Vladimir Putin, leader of one of the most powerful governments in the world, has found himself scared of a 24-year-old girl. Her name is Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Tolokonnikova, a Russian prisoner, was facing threats from prison officials, she was prohibited from contacting her family, and ever since October 24, no one has seen or heard anything of the young woman1. Tolokonnikova has mysteriously “disappeared” into the immense penal system of Russia. Her disappearance allegedly occurred during a transfer to a prison in Siberia. Is this a coincidence? After viewing a picture of Tolokonnikova, it’s hard to see the 24 year old as anything but harmless and quite beautiful. So the question becomes- what has caused Vladimir Putin to become so frightened of this young girl?
The answer to that question is rather surprising: it’s her music. Music is a powerful medium for societal expression. However, America’s contemporary musicians seem more concerned with their twerking ability and the rims on their cars than the social issues of anti-gay legislation, misogyny, and racism. Nonetheless, musicians around the world are utilizing music as a platform for their societal assertions; and although some of this music may focus on the liberation of people’s rights, others are using their songs as a platform to gain support for anti-gay violence, white supremacy, and other hate groups. In America, the first amendment protects the creation and distribution of such controversial music; however, other world governments are struggling to censor this music as fast as possible. Not only is rebel music a powerful tool that can be very influential to society, but also it often exemplifies the country’s cultural environment. For example, music in America is much more commercial than controversial; but in countries where government oppression still thrives, such as Russia, Egypt, and Germany, music illustrates these countries’ unstable and repressed social state.
Russian Rebel Music
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova leads the band Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock protest group based out of Moscow, Russia. Pussy Riot produces unauthorized and provocative guerrilla performances often staged in unusual locations. The band’s lyrical themes focus on feminism, the rights of the LGBT community, and the opposition to the policies of Vladimir Putin, who they regard as a dictator. On February 21, 2012 the group staged a performance in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, located in Moscow. Although their show was halted by church police, the group converted their performance into an internet based music video titled Punk Prayer- Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!2. A few weeks later, on March 3, 2012, two of the group’s members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were arrested and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was arrested on March 16. Each member was sentenced to two years imprisonment. All other Pussy Riot members have fled Russia in order to avoid persecution. Pussy Riot’s controversial music brings to light the social issues that plague Russia’s culture- homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny.
The Russian government’s concern for Pussy Riot has instigated a recent push to restore conservative, Kremlin values. A piece of Russian legislation passed unanimously this June that prohibits “gay propaganda” of any kind3. Furthermore, another Russian law was recently passed that prohibits “offending any religious feelings”. Many believe Pussy Riot’s uprising and the trial against them is what incited these laws’ creation. Critics of the legislation say that these laws have already led to a sharp increase in anti-gay violence; they consider the law fascist and an exemplification of Russia’s worst human rights climate since the beginning of the post-soviet era. Foreigners can be fined up to 100,000 rubles (approx. 3,050 US dollars) and can be detained for up to 15 days before being deported. This has had a stark effect on Russia’s live music scene, which relies on big-name American acts to bring in large profits and crowds. Peter Gabriel, supporter of Pussy Riot, has recently refused to perform in Russia due to its anti-gay legislation. Lady Gaga, in the meantime, will apparently be fined for promoting homosexuality at a concert last year in St. Petersburg4. The case involves a civil suit brought upon by a woman, Nadezhda Petrova, who attended the concert with her 13-year-old daughter. Petrova is a member of the anti-gay Trade Union of Russian citizens, the same group that went after Madonna for promoting homosexuality in 2012. Petrova stated that she saw performers engaging in simulated lesbian acts. She was also displeased by Gaga’s announcement of support for Russia’s LGBT community. The climate of Russia’s music scene, which is deeply subdivided between commercial boy and girl band pop and the underground scene of punk, metal, and grunge, mirrors the social climate of Russia. Russia’s rebel music exemplifies the tension between the government, its patriarchal values, and the youth who support the freedoms of women and the LBGT community.
German Rebel Music
Another example of how music is used as a platform by rebel groups can be found In Germany. The glorification of Nazism is technically prohibited by the German constitution; however, music is used by neo-Nazis to attract followers. This form of rebel music not only stems from, but also illustrates, the cultural turmoil that has continued to plague German culture since the World War II era. There are more than 180 underground right-winged bands that help recruit young people to extremist groups. Despite their attempts, the German government says that censoring neo-Nazi music is not as easy as it once was. Felix Benneckenstein spent ten years as a neo-Nazi musician. Benneckenstein left the neo-Nazis a year ago and now spends his time warning German youth of the danger of extremist music. He says that he purposely wrote songs with subtle lyrics in order to attract followers to the movement. He did not openly glorify racism or violence in his songs, unlike many other Nazi musicians. Benneckenstein says that being more mainstream allowed him to lure people who disliked the hardcore Nazi stuff, which has been banned in Germany.
A growing number of neo-Nazi songs sound harmless, containing messages that appeal to teens. However, they are subliminally extreme. Daniel Koehler, head researcher at the institute for the Study of Radical Movements, says that music is not only just a recruitment tool for neo-Nazi’s, but is also vital for financing their weapons, explosives, and infrastructure. Although the neo-Nazi movement is opposed to rap music, some extremist songwriters are using rap in order to appeal more to the German youth. “This is just simple matter of demand, really. If you find out that this is something the kids like, then you do it,” states Kohler5. Since the German government has a ban on hate speech, most recording of extremist music is done abroad in Sweden, Poland, and even in the U.S. Elke Monssen-Engberding, head of the German government agency that monitors fascist music, says there are more than 1,250 songs on the ban list. There would be more neo-Nazi songs on the list, she says, but so many neo-Nazi song lyrics are mainstream these days. This ties authorities’ hands because they cannot ban something that doesn’t violate German law.
Rebel Music in the Caribbean
Yet another example of music’s dangerous influence over society can be found in Jamaica. Murder music, deeply rooted in Jamaican culture, has a fan base that stretches worldwide. Murder Music focuses on a message that is strongly anti-gay. Although the government cannot do much to stop the creation of murder music, gay and lesbian activists have spent many years trying to slow its spread. The international campaign Stop Murder Music warns others of the dangers of this music6. The group supports the boycotting and protesting of artists associated with murder music. Activists also ask venues to not book these artists. Although the campaign receives criticism for “picking on” artists, supporters of the movement insist that murder music incites criminal offenses of violence, rape, and murder. According to the Jamaican Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays, 98 gay men and lesbians were assaulted by mobs within a 5-month period in 2007. Thirty-five Jamaicans have been murdered just for being gay since 1987. Murder music‘s influence can be dangerous, demonstrated by the recent rise of anti-gay violence in Jamaica. Jamaica’s murder music gives insight into yet another culture that is tormented by oppression and violence.
Rebel Music in the Middle East
When police entered a recording studio in Cairo, Egypt two months ago, its owner, Abdullah Sharif, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party, expected to be arrested. Instead, they confiscated his recording equipment: a microphone stand, power cables, a guitar amplifier, a pair of headphones- anything that could be used to make music. Rap music originally arose in the Middle East as a voice for the Arab Spring uprising. However, rap has more recently given a voice to the youth that resist the country’s new military-installed government. “Music is a threat to them,” stated Sharif7. Although the Egyptian government has guns, it still fears this unarmed, but underground, music scene and its influential power over the country’s youth. Instead of guns, the Brotherhood arms themselves with YouTube accounts, hip-hop beats, Internet samples, young songwriters, and rappers that are trying to give the movement new life. These tools may be just as powerful as firearms; hip-hop has always served as a medium for the youth to vent discontent with authoritarian regimes and oppressive cultural norms. “In the Islamic World, hip-hop serves the same function that rap did when it emerged in the 1970’s among young American blacks in the South Bronx,” according to Peter Mandaville, director of Global Islamic studies at George Mason University. Rap itself has become another battleground in the fight between Islamists and secularists. “They’ve driven us underground,” said Sharif. “But we’re still here and we’re still talking, they can’t stop us from talking.” Sharif has already started saving to replace his recording equipment.
A trend has emerged across the globe in areas of conflicts. Youth movements centered around music are sprouting up amid political and humanitarian crises. We in America have grown accustomed to our first amendment rights; sometimes it’s hard to realize that other governments consider music a threat. This can be with rightful cause. Protest bands like Pussy Riot, White Supremacist artists like Felix Benneckenstein, and Murder Music musicians illustrate that music can be used as a weapon, especially against Governments, who fear any societal influence other than themselves. Music is more powerful than we give it credit for. Furthermore, music can be used as a mirror to exemplify the social state from which it was created in. Not only can a culture’s music shed light on its social issues and controversies, but it can also provide an alternative medium for spreading a message. Across the world, war is raging: between rebel music and the different cultural and governmental attitudes in opposition.
By India Thomson
1. Ghitis, Frida. “What Has Happened to Pussy Riot’s Nadya?” CNN. Cable News Network, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/13/opinion/ghitis-nadya-pussy-riot-missing/>.
2. Nickels, Thom. “Pussy Riot and Sacred Spaces.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thom-nickels/pussy-riot-and-sacred-spa_b_4334415.html>.
3. “Russian Anti-gay Bill Passes, Protesters Detained.” CBSNews. Associated Press, 11 June 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/russian-anti-gay-bill-passes-protesters-detained/>.
4. Michaels, Sean. “Lady Gaga’s Russian Promoters Fined over St Petersburg Gig.” Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 19 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/nov/19/lady-gaga-fined-over-russian-gig>.
5. Nelson, Soraya Sarhaddi. “Neo-Nazis In Germany Use Music To Attract Followers.” National Public Radio (2013): n. pag. WFAE. NPR, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2013. <http://wfae.org/post/neo-nazis-use-music-attract-followers>.
6. Bollles, Dan. “Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice.” 7dvt.com. Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, 06 Nov. 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013. <http://www.7dvt.com/2013trouble-capleton>.
7. Finn, Tom. “Muslim Brotherhood Rapper Resists Egypt Military Government with Music.” NBC News. World News, 17 Nov. 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013. <http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/11/17/21441919-muslim-brotherhood-rapper-resists-egypt-military-government-with-music>.