Last year Tahrir Square. This year Eurovision.
What does the site that served as the heart of the Arab Spring have to do with the glitzy competition celebrating of vapid European pop?
Both are in the spotlight of Music Freedom Day on Saturday, the annual global event drawing attention to the oppression, censorship and both legal and physical peril faced by musicians around the world. Initiated and coordinated by the Copenhagen-based FreeMuse, which investigates and addresses music-related human rights issues, Music Freedom Day will feature concerts, conferences, seminars, broadcasts and other related events in 22 countries, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Thailand, Senegal and Zimbabwe. New York -- the lone event for the entire U.S. -- will have an “Impossible Music” session with an international ensemble performing music of Arya Aramnehad, and Iranian pop star currently incarcerated for supporting the Green Party.
Last year’s Music Freedom Day came just after the populist uprising in Egypt that brought an end to the iron rule of Hosni Mubarak. Ramy Essam, whose performances in Tahrir Square formed a soundtrack to the rebellion , while earning him severe beatings at the hands of government forces, was honored in November with the 2011 FreeMuse Award.
Since being formed out of the 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship in 1998, FreeMuse has FreeMuse has documented plights of musicians around the world and advocated on their behalf -- such as helping win freedom in 2011 for Cameroon singer Lapiro, who had been sentenced to prison for allegedly taking part in anti-government activities .
A track by Lapiro is joined by songs from 13 other oppressed artists on the 2010 compilation album Listen to the Banned, put together by Deeyah (a Norway-born singer-activist of Pashtun and Punjabi descent) with FreeMusic. (In honor of this Freedom Music Day, Deeyah has just launched her Fuuse Mousiqi website and released Nordic Woman, the first of a series of albums spotlighting women from various cultural traditions.)
But when asked where the focus was this year, FreeMuse content editor Mik Aidt gave the surprising answer.
“Eurovision is coming in May in Azerbaijan,” he says. “So it will be interesting to report from there with the situation of music censorship.”
Azerbaijan, which only became part of the Eurovision field when the competition expanded into Asia in 2008, won the rights to host this year’s event when its entered act, the duo Ell/Nikki, took first place voting last year. With that, though, came concerns about human rights (there are reports of mass evictions and bulldozings in poor neighborhoods of the capital Baku to shine it up for the event) and oppression of artistic expression.
“The Azerbaijan story is interesting,” says Aidt, noting that FreeMuse is preparing a full report about conditions there. “It’s on the edge of Europe, a country that before they won Eurovision last year the average Dane didn’t know where it was. And suddenly there in the center of this big contest and millions of people will be watching. We have an interview with a musician there who went into exile because he felt threatened there. He wasn’t imprisoned, but felt pressure. It’s a dictatorship situation and they’re trying to use Eurovision as a promotional tool to show things are good. So it’s good to keep that in mind and we’ll focus some attention there.”
If Eurovision is known for frothy pop, the Arab Spring has brought about a music scene of substance, much inspired by Essam.
“Music has played quite a big role there,” Aidt says. “The whole hip-hop scene in the Middle East has exploded, which is good news for FreeMuse int that it shows the importance of music. It’s similar to how music was the messenger in the ‘60s, carrying the youth movement.”
Not amid the horrors in Syria, though.
‘Syria is where a singer was not only killed, but his throat was opened and his [voice box] was cut out,” Aidt says. “It’s one of the worst stories we’ve heard in years.”
Globally, though, the news is overall positive. Pakistan is a particular example of a place where people are standing up to the extremists who had shut down most music performance and stores. Aidt says that even in some of the rural areas, people are defying religious bans on music. That’s featured in one of the eight extensive reports FreeMuse has released recently.
“The Pakistan one is quite long, and reading it you can catch the wave of positive news,” he says. “People there are saying now, ‘This is who we are.’ They’re performing even though people are there who want to kill them. Pakistan is a huge country, 170 million people. And if you have a few thousand in the north who try to impose a ban we shouldn’t mistake that as meaning Pakistan is in a huge crisis with this. It is ‘just’ a few thousand people.”