show a similar concern for Palestinian prisoners - inclusing artists - when they perform in Israel). But, globally, there are hundreds of artistes 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 from 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.

Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow Mark Levine on Twitter: @culturejamming

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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