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Hip Hop Fridays: Silencing Black Voices by John Kariuki

The latest report by Freedom of Music Expression focuses on the controversy surrounding hip-hop music, which continues to encounter restrictions and criticism in many countries.

Last September, Grammy winner US rapper Kanye West was one of the guests on America's National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) television special programme aired live to raise funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

West, who was reading a prepared script during the show, discarded it halfway through and started speaking about the racist slurs against black people in New Orleans in the media coverage of the Hurricane.

He said: "I hate the way the media portrays black people. When they show blacks, they say that they are looters, but when the faces are white, they are people searching for food."

West was referring to pictures carried in US newspapers of black and white residents of New Orleans carrying away food and water from stores in the aftermath of the hurricane last October. The captions referred to the black people as "looters" while the white people were "people searching for food."

His remarks were aired on the US East Coast, which received the programme live, but were censored when the recorded version was aired on the West Coast.

However, as West continued to speak out against racism during the show, he was taken off camera and was cut off in mid-sentence - just after he had said, "George Bush doesn't care for black people."

Later, an NBC spokesperson, Rebecca Marks, apologised for the remarks saying that the network should have censored them. "We were looking out for swear or 'f' words and his deviation from the script took us by complete surprise," she said.

West was unapologetic, stating: "I know it may hurt me financially, but those blacks are my brothers and sisters."

Fellow rappers Jay-Z, P. Diddy and Nelly later joined West at an MTV interview where they donated $500,000 to help blacks affected by the hurricane.

The West incident is one of several cited in an end of year report by Freedom of Music Expression (better known as Freemuse) an organisation that advocates musicians' rights to free expression either through their art or other fora.

A more comprehensive report on restrictions on music and musicians in the US is expected later this year. The report is compiled by Eric Nuzum, the author of Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America.

In a comprehensive assessment of abuse of artiste's rights globally, the organisation, which was formed under the auspices of the Danish Human Rights Organisation, has compiled reports from countries - developed and developing - citing the restrictions musicians continue to encounter in pursuit of their right to free expression.

A preamble to report notes that the spotlight on artistes' restrictions is shifting to Africa but abuses continue in all countries. The abuses include covert action to restrict expression by artistes and occasional non-covert action that may prompt them to exercise self-censorship.

Though not mentioned in this report, Kenya's presidential caution to young musicians to avoid explicit language could be viewed as a restriction likely to promote self-censorship.

Last year, Freemuse held seminars in Zimbabwe, Senegal and South Africa and also intervened on behalf of artistes in Ghana by joining a lobby against a controversial copyright Bill. The Bill, still under debate, requires that musicians using Ghanaian folklore pay a royalty for all copies sold.

Ideally, the Bill is in line with the standard requirements of the World Intellectual Rights guidelines by the World Trade Organisation but its opponents in Ghana argue that it will discourage musicians from using folk songs, which is a sure way of preserving folklore in that country.

Kristen Malm, a founding member of Freemuse co-authored Big Sounds By from Small peoples: the music industry in small countries, a book that looked into the negative effects of the internalisation of the music business.

His research covered many countries including Kenya, where he looked at the impact of mass media and government attitude on development of homegrown music cultures.

Most of the abuses cited in Freemuse's end of year report were by governments, or media organisations seen to have close links with government, but also included two cases where censorship was instituted by hardliners outside government control.

One such case involved the Lahore Festival in Pakistan, which has been promoting the sufi culture as a vehicle towards a softer more spiritual Islamic culture in a country where mullahs push for the hard-line doctrine of the faith.

Festival organizer Faizaan Peerzada told Freemuse that in the past, there have been levels of self-censorship measure for fear of offending the hardliners. But the festival, which has become a major cultural event, intends to open up more, to give musicians freedom to express themselves.

This year, the Freemuse lobby pays attention to the controversy surrounding hip-hop music which continues to encounter restrictions and criticism in many countries.

In Ghana, a meeting of top business tycoons called for a radio and television ban on hip-life, a Ghanaian variation of hip-hop, citing profanity and breaches of traditional cultural values.

The Canadian government has also threatened to ban US rapper 50 Cent claiming that he promotes gun-related violence.

Dan McFeague, a Junior Minister in the Canadian government said that there is a limit to freedom and 50 Cent was clearly off limits. "His concerts attract far too many guns and I think we should stop them to stem violence among youths," said Mr McFeague.

But probably the most telling reaction to rap relates to the ghetto riots in France late last year, which some members of government blamed on rap music and have called for the ban and prosecution of several prominent rap groups, accusing them of inciting and fanning the violence.

The groups include 113, Ministere Amer and Monsieur R, which are all hardcore rap groups drawn from the immigrant youth population in France.

In its song Fransse, Monsieur R is criticised for showing contempt to France and its historical heroes like Napoleon and Charles De Gaulle.

Leading the campaign to ban the groups is Francois Grosdier, a conservative Member of Parliament and member of the ruling UMP party.

Mr Grosdier claims to have the support of 153 MPs and 49 senators. Among his supporters is Junior Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkovy who accused the rap group 113 of propagating anti-white racism in France.

But French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said that rap was not responsible for the inner-cities violence but added that those who go over the line could be prosecuted.

In reaction, the rappers asked the government to take responsibility for the violence. "They go to sleep in parliament but I wish they listened to what we say," said Monsieur R.

He was echoing a common view that governments that criticise music ought to be listening to it instead, to monitor the attitudes and passions of the people living in ghettos and their disaffection with authority.

But Zimbabwe presents a unique situation of artistic restrictions caused by the economic hardships that have hit the country and musicians in particular.

In a report on censorship in that country, writer Maxwell Sibanda notes that the fuel crises that have hit that country have encumbered free movement by musicians who depend on gigs to survive.

"Many of them are unable to do the shows at which they badly need to be heard and recognised.

The situation also affects record companies, whose marketers cannot always make trips to sell their music due to the fuel shortage." Sibanda writes.

He however notes a general improvement on the official front and radio is featuring local music much more freely.

But this may be too little too late. The once vibrant music industry has been severely crippled, with some of the country's top artistes now residing abroad.

Zimbabwe has also been featured on other human-rights related reports over its high-handeness in silencing musicians opposed to the Robert Mugabe government.

Even as Freemuse focuses on Africa, developed countries continue to be a point of attention.

Among them is Britain, whose 1994 Criminal Justice Bill is used as a reference point of punitive legislation that targets music and dance.

The Bill was passed in record time and specifically mooted to bar the proliferation of the "rave" party culture that started in the 1990s and was seen as a threat to social justice.

Raves are "underground" parties that take place in abandoned warehouses or unpoliced quarters of cities.

The music is hardcore rock and disco. They also feature hypnotising lighting and "party" drugs such as ecstasy and alcohol in copious quantities, attracting youths not old enough to drink.

The Bill bars any gathering of more than 10 people assembling on private land to listen to music typified by excessive repetition of beats.

While these and other factors may continue to hinder free expression, Freemuse also notes a pattern where a growing public supports restrictions onmusic content and videos.

A conference at Ball University indicated that 50 per cent of Americans now feel that censorship is a good thing.

The emergence of moral lobby groups presents a new threat to freedom of artistic expression and many target rap music and songs considered to contain immoral content.

Last year, a moral lobby group successfully prompted Ford Motors to drop an endorsement of controversial rapper Eminem with a threat that it would rally supporters to boycott Ford products.

Boycott threats against artistes and their sponsors are bound to be the big challenge for Freemuse in the new year.

This article was published by East African Standard

John Kariuki

Friday, January 27, 2006

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