By Patrycja Rozbickya and Matthew Alford
After the recent success of American artist Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America,” Patrycja Rozbicka and Matthew Alford explore whether pop music can still be political in the face of censorship.
Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ has now over 285.000.000 views on YouTube – an extremely popular unflinching take on the American policy brutality, police shootings, poverty and US racial hostilities.
In recent month it has been followed by copycats, however, only Falz’ ‘This is Nigeria’ picked up on nuances of the original and stirred a debate. ‘This is Nigeria’ points towards political corruption, questions ethics of pastors, and features the conflict with Boko Haram. The video clip was boycotted by the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) who demanded its ban. It also goes against commercial music in Nigeria that glorifies female physical anatomy, but most of all, it is a rare protest song in the country where pop stars rarely get political, partly due to an integrated fear of prosecution from the political powerful class.
Those two examples, while being so similar in spirit, face totally different political environments and open a debate about parameters of political censorship.
Is there a censorship formula?
In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman theorised that the mainstream media would operate within ‘the bounds of the expressible’ and support the establishment. Due to a number of causational structural factors in the media industry, they argued that the industry will not oppose state nor private power in any fundamental way. In fact, based on the analysis of American entertainment industry, the evidence exists that the involvement of government entities, especially the CIA, FBI, and Department of Defence, has been greatly underestimated in the preceding literature, with several thousand products essentially vetted over the past century, including franchises like The Terminator, Avatar, and Iron Man.
Although the news and film industries remain technically free from fear of legal or violent repercussions for accurate work, there are overwhelming incentives and disincentives that determine that they take a safe position when observing any form of injustice.
Is something similar true in the music industry? There is a number of instructive cases of censorship in the sector, indicating that the elite will close ranks when one of their own is targeted. The BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority banned the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ 1977 on the grounds of ‘bad taste’ (BBC 2014). While covertly criticising the Government and taking a shot at the monarch and in spite of the ban, the single sold up to 150,000 copies in May and June 1977, and occupied #2 in the UK charts (where its position was simply blanked out). US corporate broadcasting networks (examples include, but not exclusively: Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting Corp and KKCS 102 FM) blacklisted Dixie Chicks albums for an open stand against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and George W. Bush (CNN 2003). ‘Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead!’, a revival of 1939 song from The Wizard of Oz, was banned by the BBC Trust in 2013 for ‘connotations’ celebrating the death of former PM Margaret Thatcher (Independent 2013). In June 2017 during the UK elections a song by reggae band Captain SKA, ‘Liar Liar GE2017’, which criticised unfulfilled Conservative campaign promises, was banned by all major British broadcasters. Images in the video clip and voice recording unmistakably identified Prime Minister Theresa May as the title’s “liar”. Despite the media blackout, the song reached no. 4 in the UK charts, with over 3.5 million viewers on YouTube.
There are also cases when ban is linked to specific political legislation. The Northern Ireland conflict provided the background to censorship. For example: the Cranberries’ original video clip for ‘Zombie’, directed by Samuel Bayer, was banned in the UK in 1993 (BBC 2018) for using imagery from the Northern Ireland troubles. The basis of the ban was an overinterpretation of the 1988 Emergency Provision Act (Independent 1993). The vague formulation and confusing wording of the notice caused a decline in any form of broadcasting and material related to the IRA, the Northern Ireland conflict, or Sinn Fein all the way until 1994. In 1994, Michael Howard introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, supposedly to control anti-social behaviour, but in practice ended the possibility of a new “summer of love” by banning the burgeoning move to free parties.
However, the examples above, while not exclusive, can be easily countered with instances where songs not always get censored and banned by broadcasters. See for example: Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bullet in the Head’ (1992) raging about media being controlled by government, or Public Enemy and Moby in 2004 questioning the Iraq War in ‘Make Love, F** War’. More recently, we had Lowkey, criticising the government over the Iraq War and Grenfell Tower, or Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ and its subversive take on police brutality, racism, and US virility.
We have a whole list of songs that emerged against the sitting US president, Donald Trump (for an overview see: RollingStone, NME, Pitchfork), including Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Million Dollar Loan’, or Billy Bragg’s retake on the Bob Dylan’s classic ‘The Times They are A-changing Back’ (released on YouTube), yet only minor backlash appeared.
Taking a more radical approach mentioned in the other forms of media, especially the movie industry, as an example, how can we explain the inconsistency when it comes to political subversion through music? The typical three-minute pop song simply cannot contain as much incendiary information as a motion picture or news report, which makes any individual song less of an obvious censorship target. Subversive material can be easily hidden through metaphor, wordplay, and nuance. The Shamen in 1992 made a drug-friendly hit with ‘Ebeneezer Goode’. The Black Eyed Peas’ 2003 hit ‘Where is the Love?’ referred to the CIA as supporting terrorism, but only through use of adjective “big” when pointing to the agency. In addition, the low production costs and sheer number of songs – in comparison to movies – allows greater artistic risk-taking, both in terms of money and outcomes.
Taken its risky character, why should we pay attention to political censorship in music?
Music is not as political as it was in the past. But, it also has to be recognised that radical music was always marginalised. At the moment however, we have an era of charity singles that hit the tops of the charts and disappear as soon as they appeared. For example, the ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ single by Artists for Grenfell collective, which reached the top spot on the iTunes charts within two hours of its release (Stuff July 2017), contributing to the existing debate in the society. While it was reminiscent of the 80s charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ organised by Bob Geldof to send aid to famine-stricken Ethiopia, it is a big change from the 1960s and 70s when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were leading ‘Bed-ins for Peace’ or asking the world to ‘imagine’ the eradication of religion.
The argument should be made that political censorship is used to protect political elites from alternative engagement by others through protest songs. Here in particular, the risk is of alienating young people, who increasingly prefer alternative forms of political participation. Thriving pop music scenes can inspire voters and potentially become a spark for revolutionary politics. We have historical examples: Rock Against Racism (1976), Red Wedge music collective (1985), and Rock the Vote (1990), which are linked to increase of electoral participation (Street 2017).
However, incorrectly deployed censorship can work against the potential of music as being a source of engagement. The nature of the censorship system which pushes radical, or in the ‘Liar Liar’ case, simply subversive songs, away (no matter of right or left orientation) leaves music sanitised (Attali 2009, T Bone Burnett 2016), much more blunt and banal, favouring the status quo rather than directly engaging in open conflict.
It does not necessarily mean that music would become more radical without these forces of censorship. It could be a matter of cultural taste and society simply not being interested in the political message, especially looking at dropping numbers in electoral participation or lack of interest in politics as reported by YouGov (2018). But, with such dwindling interest, even minor political censorship can have effect on ‘spreading the word’ and reaching those that gave up on party politics’ games.
Patrycja Rozbicka is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. She is an expert in political interest groups and the music industry.
Matthew Alford is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Bath.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.