Dangerous Music: Censorship, Threats and Prison Time
Music isn’t just stuck to politics like glue—the two are welded together in an inseparable bond. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello even went so far as to call all music political. If anything is certain, artists convey emotions and sentiments in musical works, which oftentimes supplement and inspire political movements. In America, Bob Dylan songs were marching tunes for the Civil Rights Movement, and more recently Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an outright anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Music operates best when unconstrained by limits to its expressive bounds, but governments across the world have historically intimidated and even jailed artists who have threatened established power structures and questioned state authority—altogether preventing musicians from rocking in a free world.
At a recent hip-hop forum in Ypsilanti, Michigan, retired Detroit police Sgt. Larry Courts recalled one of his most memorable moments in the Detroit Police Department (DPD). In 1989, Courts was stationed at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena with approximately two-hundred other police personnel on vigilant standby. The bolstered police presence was not due to a large crowd or safety threat, but rather because the concert headliner was N.W.A.—the popular Los Angeles hip-hop group that had just released their platinum-selling album Straight Outta Compton. The album contained the politically-charged song “Fuck tha Police”. Detroit Police Department had heard about the song, and that night, DPD told N.W.A. that they weren’t allowed to play it.
“It wasn't going to happen in the city of Detroit. And we told them that before they came,” said Courts. Prior to the concert, Courts and DPD officers spoke with members of N.W.A. and told them that they should avoid performing their song “Fuck tha Police”. Nevertheless, at the tail end of the concert, N.W.A. ended their show by blasting the controversial song out of the arena’s speakers. DPD officers responded instantly: “We immediately jumped on the stage and started taking out amplifiers," said Courts. After the concert, N.W.A. members were detained and questioned by DPD officers, and the police intimidation continued long after the concert: in August 1989, Priority Records—N.W.A.’s record label—received a letter from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) which voiced the Bureau’s criticism of the rap group’s antipolice themes in their music.
Above: The 1989 letter sent from the FBI to Priority Records, N.W.A.’s record label, regarding their recently released song “Fuck tha Police”. Source: Getty Images.
A more recent and absurdly nefarious case of a government restricting the political force of music occurred in Russia in 2012. On March 3, members of the Russian feminist collective punk rock group Pussy Riot performed a guerilla concert (Watch it here) inside a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow. Clad with technicolor balaclavas and bright outfits, Pussy Riot bandmates hopped the cathedral’s golden rails and set up guitar amplifiers on the pulpit. Within seconds of playing music, church security officers arrested Pussy Riot members and carted them off to a nearby Moscow jail.
Following their protest concert in the cathedral, the three members of Pussy Riot were denied bail and held in custody until their trial date. When the trial began, Pussy Riot members were handcuffed and placed in a glass defendant cell. Shockingly, each band member was facing up to seven years in prison for their guerilla performance in the cathedral. A New Yorker investigation found the trial “outrageous, astonishing, biased, exhausting, ridiculous, and at times a comic spectacle… an unapologetic demonstration of force by the state.” Defendants and important witnesses were denied sufficient speaking opportunities, and the judge exhibited clear biases against the defense and wielded unchecked judicial powers. And in one of the most infamous and closely-watched trials in Russia, Pussy Riot members were convicted—in what seemed like a predetermined verdict—of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years imprisonment.
Above: Members of feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot remained cuffed and held in a glass cell during their infamous and closely-watched 2012 trial. Source: Jeremy Nicholl.
Pussy Riot’s tuneful political messages and guerilla performances have illuminated de facto free speech restrictions in Russia. After their release in 2014, members of the punk rock group have been pepper sprayed and whipped by police in Sochi, assaulted by Russian citizens in Nizhny Novgorod, and recently detained by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in Ukraine. Through their courageous and unrelenting efforts to use their music as an outlet for political expression and protest, Pussy Riot has brought more attention to the oppressive and unchecked power of the Russian state than massive protests and in-depth investigations by journalists. In a Guardian interview, a Pussy Riot member remarked that “The most important dictator, Putin, is really afraid of people. He's afraid of Pussy Riot. Afraid of a bunch of young, positive, optimistic women unafraid to speak their minds."
Music throughout history has become inextricably intertwined with the events occurring around artists; it can reach farther and louder than speeches and capture shared emotions and sentiments; it’s a form of expression that should be safeguarded by free speech protections. However, countries across the globe have intimidated, censored, and even jailed artists for speaking their minds—violating fundamental civil liberties that should be guaranteed to artistic expressions no matter their substance. N.W.A. and Pussy Riot display just how powerful and important music can be. When artists challenge taboo topics and cover contentious political themes in their music, they are nurturing a key feature of music: the ability to freely express ideas unconstrained by outside forces.