Deeyah, has a lot of titles to her name: singer, producer, composer, film maker and human rights activist.
A child prodigy superstar in her home country of Norway; as she grew older she gained international success, was signed to the record labels BMG/Arista and Warner Bros and subsequently became subject to threats – for being a westernised Muslim woman with a growing presence in the media.
“Music is one of the oldest art forms we have, a gift from our ancestors”
She has not run from the spotlight but she now aims to educate the masses about issues that are not highlighted enough; including musical artists at risk and murders which police are only now recognising as cultural cases of honour based violence.
She is still creative, she provides a platform for musicians and artists to have their work celebrated under her music and film company Fuuse.
She has many different projects under the umbrella Ava; the word is Persian and means “a pleasing sound”. The charity’s aims are to give a voice to those whose voices are hidden.
Since 2007 she has spearheaded music and movie projects from behind the scenes. Her documentary Banaz: An Honour Killing (originally titled Banaz: A Love Story) premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London in 2012 and was snapped up by ITV: Exposure.
It caused a wave of frustration and heartbreak from critics like Jon Snow (Channel 4) to twitter users and bloggers whose eyes were opened to Banaz’s efforts to get the London Metropolitan police to prevent her murder.
In 2010 she and the FreeMuse project [Freedom of Musical Expression] produced the album Listen to the Banned which is a collection of funk rhythms songs and stunning ballads created by banned or censored music artists from around the world.
I spoke to Deeyah about the album, her views on music and human rights, and an event that is close to her heart – Music Freedom Day.
“Musicians and composers around the world have been tortured, jailed, exiled and even killed for their musical expression”
So could you tell me about growing up in the spotlight?
I have actually always been quite a shy person and being in the spotlight was never something that felt comfortable to me, in fact I found it to be awkward and not something I particularly liked. My love, heart and focus was always music and my happiness was in music itself and never in the rest of what comes with being in the pubic eye. Being a little brown girl growing up in Norway made me different enough as it was and being in the spotlight made me even more different and as a child that was just not something that felt good to me — but my refuge was always music, music was where I felt myself, comfortable, complete and at home.
What does the Human Rights Act mean to you?
I feel we should strive to have these fundamental and universal human rights apply to every people of the world regardless of gender, religious, cultural, socio-economic status – for the human rights act to be afforded to every individual.
Taking a song off airwaves is one thing; so many years after the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 by the UN, can music artists really be in danger?
Unfortunately millions of people around the world still do not enjoy the protections and rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a global society we still have a long way to go before every individual is protected by human rights. Poverty and violence is far too common in too many parts of the world so I don’t think we can say that because we have an international Human Rights declaration in writing and in concept that it now in fact translates into the lives of everyone or every country at all. Similarly music artists are individuals who are citizens of these societies as well. We can hope that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will protect us all but this simply is not the case today so it is not surprising that along with others musicians and composers are also in danger and the victims of oppressive regimes and religious authorities.
How powerful do you believe music is?
Music is one of the oldest art forms we have, a gift from our ancestors. We sing before we can even speak. Music is an essential part of our cultural expression and heritage. In many ways I would say music is the mirror and soul of a society and people. It has the power to inspire change, to incite uprising, to give hope and to unite. I believe music is deeply spiritual and enriching– I also feel it provides a peaceful and positive outlet of expression for young people. For me personally music is everything, it is my homeland, it is my devotion, it is my peaceful form of resistance, it is my weapon, it is my first love, it is my refuge, it is honest and it is complete– it is life and like breathing for me.
What has being an Ambassador opened your eyes to?
Before learning more about the work of Freemuse I did not realize the extent of the censorship and persecution that exists of music and of those who perform or compose music.
Are there government regimes that are threatened by music?
Yes, many are threatened by music. Because music can be more than just an artistic expression, it can also be an expression of resistance something that can be critical of oppression and injustice– in many instances music can become a voice of the voiceless. Just some examples are Tiken Jah Fakoly who denounced the political corruption in his country The Ivory Coast. As a result he has been threatened and during a political crisis several of his close friends were killed– since Tiken has been living in exile. Lapiro De Mbanga is sitting in prison today serving a jail sentence in his country Cameroon for singing a song critical of the country’s president Paul Biya who made changes to the country’s constitution just so he can stay in power indefinitely. Another artist on the Listen To The Banned album Kurash Sultan another symbol of resistance for the Uighur people. Many of his songs were banned by the Chinese authorities and subsequently he was imprisoned in Kyrgyzstan due to pressure from the Chinese authorities.
Another Listen To The Banned artist Ferhat Tunc has endured police brutality, harassment, death threats and countless court cases because he belongs to the Kurdish minority in Turkey– for protesting the oppression of Kurdish people, culture and language. The Taliban is another example of a force of brutality and suffocation of music in Afghanistan during their rule.
In Iran as recently, the religious and political authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that music is ‘not compatible’ with the values of the Islamic republic, and should not be practised or taught in the country and that promoting and teaching music is not in line with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic.
Where is music censorship happening and why does it seem to be happening?
Music is suppressed in many parts of the world and this oppression happens for different reasons, it can be for political reasons like in China, Cameroon and Burma sometimes religious reasons like in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran sometimes due to repression of cultural minorities like in Turkey, Western Sahara and China.
I believe it happens because of fear. The fear of the impact that music is able to have on people. Music is a part of reflecting peoples hopes, dreams and their feelings and opinions– these feelings, ideas and thoughts could also be in opposition to that of the people in power. It’s about control, about breaking the spirit of people by taking away something so simple yet essential as music it is another way of controlling what an individual should hear or say, think or feel.
What is happening to these artists who are censored?
Musicians and composers around the world have been tortured, jailed, exiled and even killed for their musical expression.
How did you find out about the artists you made the compilation “Listen to the Banned” with Freemuse with?
I initially discovered all the artists on this album through Freemuse. I was introduced to all these incredible artists and their music by researching and reading about them in the reports and databases of Freemuse.
What has been the reaction to the album?
It’s not easy to bring attention to such a project, but the response it has received so far has been very positive and I think the more people who find out about the album and through it find out about the work of Freemuse and these artists the more awareness we can hopefully continue building around this issue.
What else needs to be done? Is there enough outrage?
Anything we can do to keep music alive. We need to highlight wherever and whenever music and voices are silenced, if we turn away from this oppression we are signalling that this is acceptable and that authorities, regimes and individuals can in fact get away with suppressing musical expression in this way. This is not just a matter of musicians being robbed of the right to create and perform but also robbing from us the choice of what we want to listen to and robbing our children of an art form and artistic heritage that reflects our history, our traditions, our culture and identity. Injustice can only survive in the presence of apathy and in circumstances where this behaviour is not challenged. All effort to protect human rights matters, every voice against injustice and oppression matters.
Do these countries which censor music have national anthems?
From my understanding yes I think they all have national anthems.
On the flip side, does music ever get used to further political agendas and what are your thoughts on that?
Yes music does get used for propaganda purposes as well. Because music can have a very strong and emotional impact on people some regimes and authorities realize this and use it for their own agendas. Some examples of this is the Zimbabwean government that records ‘praise music’ to replace critical songs, essentially propaganda music to promote its policies.
In North Korea the government controls all areas of music often encouraging music and lyrics that praises the leadership of the country. I have also heard that actually parts of the Taliban even listened to songs that had words to inspire them in their fighting and violent cause. There is also the issue of “hate music” — in essence this is when music is used to reinforce discrimination and intolerance designed to create hatred between people.
For example in Sudan there are traditional Arab ‘hate singers’ known as Hakama or the Janjaweed women who through singing spread propaganda and hatred, singing words like “you have to kill, kill, kill!” These Janjaweed women’s traditional role is to compose and sing songs to stir up men’s instincts and launch them to war. Several human rights groups say that these women singers have a big influence on the community and play a very dangerous role in the conflict. In the context of hate music we can also see that racist music, white supremacist and nazi music exists. Also there are cases of artists that similar to hate speech write music that promotes the discrimination against for example women as well as gay people.
What is Music Freedom Day?
March 3rd is Music Freedom Day all people are invited to participate in any way through any form they choose to express their love and connection with music. You can organise a concert or a seminar, produce a radio feature, show a film, write an article or just dedicate a song to Music Freedom Day– maybe you can join the Freemuse international network. A day that celebrates this profound artform and expression of our hearts and cultures Music Freedom Day. For more you can visit: http://www.freemuse.org
What is the next step for you in opposing music censorship?
I will continue supporting the work of Freemuse in any ways that I can. It would also be my honour to produce any further Listen To The Banned albums in the future.
Will the battle ever be over?
The struggle will be there as long as there is injustice, oppression and people who seek to control us, whether it is through political, religious, cultural, financial or even violent means.
All support truly helps and is much needed. What we can realistically do is by raising awareness, standing in solidarity with Freemuse and not letting oppression continue unchallenged we can certainly make a difference in the lives of many musicians and in the protection of music as a whole. If we do not even attempt to safeguard musical expression not only are we sacrificing music itself but we are also in ways betraying the artists who compose and perform it, who dare to use their artistic voice for fairness, justice, dignity, equality, peace and harmony.
Is there any message you’d like to add?
I would urge people to support the work of Freemuse. Also I hope to see the release of the artist Lapiro De Mbanga, who is currently in prison in Cameroon for his song ‘Constitution Constipée’. He is being kept in dire conditions sharing a cell with 50 other prisoners while his health is deteriorating. I hope if we can continue applying pressure that he will be freed.