The Record
4:08 pm
Fri August 17, 2012

Music As The Ultimate Rebel Yell

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 6:18 pm

The two-year jail sentences for the members of the band Pussy Riot might seem extreme to people in the U.S., where musicians are protected under freedom of speech. But this is not the first time musicians around the world have faced punishing consequences for being rebellious.

In some countries, the treatment of outspoken musicians is so severe that it's better for them to leave their homes altogether, says Banning Eyre, senior editor of the public radio show Afropop. "The greatest singer, arguably, of modern Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo, is currently living in exile in Eugene, Ore.," says Eyre, "in the aftermath of some very, very direct criticisms that he sang of the government in the late '90s."

One of Mapfumo's most famous revolutionary songs, "Hokoyo," from the 1970s, warns a white government to watch out — the black majority will take back the country. But unlike Pussy Riot's very public trial and sentencing in Russia, Eyre says, many African musicians who speak out against their governments are simply harassed. He says that's what happened to Mapfumo.

"They never banned him," he says. "They never did anything overt, but he received threatening phone calls. They just made him so uncomfortable that he left."

The level of tolerance for dissent varies greatly around the world, and a lot of it depends on the timing. Take the rapper El General in Tunisia. Not long before the Arab Spring really took off, he wrote a song, "Rais Lebled," directed at the Tunisian president about the suffering on the streets. El General posted the song online.

"It very quickly became the anthem of the revolution in Tunisia," says Charles Homans, who writes for Foreign Policy magazine. "And then he recorded a follow-up song kind of pushing his luck with the regime, and did get thrown in jail for a few days. But by that point he was an important enough figure that the president himself, Ben Ali, was inquiring after how he was doing."

Country Joe McDonald wrote a song that is considered one of the most direct attacks on the Vietnam War, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die." His song caused a sensation at Woodstock, but McDonald says he never worried about a resulting jail sentence, even though, he says, the FBI kept a file on him.

He says musicians have a powerful platform, but popularity can easily be lost because of controversy. "The only consequences I had was to be avoided as far as the box office is considered," says McDonald. "I became a living legend and problematic to the business of show business."

Reflecting on the guilty verdict for Pussy Riot in Russia, McDonald says he believes they were targets for doing things we take for granted in the U.S.

"Just the fact that they are a modern, rock, punk, women band is of itself cutting edge," he says.

Not to mention that they performed in a Russian Orthodox Church — a very in-your-face protest of both religion and Vladimir Putin's regime.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The two-year sentence for the members of Pussy Riot might seem extreme to people here in the U.S., where musicians are protected under freedom of speech. But around the world, musicians have faced punishing consequences for being rebellious. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In some countries, the treatment of outspoken musicians is so severe, it's better for them to leave their homes altogether, says Banning Eyre, senior editor at AfroPop.org.

BANNING EYRE: Algeria has driven many artists into France, for example, for singing too much about sex or politics; a variety of reasons. The greatest singer, arguably, of modern Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo, is currently living in exile in Eugene, Oregon, because - in the aftermath of some very, very direct criticisms that he sang of the government, in the late '90s.

BLAIR: One of Thomas Mapfumo's most famous revolutionary songs from the '70s, warns a white government to watch out; that the black majority will take back the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAPFUMO SONG)

BLAIR: But unlike Pussy Riot's very public trial and sentencing in Russia, Banning Eyre says many African musicians who speak out against their governments, are simply harassed. He says that's what happened to Thomas Mapfumo.

EYRE: They never exactly banned him; they never did anything overt. But he received threatening phone calls, and they just made him so uncomfortable that he left.

BLAIR: The level of tolerance for dissent varies greatly around the world, and a lot of it depends on the timing. Take the rapper El General, in Tunisia. Not long before the Arab Spring really took off, he wrote a song directed at the Tunisian president, about the suffering on the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL GENERAL SONG)

BLAIR: El General posted the song online, and it went viral. Charles Homans writes for Foreign Policy magazine.

CHARLES HOMANS: And it very quickly became the anthem of the revolution in Tunisia. And then he recorded a follow-up song - kind of pushing his luck with the regime a bit - and did get thrown in jail for a few days. But by that point, he was an important enough figure that the president himself, Ben Ali, was inquiring after - sort of how he was doing, and all this stuff.

COUNTRY JOE MCDONALD: Political music is always a threat to the status quo.

BLAIR: Country Joe McDonald is famous for a song that is considered one of the most direct attacks on the Vietnam War; that caused a sensation at Woodstock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL LIKE I'M FIXING TO DIE")

MCDONALD: (Singing) Sing it. One, two, three. What are we fighting for? Don't ask me. I don't give a damn. Louder! Next stop is Vietnam.

BLAIR: Joe McDonald says he never worried about a jail sentence for the song, but he says the FBI did keep a file on him. He says musicians have a powerful platform, but popularity can easily be lost because of controversy.

MCDONALD: The only consequences I had was to be avoided, as far as the box office is concerned. You know, I became a living legend but not a box office legend, and problematic to the business of show business.

BLAIR: Reflecting on the guilty verdict for Pussy Riot in Russia, McDonald says he believes that they were targets for doing things we take for granted in the U.S.

MCDONALD: Just the fact that they are a modern rock and roll, punk women's band is, of itself, cutting edge.

BLAIR: Not to mention that they performed in a Russian Orthodox Church - a very in-your-face protest of both religion and Vladimir Putin's regime.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.