Today is Music Freedom Day; a day organized by Danish NGO Freemuse, which celebrates the right to freedom of expression for musicians around the world. But there’s more to freedom of musical expression than meets the ear.
Take the case of veteran Cameroonian singer Lapiro de Mbanga, one of the focal points of Music Freedom Day 2011. His song “Constitution constipée” got him jailed in Cameroon.
Freemuse kept up the pressure in several ways – it monitored de Mbanga’s judicial proceedings and kept his story in international media. Two years ago, Freemuse helped produce a CD compilation called Listen to the Banned, which featured de Mbanga among a roster of censored artists around the world. In December last year, de Mbanga was released.
“Artists suffer from being harassed, attacked, jailed, banned or stopped from performing – and not being able to live from their profession – wherever they come from,” says Marie Korpe, the executive director of Freemuse, in an email interview with CBC explaining the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights -inspired mission of the organization.
Seems fair enough, but there are two sides to this statement.
Musicians have always had a special power to mobilize the masses, resulting in beatings, jail or worse. For this, a global watchdog like Freemuse is welcome. However, UN rights or not, most musicians in the world aren’t able to make a living from their profession, regardless of their degree of freedom of expression. That’s a tougher battle to fight, if indeed it is Freemuse’s battle at all.
Freemuse has a clearly defined sense of what they’re fighting for. Korpe says “Freemuse receives funding from development aid agencies and human rights funds – our focus is on those who[se] rights are seriously violated.”
On the ground, Freemuse advocates for musicians in distress or in jail. It also builds regional networks to stay apprised of world news in censorship. In Denmark, Freemuse maintains a unique database of censorship incidents in 120 countries, and collaborates with other human rights organizations.
Music Freedom Day is Freemuse’s major annual international moment. CBC has marked the occasion in detail, whereas other activities are less formal, as in Accra, Ghana, where a “simple, small event” is promised without further detail. Korpe notes that local organizers take responsibility for the format of events.
However, Freemuse’s (and the UN’s) professed fight for compensation for musicians is unfortunately in tension with economic circumstances for musicians around the world. Ultimately, it’s more realistic to try to get heard than to get paid. While not everyone has access to the music-generating possibilities of computers, cellphones and their digital networks, for those who make dangerous music (however it’s defined), getting around government suppression is easier than ever before.
Korpe isn’t so sure: “If you have access to internet there is no guarantee that anyone [will] hear about you or listen to your music, though I like the idea that you can present your music outside of traditional channels.”
There’s no doubt Freemuse played a vital role in de Mbanga’s case, but the real groundswell of support for the artist came from hundreds of thousands of YouTube plays. One of the first comments on his “Constitution constipée” video declares, “If in Cameroon it’s forbidden to listen to your message, the diaspora hears you.” This expression of solidarity may not feed de Mbanga or his family, but it vindicates the power of the medium. With the right strategy, this diasporic interest could turn into more tangible support. Given Freemuse’s limited resources, some effort could go to educating musicians in the best practices of today’s technology.
Despite Freemuse’s 14-year history, its work is just getting started. Listen to and participate in Music Freedom Day today; you can help sustain free musical expression around the world with your ideas, financial contributions and, most of all, your ears.
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