Music Censorship in Different Countries
If you live in a democratic country, you can’t fathom what it’s like to be unable to listen to or create music freely. But several countries restrict what people listen to and the type of music they can create and promote. In these countries, you can be fined and even imprisoned for your musical tastes and expression.
This article will discuss musical limitations that exist throughout the world.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought a complete ban on music on TV and radio. The Revolution implemented a theocratic government led by officials who are regarded as divine. Iran is solely led by religion.
In addition to music, The Revolution also banned female dancing and singing. Officials stated that music made the mind idle and senseless.
There is an underground music scene in the country. Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian is a primary advocate. The 33-year-old runs a production company called Bargmusic. He has been arrested three times for producing music in Iran, most recently in 2020. He went on a hunger strike, so the guards were forced to release him.
Rajabian makes music about peace, freedom, and human rights using traditional instruments. He knows he can be arrested at any time, but he won’t stay silent.
Music is legal in China, but many laws regulate what people can listen to. The country is known to ban songs that support Tibetan independence or that are anti-China. Examples include Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, Legacy by the Pet Shop Boys, and various Chinese artists that have taken a stance against the government. Other well-known artists that have been banned include Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Oasis, Kraftwerk, and Bjork.
In 2021, the country introduced new legislation to ban songs containing illegal content in karaoke bars. The songs included in this category are those that:
- Incite ethnic hatred and discrimination
- Endanger national security or harm national honor and interests
- Violate the state’s religious policies
- Advocate gambling, violence, obscenity, and other criminal activities
Music is legal in Russia. However, the country has several laws in place regarding human rights that have allowed officials to shut down concerts and arrest performers that are violating these rules.
For example, the 2010 Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development law bans the dissemination of information and images about suicide, drug use, and other controversial subject matter among children.
The 2013, Law #135, aka the “gay propaganda ban”, prohibits promoting “the denial of traditional family values” and “non-traditional sexual relations” to children.
Russia’s administrative code prohibits the dissemination of information containing obscenities as well as those that encourage the consumption of alcohol or illicit substances by children.
The country has taken advantage of these laws and used them as excuses to cancel concerts in acts of censorship that violate freedom of expression. 36 concerts were canceled between October and December of 2018 due to official intervention. Most targeted artists represented hip-hop, rap, punk, and electronic genres.
Officials reportedly contact venues in advance and tell them they will be closed if the concert isn’t canceled. In addition to citing law violations, they also use pretexts like bomb scares and sanitation violations.
The government has been questioned about concert cancellations and has agreed that they are not the answer. Rather than shutting down the venues, they feel artists should be ‘guided in the right direction’. However, musicians continue to be targeted and things have gotten worse since the Ukraine war.
Putin is on the watch for any musicians who speak out against Russia’s efforts in the war. His stance is making it difficult for artists to enjoy freedom of expression. Many have taken to performing outside the country to keep their careers going.
Saudi Arabia is known for its conservative musical past. But officials are trying to make the country more accepting of modern music to boost its economy.
Music in Saudi Arabia had been banned and policed for four decades. The mautawa, or vice police, would patrol the streets and arrest people for not being in the mosque for prayers, for dressing improperly, and for being in mixed groups of men and women. They would also shut down private concerts, raid music lessons, and confiscate musical instruments and equipment.
Before then, Saudi had a rich cultural scene. But in 1979 local extremists seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca taking hostages and accusing the House of Saudi of straying from its Islamic roots by inviting Western Culture. After a deadly two-week siege, the Royal family decided to shift to the right figuring that its ultraconservative views could battle Iran’s religious interpretations.
Culture, arts, music, and cinema were among the first of the country’s sacrifices.
But more recently, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched creative efforts to transform the county and its economy. Part of his plan is to create an entertainment industry, introduce art and music in schools, and nurture homegrown talent. While there are many critics in the country, the consensus states that change is inevitable.
You may think that Korea is a haven for music. After all, it is the birthplace of K-pop. But consider the marked difference between North and South Korea.
North Korea has been almost completely closed off to the world, including its neighbors in South Korea, for decades. Foreign materials, like movies and books, are banned with only a few exceptions. Those found with contraband materials can face severe punishment.
While restrictions have been softening over the years, they were reinforced more recently. Officials feel that “struggle in the field of ideology and culture is a war without gunfire”. They allow singing and dancing, but only if it fits “the needs of the times and the national sentiment of our people and flourish our style and culture”.
North Korea was once a thriving economy, but thanks to its isolation, its people live in poverty. Meanwhile, South Korea is one of the most successful economies in the world. Counterintuitively, this dichotomy makes North Korea even more reluctant to conform to its neighbor lest they should ‘admit defeat’.
In December 2020, the country passed a new law to prevent the spread of content not approved by government sensors. In January 2021, a North Korean propaganda website accused a K-pop record label of “slave-like exploitation”.
It’s unclear why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has renewed his aggressive stance against modern music and culture. It may be due to economic hardships and border closures. It’s impossible to say when the tides will shift again.
South Korea is known to be much more open to music than its neighbors to the north. But the country imposes various regulations restricting the importation of cultural works from other countries. Their stance is likely due to the tense relations between Japan and South Korea following the end of Japanese rule in 1945.
The ban ended in 2000 and gradually eased over time. However, the three largest South Korean television networks, KBS, MBC, and SBS, have all banned music videos from their stations at some point due to offensive content. Additionally, the Supreme Court of South Korea made a 2010 ruling making it illegal for citizens to possess music that praises North Korea.
Afghanistan always had restrictions on who was permitted to play music in the country, where music could be played, and musical content. But music was banned completely during the reign of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001.
During that time, Western technology and art were prohibited. Instruments were destroyed, celebrations were banned, and the only thing played on the radio were chants glorifying the Taliban. The only instrument exempt from the ban was a Middle Eastern frame drum also known as the Daireh or Daf.
The Taliban lost their reign in 2001 and the Afghani people enjoyed music once more. However, they came back into power in 2021. People are once again subject to harsh censorship rules and laws that restrict human rights.
Most people don’t see Australia as a country that limits human rights. But the Australian Recording Industry Association (AMRA) has a tight rein on what people can and can’t listen to.
The organization uses a three-tier rating system to rate music with controversial content. It considers factors like drug use, violence, coarse language, and sexual themes. Level 1 refers to songs with ‘moderate impact”, Level 2 is for “strong impact” and Level 3 is for “high impact”.
The AMRA does not allow people under 18 to purchase albums that are rated at level 3. They ban the distribution of material that exceeds Level 3. They do not allow imported music that is described as offensive.
Officials have acted against people that violate their laws. In 2003, copies of an album by the hardcore band Intense Hammer Rage were seized at customs and each band member was fined $500 AUD for violating customs laws. The album was considered offensive due to its explicit lyrics and artwork.
The United States is often considered the ultimate democracy. But there have been several attempts to restrict the music that’s distributed throughout the country. Most notable were the efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) which was founded by Tipper Gore in 1985.
The PMRC proposed to adopt a rating system to rate albums with questionable content. The organization also pushed for lyrics to be printed on albums’ back covers so they could be reviewed by parents before they were handed off to their children. Several musicians fought the PMRC in court and their proposals were ultimately opposed by the Recording Industry Association.
However, the PMRC saw one small victory. The RIAA began including a standard Parental Advisory label on albums they felt deserving. Some argue that the label could make the album more appealing to kids. But some retailers, like Walmart, refuse to stock albums that contain such a label.
Beyond that, censorship in America is typically on a case-by-case basis. For example, MTV has refused to play certain videos because of their content. Or they may play questionable videos during off-peak hours only.
Canada Is known for its diverse musical styles. But all content broadcast on Canadian radio and television is regulated by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC). While not overly protective, it can prohibit music that features undue coarse language and sexually explicit content.
One of the more notable censorship issues involved Marc Knopfler’s use of the word “faggot” in the song “Money for Nothing”. Knopfler had substituted the word in live performances acknowledging its bad taste. However, the CBSC was ultimately overruled as it was found that the term was used in a satirical manner.
Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country and prohibits radio stations from playing songs that are “offensive to public feeling” or “violate good taste and decency”. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was pulled from radio stations because it referenced homosexual acts which are illegal in the country. Despacito, a group featuring Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and Puerto Rican singer and rapper Daddy Yankee, is also banned due to “un-Islamic lyrics”.
Concerts in the county are also subject to censorship standards. Avril Lavigne was instructed not to wear revealing clothing, jump, or “include negative elements” during her 2008 concert in Kuala Lumpur. Adam Lambert was forced to make changes to his 2010 concert to ensure he did not promote gay culture.
The British Broadcasting Channel (BBC) has been known to censor and restrict the songs played on UK radio and television. It previously targeted Jack Lawrence and Richard Myers’ “Hold My Hand” for its religious references and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” due to concerns that it might negatively impact soldier morale.
It also briefly banned the Kinks’ song “Lola” for surprising reasons. Rather than restricting it from airplay because of homosexual content, the concern regarded the mention of the Coca-Cola company which violated the organization’s anti-product placement rules. Singer Ray Davies rerecorded the song to say “cherry cola” instead, and the song was accepted on the airwaves.
Other songs targeted by the BBC included the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” for its criticism of the British monarchy, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” for its obscene lyrics, and many ditties that spoke out against Margaret Thatcher. It even banned the Wizard of Oz classic “Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead” which was played so often after Thatcher died that it reached number 2 on the UK Singles Chart.
The South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) developed a record library where all record companies were forced to submit their lyrics for review before they were approved for public consumption. Banned songs included Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education” because it was seen as a negative influence on public opinion. “Cry Freedom” by George Fenton and Jonas Gwanwa was also put on the blacklist due to its association with Nelson Mandela.
In a strange turn of events, a group of Western artists joined to form Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985. They created a hit called “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City” encouraging artists not to play the popular South African resort that paid musicians handsomely until apartheid was lifted in the country. So instead of South Africa banning artists, artists banned South Africa.
In Vietnam, music was divided into two primary genres: yellow or bolero music, a genre of Latin dance music that is usually love songs, and red music, patriotic music endorsed by North Vietnam’s Communist government. After the Fall of Saigon, yellow music became illegal because its ideals were “not good or healthy”. People found possessing yellow music albums would be arrested and the music would be destroyed. Many artists fled to the United States to sing in exile.
Although yellow music is still technically illegal in the country, the ban has been lifted and there is now a thriving music scene in Vietnam.
75% of the content that appears on radio and television in Zimbabwe is controlled by the government. In 2010, a band called Freshlyground created a video mocking the country’s President Robert Mugabe. The group was banned from Zimbabwe for the next eight years.
There was a change in presidency in 2018 and the group has since been permitted to play in the country.
Music censorship may seem like an outdated concept. But unfortunately, it is still very much alive in many countries. Hopefully, restrictions will be eliminated in the coming years.