Music—Listen to the Banned

By Hanne Melgaard Watkins | 10 Jul 11

I came across Freemuse in a rather serendipitous way. An article from a Norwegian newspaper appeared among the results when I googled human rights news and, being Norwegian myself, my interest was piqued. The article was about singer, composer, filmmaker and human rights activist Deeyah and her brainchild, the compilation album Listen to the Banned. Listen to the Banned (2008) was produced by Freemuse and, the other day, many months after my first encounter with the organisation, I was finally able to sit and listen to the CD.

There is no one more deaf than the person who refuses to hear. Fadal Dey, singer and composer, Ivory Coast

The first thing that struck me about the compilation was the diversity of its contributors. While they come from backgrounds as different as Zimbabwe and Uighuristan, the artists have one thing in common: they have each suffered oppression, some also persecution, in their home country.

Deeyah pitched the idea for the album to Freemuse. She grew up in Norway in a Muslim family, and endured physical threats and constant intimidation over her choice of profession, eventually leading to her moving to the US.  While the details of her struggles may be unusual, her experience is sadly not unique—many of the album’s contributors share similar stories. Sudanese contributor Abazar Hamid’s songs have been censored by the authorities and Cameroonian Lapiro de Mbanga was imprisoned following claims that one of his songs (entitled Constitution Constipée, which translates to Constipated Constitution) was “inciting youth unrest”.

Music should never be harmless. Robbie Robertson, musician and composer, USA

While presenting such a wide range of cultures, languages and musical styles is no doubt good for Freemuse’s aim to promote a greater awareness of how artists and music are affected by censorship, from a purely musical perspective, I was nonetheless a little bit skeptical. How would it work to combine so many different voices on only one album? My concerns were unfounded. Listen to the Banned is a coherent and well structured collection of music, where one song is sufficiently different from the former to maintain the listener’s interest, but not so different as to create any undue friction. That’s not to say that the whole album is completely smooth and easy listening—but the challenge comes from the album’s content and artists’ expression. Even when you don’t understand the words, the knowledge of the adversity these musicians have faced creates a powerful listening experience.

In her introduction to the album, Deeyah writes about the importance of protecting and supporting music as a form of expression, and mentions that music provides “entertainment and escape”. I would add that a compilation like Listen to the Banned provides an introduction to the musical styles of a wide range of artists, countries and cultures. I was left with a widened musical horizon, as well as greater awareness of—and admiration for—the devotion of the various artists and the people they represent.