Robbie Williams’ new single “Party like a Russian” has been accused of being downright racist by some in Russia, with officials sounding off on how awful it is, and slagging off our Robbie as a has-been. Pop does occasionally speak to power in a way it does not like, and at times gets banned for its trouble, which usually results in a boom in sales. Robbie may not get any gigs in Russia anytime soon, although with that blue and yellow buttonhole he may be welcome in Kyiv, but he’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. Are there any other ditties that have rubbed the elected rich and powerful up the wrong way?
In 1979 Pink Floyd went global with their double album and animated movie “The Wall”. Single “Another brick in the wall” was banned in South Africa, however, as students there were engaged in a bitter series of school strikes and protests at the time that were being brutally repressed. The apartheid regime felt threatened by the song’s message challenging authority, but white rule was beginning to crumble. Some artists, like Queen or Paul Simon, defied a cultural boycott to play there. Others, like Peter Gabriel, “Biko”, or The Special AKA, “Free Nelson Mandela”, specifically wrote sings attacking the regime, hastening its decline.
Fela Kuti was a constant thorn in the Nigerian authorities’ side as he attempted to set off an Afrobeat bomb under the Generals’ and dictators’ feet in the 1970s and 80s. Beaten and imprisoned for his pains by the army, tortured and forced to witness his mother being thrown from a window by soldiers storming his home, he never buckled until his early death from an aids-related illness. It is possible to pick many songs from his vast discography that were banned by the Nigerian government, indeed, it would have liked to have banned the man himself.
In 2014 Hamza Namira, who had taken part in the Tahrir square protests in 2011, had his songs banned on Egyptian military-controlled radio for “criticising the government”. Yet only three years previously he had been part of a select small group of people invited to meet the visiting then British Prime Minister David Cameron to take part in a one-hour discussion about the future of Egypt. His Twitter account is in the country’s top 10, but it seems President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi doesn’t want to be hearing his songs in the future.
Oh my goodness, the French, don’t get me started. Rights of man aside, they have been merrily banning songs since the 1950s, but failing dismally to prevent the material from entering popular culture. In the 1980s one minister, Jacques Toubon, wanted to cut the English-language content on radios to promote French artists, so he imposed a quota. French radios and record companies were horrified as listeners didn’t want the tired old classics, and the only fresh sounds being produced in any quantity by young French musicians was the emerging “French school” of suburban rappers. So, Toubon got his French-language content up, but probably didn’t like it when groups like NTM called on their audiences to “Fuck the Police”. Banning the tune hardly stopped the song at all, and as for French rap…
Ice T was already notorious after his debut rap album earned the honour of being the first to carry an “explicit content” sticker, imposed by Tipper Gore’s PMRC. He then went on to form a heavy metal band, Bodycount, whose single “Cop Killer” raised howls of protest from police authorities and elected officials alike. Unfazed, Ice T carried on, but re-released copies of the Bodycount album no longer feature the song. What a pussy.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the Irish authorities only had stormy Sinead O’Connor to worry about, but Dublin can get very touchy about a range of issues, especially religious ones. REM scored a global hit in 1992 with “Losing my religion”, but not on the deeply Catholic emerald isle, where it was banned and got no radio airplay.
Anyone who has followed the TV series “Narcos” or has read about Pablo Escobar or the Cali cocaine cartel will know that drug lords can hold a special place in popular mythology, seen rightly or wrongly as Robin Hood figures standing up to the corrupt and violent police, and spending their narco-dollars on the poor communities they grew up in. They could even have their exploits sung about as “narcos corridos” sprang up to extol their fearlessness in song. A successful operation, drug run or murder would be immortalised, and the most successful groups topped the charts in places like Mexico. Until they were banned. Los Tigres Del Norte never get any radio airplay, but they’ve sold 32 million records in their long career.
Mashrou’ Leila are big in Lebanon where their singer Hamed Sinno is out and proud and is a figurehead for sexual liberation. They were due to play in Amman this summer, but angry Christians got the rockers banned for being “apologists for Satan”, and encouraging sexual freedom. Mashrou’ Leila’s latest album includes material to make orthodox toes curl. The rest of us just want to tap our feet…
We began with Russia, and it is in Russia that we end with Pussy Riot. The feminist collective crashed onto front pages around the world in 2012 after they were arrested for performing “Punk Prayer” in Christ the Saviour’s cathedral in Moscow. Three members received two-year jail sentences for vandalism and inciting religious hatred. Since then the collective has released more music, protested at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and turned up in a 2015 “House of Cards” episode playing themselves. Internationally feted, in Russia they are muzzled.