Marie Korpe (ed)
Shoot The Singer! Music Censorship Today

(London: Zed Books, 2004)

Review by Paul Fischer

In recent years, Freemuse, a Copenhagen based non-profit funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Cultural Foundation has set up a watchpost at the crossroads of music, power and public policy. Unabashedly activist, Freemuse is dedicated to taking the artists’ side, a global clearinghouse of information on music censorship in its myriad forms. Toward this end an informative website has been established (Disclosure- I have written for it), and two international conferences have been held. In this book Marie Korpe, co-founder and Executive Director of Freemuse draws together material, primarily from the second conference, to alert and inform those who could not attend, about the concerns of the scholars, musicians, government agents and others who reported there.

Global concern about free musical expression is concern about the free evolution of culture in all societies, from the bottom up. This is significant for all who enjoy music in their lives, especially those of us who owe our careers to it. The book is a pragmatic primer about how music has been treated and mistreated in many localities. Music is variously referred to as “the soul of a culture,” the “essence of life,” a “communal basis for social relationships,” our “most essential cultural expression,” “freedom,” and a “sensual instrument of power.” While all those are hard to quantify, the responses to music by a range of would-be censors, be they police, clerics, generals, bureaucrats, broadcasters, or concert promoters, give eloquent testimony to the power they perceive in music. Shoot The Singer provides solid and insightful discussions of music as an element of culture across broad national and religious backgrounds.

Freemuse Chairman Martin Cloonan’s opening essay offers five dictionary definitions of “censor,” considers legal definitions limited to government action, is open to factors ascribed to “censorship via the workings of the market (4),” and the need to consider the intersecting issues of concentration of media ownership and the narrowing of public space. He makes clear that the central questions to be asked when hearing of suppression of music or artists are: is it actually censorship, and if so what sort. In the next introductory essay, Alenka Barber-Kersovan examines music as a parallel power structure to formal authority. She shows how musicians often take on the role of “ideal ego,” providing role models and serving as opinion formers. She says that when exposure to music makes lasting changes at the rational/cognitive level, that is when authorities get nervous. Factual tales of nervous government, military, and religious authorities pepper the rest of the book.

The range of commentary here is formidable and multi faceted, especially in the collection of pieces about South Africa. Roger Lucey tells of his travails as an angry young singer and Paul Erasmus, the cop who harassed him, atones. Academic/ filmmaker/activist Michael Drewett puts their reconciliation in cultural context, and in Freemuse co-founder Ole Reitov’s piece, former South African Broadcasting Company censor Cecile Pracher states, “I was just doing a job and I didn’t see that much wrong in it (85).” The glimpses into the history and dynamics of actual instances of censorship under many regimes provide cautionary tales for all who feel comfortable in their present circumstances. Revolutions, regime changes, and even elections are shown to quickly undermine smug senses of security. Matoub Lounes of Algeria says, “I shouted my anger in my songs(116).” There is also some joy. At the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, John Baily writes, “music became a symbol, even a signal of freedom (24).”

Artists come in for criticism as well, as in Noam Ben-Zeev’s piece on Israel. He opines, “even as we watch democracy collapsing, there is only silence. The silence of Israeli artists and intellectuals has been deafening. And this is frightening (145).” The frequency of music’s encounters with Ministries of Culture, Information, Islamic Guidance, Security Branches, and NGO’s like the USA’s Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) are truly chilling. That many songwriters, musicians, and other readers don’t already know of these events argues for the necessity of Freemuse’s existence. The section on Europe deals only with repression of Kurdish, minority cultures, and “left-wing protest songs” in Turkey, and rap in France. The latter shows the marginalization of the “streetwise” current of Hip-Hop despite the ways it draws on the “’literary’ tradition of French popular and protest songs (200).” The low-tech possibilities of Hip-Hop creation are shown to have helped it go global, multi-lingual, and mainstream. Rap is France’s fastest growing musical genre, and “pop rap” is the “number one youth music for white and black, rich or poor (201).” The essay also details the prosecution of French rappers NTM (Nique Ta Mere) who were imprisoned for two months and banned from performing their music for six months.

The three essays on the United States do not add up to a coherent whole, but make clear that even in the land where “Congress shall make no law….” there are causes for concern. Eric Nuzum offers a nuanced account of the power exerted by Clear Channel Broadcasting, owner of more than 1400 radio stations in the USA. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks the company quietly endorsed a list of 150 songs that its stations should not air which, in his view, showed a “troubling degree of literalism and prejudice when examining lyrical imagery (152).” He also opens the way toward pointed discussion of non-governmental acts that have the same effect as censorship, saying: “When we open up the question of ‘tasteful’ or ‘appropriate’ censorship – even a little – we turn rights into permissions (153).”

The quibble with Shoot The Singer! if there is one, is that it doesn’t go far enough. While the hand of the Editor is evident, her voice is absent, save the briefest of Prefaces and Acknowledgements. While this may nod to a need for objectivity from Korpe’s journalistic background, it misses the opportunity to frame this important global discussion more assertively. There are no editorial bookends to the Introduction section stating approach(es), intent, and scope. There is no commentary on the book’s geographically themed sections and no Epilogue summing up trends or shaping a sense of the global climate for musical expression. The book misses the opportunity to articulate Freemuse’s agenda and concerns to a new and broader audience. As a result the book lacks continuity and cohesion, making it a more difficult read. The best strategy is to read the introductory pieces and zero in on regions or countries of particular personal interest. Above all, this is a valuable, politically powerful collection that deserves high regard.

  © IASPM 2008  
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