Censorship of the global concert hall

Music has frequently been seen as a tool of social change — a force that brings about community and empowerment in addressing inequalities and inspiring action. One can look at the civil rights movement, with notable performers like Joan Baez and Nina Simone just two examples of the many who helped sway the public’s sentiment during that pivotal time in American history. Music has the power to educate, to instigate, and sometimes, to change. To some, this power is not always a positive, and can lead to negative consequences for artists that refuse to censor themselves.

At a concert in Shanghai in early March, Icelandic icon Bjork startled Chinese authorities when she chanted “Tibet!” during a performance of her song “Declare Independence.” This vocalization of support for Tibet — a region which has been controversially subject to Chinese rule for nearly 60 years — inspired the Chinese Ministry of Culture to release a statement stating that the chant “broke Chinese law and hurt Chinese people’s feelings.” The outburst reportedly was expected to lead to stricter regulations for foreign performers coming to China, though this has been later been denied by authorities calling Bjorkgate an isolated incident.

In response to criticism of her recent actions in Shanghai and elsewhere — tributing the same song to Kosovo in a February show in Japan, which led to the cancellation of an upcoming appearance in Israel later this year — Bjork has stuck to her guns.

“… I would like to put importance on that I am not a politician, I am first and last a musician and as such I feel my duty to try to express the whole range of human emotions. The urge for declaring independence is just one of them but an important one we all feel at some times in our lives. This song was written more with the personal in mind but the fact that it has translated to its broadest meaning, the struggle of a suppressed nation, gives me much pleasure. I would like to wish all individuals and nations good luck in their battle for independence. Justice!”

The Chinese Ministry of Culture’s response to Bjork’s words in concert is just one small part of a sweeping movement across the country that has censored many dissenting voices in preparation for the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer. Due to continued unrest in Tibet in late March, Chinese authorities blocked access to YouTube, the source of all things entertaining, as part of what has become known as the Great Firewall of China. Google results, Myspace, Blogspot, Livejournal, CNN.com, SlashDot, Wikipedia and many other sites are similarly filtered, and until recently, foreign journalists were blocked completely from entering Tibet to report on continued unrest in the region.

When I read of these increasingly strict regulations on what sources of information and entertainment that the Chinese are allowed access to, I am deeply troubled. The censorship being enforced by the Chinese Ministry of Culture doesn’t seem all that different from the starting point of the Nazi Party’s regulation of the arts pre-World War II and the Holocaust. Government control of the arts is simply never a good sign.

That said, as websites like YouTube and Myspace continue to build a global concert hall allowing fans to experience music as never before, we must realize that what is perceived as right and just as “freedom of speech” is a Western value. Cultural imperialism often carries its own atrocities with it, and it is up to the music industry to decide how this tension will be dealt with in a way that respects both artistic license and local cultural customs.

– Joe Erbentraut, True Endeavors Communications and Public Relations Intern