By now, unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere, you’ll know that the verdict in the trial of Russian feminist punks Pussy Riot is due this week. The Kafka-esque spectacle of the band being tried for the “crime” of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” has been an entirely depressing affair — our own Marina Galperina has written extensively about it over at ANIMAL — and while we don’t hold out much hope for a not guilty verdict, we do hope that the amount of publicity the trial has generated means that any conviction is very much a Pyrrhic victory for the Russian government. Sadly, Pussy Riot aren’t the only musicians who’ve suffered through authoritarian governments attempting to silence them — Russia, after all, isn’t the only place where making music and/or being politically outspoken can land you on the wrong side of the law. So here’s a selection of other musicians, both past and present, who’ve endured similar treatment at the hands of their country’s governments.
The Plastic People of the Universe
First, a story that has plenty of historical parallels with that of Pussy Riot. Anyone who doubts just how influential music can be in catalyzing revolution would do well to read up on the story of this long-running Czech band. Formed in 1968, they were a constant thorn in the side of Czechoslovakia’s communist government, and by 1976, the government had had enough — the band members were put on trial for disturbing the peace, eventually receiving custodial sentences. But their imprisonment didn’t exactly have the desired effect — in fact, it was their trial that inspired future Czech president Václav Havel and various other activists to pen the Charter 77 manifesto, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to the 1989 Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism. If you’re interested, there’s more about the band’s history here and also an article by playwright Tom Stoppard here (the latter behind a paywall, sadly).
Back to the present day: you could argue that the most unexpected result of the Arab Spring was a hitherto-unknown Tunisian rapper being named as one of Time‘s Most Influential People of 2011. Hamada Ben Amor — aka El Général — was arrested after the release of “Tunisia Our Country,” a protest song against the government of the now-deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Much was made of this song catalyzing the protests in Tunisia that began a chain of similar movements across the Arab World, although exactly how accurate this is remains debatable — there’s an interesting article about the role of hip hop, and also the tendency for the Western media to focus on such things, at Al Jazeera. But still, Ben Amor’s imprisonment was exactly the sort of futile gesture beloved of authoritarian governments who have lost touch with their people — and the demise of Ben Ali’s government illustrated what eventually happens to such governments… sooner or later.
El Général hasn’t exactly been the only Arab hip hop type to end up in prison over the last few years, of course. Moroccan rapper Mouad Belghouat — known by his stage name Al-Haqed or El-Haked, which translates as “The Vengeful One” — has been an outspoken critic of the country’s monarchy, and has been arrested several times, most recently in March on charges of “defaming the police” with one of his songs. He was sentenced to a year in prison, a sentence that was recently upheld on appeal. There’s more about him here. (Also, the song in question — “Dogs of the State,” or “Kilaab Ad-Dawla” in Arabic, is really hard to find. We think that the video above is it, but if there are any Arabic speakers out there who can confirm this, we’d love to hear from you.)
Similarly, making hip hop in Saudi Arabia is likely to get you into all sorts of trouble. So it went for Saudi rapper Klash, who was arrested in 2007 due to the “offensive nature” of his lyrics, and has been awfully quiet since. Quite what the offensive lyrics were is hard to find (on English-speaking websites, anyway) — but whatever the case, the rapper was only released after apparently having to sign an affidavit guaranteeing that in the future his lyrics would be squeaky clean. (We’re assuming that the song above, entitled “Mom,” satisfies these criteria.)
Porno Para Ricardo
Cuban punks Porno Para Ricardo spent four years in prison during the 2000s on drug charges that they insist were a trumped-up excuse to silence their ongoing attacks on the country’s communist government. Frontman Gorki Águila remains an outspoken critic of the Castro regime — you can read more about him and his band here.
And here’s something from a whole lot closer to home. Jello Biafra has always delighted in annoying the establishment, but lest we forget, he and his band ended up in court during the 1980s for the rather sinister-sounding charge of “distribution of harmful matter to minors” due to the use of HR Giger’s painting “Penis Landscape” on the sleeve of Frankenchrist. The band weren’t convicted, but were nevertheless nearly bankrupted — a depressing example of how even in the West, the law can be used to attack those who are guilty of nothing more than being establishment bugbears. (Libel/defamation law is particularly effective for such tactics.) Still, when history is written, who’s going to be remembered: Biafra or Tipper Gore?
Also from the 1980s, and another example of how music can be a force for social change. South African punks Powerage were arrested at their very first show (apparently because the police objected to the band’s mohawks), and went on to become one of the most prominent anti-apartheid bands of the era. Their songs “Stop Apartheid” and “Freedom” garnered international attention, infuriating the country’s government (all the more so because the band were all white).
The Blue Burqa Band
This all-female group from Afghanistan were publicized widely in 2007 after one of their videos surfaced on YouTube. We’re not entirely sure what’s happened to them since then, largely because their identities remain secret. This isn’t surprising: after all, starting a band — let alone an all-female band — to lampoon the Taliban, who are still very much a force in Afghanistan, is a pretty dangerous move.
The Yellow Dogs
Likewise Iranian punk, a genre not exactly smiled upon by the Ayatollah. The Yellow Dogs were one of several bands featured in No One Knows About Persian Cats, a documentary on Tehran’s underground music scene, and subsequently had to flee the country. They’re now based in Brooklyn.
And finally, of course, there’s Pussy Riot themselves, locked in their glass cage awaiting an apparently inevitable guilty verdict. But just like The Plastic People of the Universe 35 years ago, their trial may turn out to be counterproductive, because it’s created more publicity than the band ever generated on its own. We’ll leave the final word to the band’s Yekaterina Samutsevich, who said this in her closing statement last week: “On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial.” Indeed.