Just in time for the holidays, a new CD compiles a who’s who of banned musicians from around the world.
As a girl in Oslo, Deeyah was watching Eurovision, a sort of European Star Search where every country sends a contestant. After hearing the Norwegian contestant, Deeyah sang the song back perfectly. Her dad asked her to do it again and she repeated the melody note for note. He smiled. She was now a music student, he told her, and went around her room and snatched up her Barbies and tossed them in a trash bag. As a replacement for her favorite dolls, the Casio keyboard she got was pretty shabby, and she cried. But after the trauma wore off, she rose to become a child star in the tiny Nordic nation.
But as Deeyah tells us below, child stardom was no primrose path. She grew up in the MTV generation, where sexuality was something that was openly explored in lyrics and in the fashion and dance surrounding pop music. But her dad also sought out training for her among the most masterful musicians in the Indian and Pakistani classical traditions, where it was unusual, and frowned upon in most cases, for girls to perform this music. Her dad regularly received lectures from traditional friends. But when she unabashedly turned to pop, the lectures turned to threats, and she fled. After a hiatus, she sparked a similar reaction in London, from conservative factions within the Muslim community. Over the years she was spat at, called a prostitute, and was constantly threatened with violence. Strangers showed up at her school in Norway offering to take her for a drive.
One of the few places where Deeyah found support was an organization called Freemuse. If you haven’t heard of it, think PEN for musicians and you have it in a nutshell. In cultures influenced by the likes of the Taliban or very conservative religious figures, or evangelicals maybe, music—as part of a larger cultural drift—may itself be seen as a threat. In the case of Cameroon’s Lapiro De Mbanga, who is serving a three-year jail sentence, it’s not the fact of music but the how. When leaders in his native country wanted to change the constitution for political purposes, De Mbanga wrote what would become the anthem of the resistance, “Constitution Constipee,” and was arrested. Tiken Jah Fakoly was chased out of his native Ivory Coast for writing songs telling the government to quit power. He remains a strong critic of the government from nearby Mali.
When Deeyah witnessed Freemuse’s support firsthand, she was sold. Her involvement with the organization led to a new compilation CD, featuring banned or persecuted artists from around the world. Listen to the Banned features fourteen songs by musicians from China, Pakistan, Iran, Western Sahara/Morocco, Cameroon, The Ivory Coast, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, and Sudan. The songs are sad, funny, satirical, sublime, mysterious, haunting and conciliatory. (Listen to the samples below.)
I spoke with Deeyah by phone.
—Joel Whitney for Guernica
Hear songs from Listen to the Banned here:
Abazar Hamid, “Salam Darfur”
Aziza Brahim, “Regreso”
Haroon Bacha, “Speena Kontara”
Amal Murkus, “Bhallelak”
Guernica: We’re used to human rights organizations defending writers and academics. Why does it seem like persecuted musicians have flown under the human rights radar, and how widespread is this persecution?
Deeyah: This is something that’s been a little bit confusing to me, because on one hand music is perceived to be very dangerous by a lot people around the world which is why they try to find ways of silencing or limiting it. On the other hand, if you look at this part of the world, it feels like it doesn’t seem to carry the same significance. I wonder if it’s because it maybe crosses the line into entertainment and that lessens the relevance of it. If you look at it, music is such an honest and direct form of communication, and an emotional channel that transcends economic or social, ethnic or sexual—and any other—barriers. It’s a part of our history, our tradition, our culture. So for it not to carry the same significance [maybe as writing] is very confusing. But [this suppression of musicians] is widespread. If you look at the Taliban in Afghanistan, at what what they did to music, or at the Taliban equivalent now in Pakistan and what they’ve done to music and continue to do to music… You hear from some of the religious leaders in Iran and you hear about their views of music. So it’s not like it’s a tiny hidden little thing.
Look at the Dixie Chicks. It’s a financial consequence. If you look at these artists, it’s very, very basic; what’s called into question is the right to exist at all.
Guernica: I notice this CD has mostly what we would call “non-Western” musicians. What are the examples of this suppression that you might have included if you’d included Western musicians? Is this kind of not an issue so much in the West or am I not thinking hard enough?
Deeyah: Well, for instance maybe the Dixie Chicks?
Guernica: Right, and that was a terrific documentary about all the fallout from them saying they wish Bush wasn’t from their state, right? It seems like the examples this CD puts out come from the Middle East, South and East Asia, and Africa. So how were they chosen?
Deeyah: Well, just to stay with that, very recently there’s the example of the Dixie Chicks. And going back a bit further, there’s the example of rock and roll. And the clash with rock and roll, whether with the religious establishment or even older generations, or whatever it may have been. That’s another point of conflict that’s been there. If you look at how heavy metal has been received in some places…
Guernica: Right. And I think outgoing Florida governor Charlie Crist is on the verge of pardoning Jim Morrison for indecent exposure 40 years ago. I think that act has with it a whole clutch of ideas about rebellion and sexual freedom and culture wars and nonconformity. This idea of the musician’s freedom to expose their flesh is not strange or foreign to you.
Deeyah: Right. But your question about the freedom of expression at least in the way it’s manifested today in the West, you’re probably not going to get thrown in jail. You’re probably not going to get tortured. The consequences are more financial. You look at the Dixie Chicks and it’s a financial consequence or consequence in terms of commercial viability. If you look at the artists on Listen to the Banned, it’s very, very basic. What’s called into question is the right to exist at all.
Guernica: Yeah, a lot more is clearly at stake.
Deeyah: Yes, the consequences in those parts of the world are very severe and very personal, and much harder to deal with than here.
Guernica: And you’re kind of the person who can best talk about both kinds of reactions. You’ve experienced this in Norway, but coming from a traditional Muslim and Desi community that maybe doesn’t always think women should sing, you have rare insight into this. You started performing in Oslo, where you were born, around seven?
Deeyah: Yes, seven or eight. From then on received very difficult, strict, rigid training in North Indian and Pakistani classical music for many, many years; trained with Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan and then Ustad Sultan Khan in India. So my musical foundation was that and my musical beginnnings were that. But growing up in Oslo, Norway, a country that is very much influenced by American culture, pop culture in general, I also was a part of the MTV generation. So I grew up with the Madonnas and the Michael Jacksons and the Princes, these playing in one ear and then studying raga in the other.
Guernica: You’re soaking in pop while working really hard, as a girl, to work in this classical tradition. So for you there are these disparate things, and, for instance, the exposed midriff is a normal aspect of pop music.
Deeyah: Yes, and of life. Growing up in such a liberal, open society as Norway, where it’s even for Western standards a very progressive society… Its sexuality is very much out in the open and with a very relaxed relationship to it. And so growing up with that, and women being very free to do and say and participate in life and society however they wished, that paired with a musical tradition that is so ancient and then all the phone calls and conversations and time that I would spend with my teacher would touch that old-world richness of the past as well. I feel very lucky, I must say, to have had this very odd sort of… I would say it is a balance of these two roles, culturally speaking, in terms of language, in terms of how I hear music, how I relate to people; it affects the lens I guess that I view everything through.
If I would have known when I was a child what I was about to get myself into, I really do wonder if I would have pursued this.
Guernica: So you were a child star. And in a way you were forced to flee Norway in 1996?
Guernica: And that was because of death threats at a concert?
Deeyah: Yes, at a concert and people coming to visit my school that I was partially attending to take me for a ride to teach me a lesson about “not being such a prostitute.” Now going back, because it’s a big jump from being a child star to being called a prostitute, but basically in my situation a lot of this stems from my Muslim background. And coming from a good family, or whatever people perceive to be a good family, for a female child or even a male child to be put into a profession like music, like entertainment, is not considered particularly good or particularly respectable. So my father is the one who actually got me into music in the first place. He encouraged me, he wanted me to do music. He was very, very liberal, very open-minded, loved the arts and culture, and music was a big part of my upbringing. It was always something that my parents emphasized a lot. So my parents, my father, he did know that my profession being music was going to cause some people to dislike or disagree with that decision. But the extent and the severity of the reactions, none of us really expected. And if I would have known when I was a child what I was about to get myself into, you know, I really do wonder if I would have pursued this.
Guernica: So what were your allegedly offensive acts? Was it what you sang about, how you danced, dressed, all of the above?
Deeyah: All of the above. The starting point is that it’s an unacceptable and disrespected profession for a Muslim woman. That’s the starting point. I started in Pakistani clothes and that was ok. But some people gave my dad these sorts of lectures almost. They’d come to our house and sit him down and basically try to convince him to take me out of music, saying, “This is just not something that we do; this is just not something for a girl to be doing.” So that, and then me getting into pop music. Like you were saying: some of how I dressed, being quite outspoken about how I felt about a whole range of issues, dancing with boys in videos, doing all the things that are considered benign and standard for any female pop artist to do. But for me, it’s different obviously, because my background is different, so it didn’t sit quite right.
Guernica: So you ended up deciding in 1996 that you had to leave Norway and wound up in London. And how long before you were chased out of London?
Deeyah: It actually took quite a while because I took a break from music when I went to London, and then kept my head down for quite a while. Not until 2004 or so did I actually start doing my own music. Up until then I just did collaborations or vocals on other people’s albums. And very soon after that, between 2005 and 2006, I left.
Guernica: You butted heads with a pretty conservative Muslim community in London?
Guernica: And where were you when you made this allegedly provocative video “What Will It Be?”
Deeyah: I was between the UK and the U.S., but in the process of uprooting myself completely from the UK.
Guernica: You’ve said in some interviews that this was you trying to face these conflicts head on. And I’m imagining there’s an element of wanting to provoke discussion. So tell me a little about making that video?
Deeyah: Before that, I had never done anything that I felt was challenging anyone in any sort of direct way. I was very honest and open in my opinions and things like that. But none of the music that I did was challenging, none of my lyrics provoked or were intended as being provocative or anything like that. If anything, I felt like throughout my career I tried my best to promote our culture and our music as much as possible. So when this harassment would not stop and when I came to that point I very intentionally, like you said, wanted to do something like, “Ok, this is obviously not going to end. This is only going to follow me. So let me at least address some of this and also let me just get some of this frustration out.”
Guernica: Is it too blunt to say it was a bit of a fuck you?
Deeyah: No, it’s not too blunt at all. That’s exactly what it felt like. It was very much… [laughing] the middle finger.
Guernica: Your dad was from what part of Pakistan?
Deeyah: He’s from the Punjab in Pakistan.
Guernica: Is your mom Afghan?
Deeyah: Yes, my mom is Afghan and parts of her heritage are Persian.
He’s stuck in a jail with fifty people. This is really starting to affect him. What he would really appreciate is solidarity and he is apparently allowed music in his jail cell.
Guernica: And you grew up speaking Punjabi, Urdu…
Deeyah: Yes, Punjabi, Urdu, a little Pashto, and English and Norwegian.
Guernica: Had you heard, growing up, of Haroon Bacha, one of the artists on Listen to the Banned? [Hear Haroon’s song above.]
Deeyah: Actually, you know what, I had not. I had not actually heard of any of the artists on this album before starting to work on the album itself.
Guernica: Do you have a favorite on the CD?
Deeyah: I will admit that I have an extra soft spot for the female voices. The women who are on here, I can put them on repeat and can listen to that all day, every single day, which I did.
Guernica: How long did it take to find all these artists?
Deeyah: When I did a song in the UK, a straight-up pop song called “Plan of My Own” in 2004, 2005, which is when my troubles began, I came across this organization called Freemuse, which stands for Freedom of Musical Expression. They are an independent, international organization and advocate the freedom of expression for composers and musicians worldwide. And I describe them as the equivalent of PEN but for musicians and composers. They were among the very few people who were actually very supportive of what I was going through. They completely understood. So I was introduced to them at that difficult time in my life, and the more I started learning about them and started really delving into their work and the other artists they work with and the cases that they’ve worked on, the more I just was really fascinated and really interested. And I realized that I wanted to help them in any way that I could. And I asked them at one point, “Have you guys maybe considered putting together an album to reflect the incredible talent that is out there and also these really incredible stories?”
Guernica: So this is that, Freemuse’s first CD?
Deeyah: Yes. They’ve always wanted to do an album but it would never quite happen. And I said, “Ok, that’s one thing that I do know. So let me see if I can at least help in some way.” That was maybe two years ago, and since then it’s been going through a lot of materials, doing a lot of research. I’ve been a little bit like a kid in a candy store in the sense of getting to listen to so much incredible music and enjoy it just as a listener. So that’s been a treat. And it was also a matter of trying to find a team of people at labels and distributors to put in place as well, who would understand what this is about and who would understand that the integrity of these artists, as artists and also as individuals, is very important to respect, even more so because of some of the situations that some of them find themselves in.
Guernica: Which of these fourteen artists is still able to live in their own country, where they may be critics of the government or represent something the government doesn’t like? Most are in exile, yes?
Deeyah: The women who start and end the album, Mahsa Vahdat, from Iran, and Amal Murkus from Israel… Mahsa still lives in Iran. And Amal, who ends the album [hear her song above], still lives in Israel/Palestine. Let’s see. Who else is still there? Those two, plus three: Ferhat Tunc is still in Turkey, Fadal Dey is still in the Ivory Coast, and Marcel Khalife is still in Lebanon.
Guernica: None of these artists has been killed by the government, have they?
Deeyah: None of these. One is in prison right now in Cameroon. That’s Lapiro De Mbanga. He’s serving what they said is going to be a three-year sentence. And this was in 2009 that they imprisoned him. What I’ve heard is, apparently they said that the sentence could be extended by another 18 months or so if he doesn’t pay some sort of a fine that they’ve decided he should pay. When I was selecting all the artists and going through all this material, the amount of material was mind blowing. And some of the featured artists, one that I really wanted to include on the album was an Algerian male artist, named Lounes Matoub, and he was assassinated. But I was never able to track down any of the family members or anyone who would grant me the rights to include him.
Guernica: So Lapiro De Mbanga is in jail essentially for singing about a “constipated constitution,” when the president wanted to change the constitution to extend his term, is that right? This is the big anti-corruption anthem in Cameroon?
Deeyah: Pretty much. He’s been very active and very vocal for several years. I think he’s been quite a source of irritation for government officials in Cameroon.
Guernica: And you mean beyond his lyrics?
Deeyah: Well, through his lyrics. I think he’s one of the artists who through his music has been able to be very active and very vocal. And kind of using humor and music to really go at topics that he feels strongly about or injustices he’s witnessed. I think that is why he’s become so popular as well—because his remarks are really connected to your average person in Cameroon. But one of the really worrying things about him, though, is that his health is not particularly good. I mean he’s stuck in a jail with fifty people and not very long ago he basically said that he is really starting to… not fade but… this is really starting to affect him. And what he would really appreciate is solidarity and support from more music people and what he would love is—he is apparently allowed music in his jail cell. So he would like for people to send him music to listen to, to kind of keep him going and keep his spirits up. Which I thought was really just incredibly sad but also really incredible how music is something that he needs, like all of us do, to keep him going even though music landed him there in the first place.
This is why music is seen to be so dangerous. And this explains why some governments try to control it. It can encourage defiance and rebellion.
Guernica: Another African on this CD whose music impressed me was Tiken Jah Fakoly. He’s singing directly to the president to quit government, in a beautiful reggae song. As a writer I see how literature connects us to a multiplicity of traditions. Hearing the reggae in French made me see that the hybrid sounds that I was hearing in that song and in some of the songs, like “Regreso,” by the West Saharan artist Aziza Brahim, I heard Cuban rhythms (which were jazz and then earlier drawn from African rhythms—kind of full circle). So there’s a certain hybrid nature to many of these songs in their musical ancestry. Now Tiken has had friends assassinated, hasn’t he?
Deeyah: Yes, he has. He’s one of the few artists I have not had personal contact with. From everything I’ve read about him, he strikes me really as such a strong character and such a powerfully defiant man who touches on every topic that he wants to. And the fact that he also touches on subjects that relate to women’s issues makes me want to tout him even more. And Tiken’s been a very outspoken supporter, even, of Lapiro and a big critic of what’s been going on with Lapiro as well. I think Tiken is a very powerful, very loud, and I think successful big voice out there and also, again, musically, he’s incredibly good.
Guernica: He’s from Côte d’Ivoire. But he’s currently in a sort of exile in Mali, right?
Deeyah: That’s right. That’s where he is now. And going back to what you asked about before, how he’s musically so strong… One of the comments I consistently get is people are surprised that the music on this CD is as good as it is.
Guernica: That’s a funny thing to be surprised about.
Deeyah: [laughs] Exactly. But that seems to be a consistent thing.
Guernica: It starts, I notice, with such a moody song. And yet it quickly switches to upbeat songs. Lapiro’s sounds, musically, like one of the lightest or most upbeat.
Deeyah: The sense of joy in that song is really remarkable. It makes us see that music has that potential to sort of be a musical remedy linking all these things even at the worst possible times in our lives.
Guernica: Some of the songs seem really personal. The first song, “Mystery,” I don’t know what the lyrics are. What’s going on in that song?
Deeyah: I was given several recordings of Mahsa Vahdat, the Iranian singer, and the minute I heard that song I said, “This is it. This is how it has to start. I don’t know what she’s singing either. But I can feel what she’s saying and this needs to be the beginning.” Mahsa is an incredibly powerful singer. After hearing her as much as I have now, she might actually be one of my favorite female singers. She is technically and emotionally so superior in some ways, it’s just amazing. But talking of how a lot of people deal with what they’re going through, I mean Mahsa, even in her emails and some of the communications that we’ve had, despite going through a lot of hardship and struggles and not finding it possible to perform in Iran as a woman, she still has this kind of light tone and this light way of dealing with things as a person. But then you listen to her singing and you listen to the pain and the real depths that her voice has, it’s just remarkable, absolutely mind blowing. She is also very pro-woman so we have that in common.
Guernica: What kinds of things are getting Amal Murkus in trouble?
Deeyah: Amal Murkus. First of all her music has not been accepted by any Israeli record company as far as I know. And she has to deal with the feeling of being viewed as an outsider, and almost like an enemy within Israeli society because she is Palestinian. But because she lives in Israel and she was born there, she also carries an Israeli passport, so she’s essentially cut off from her, you know, the Arab world basically. So her experience is more a feeling of segregation and also a feeling of longing for a sense of belonging and a sense of identity and a sense of an accepting and embracing homeland. But—again, also like Mahsa—in addition to this she’s a very strong women’s advocate so she has bumped into some not-so-pleasant issues within her own community as well. I can relate to Amal in terms of not finding acceptance where you are because you’re different and because you’re that Muslim girl, but then from your own also getting slapped around and finding a lot of resistance and finding a lot of… not hatred… but a lot of very negative reactions to what you’re doing. I think she’s had run-ins with several of the more orthodox Islamic organizations as well, because of her being quite outspoken when it comes to women’s issues and because she is also in a profession where, in music or in performance, you are very much highlighted and on display. I can actually on a personal level relate to a lot of the issues that Amal faces, and actually I think—because I keep in touch with her regularly now—I’m gonna end up probably producing a solo album for her at some point. The likes of Tiken and Ferhat, they have huge followings. So they’re doing alright in terms of commercial success. And even Mahsa is doing really great and has built a great following outside of Iran. But some of the other artists I think I’ll probably end up continuing with on solo albums as well.
Guernica: Now Haroon comes from Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Provinces and has ended up in Washington?
Deeyah: Yes, he’s in Washington.
Guernica: He sings in Pashto.
Deeyah: Yes, he does.
Guernica: What got him in trouble?
Deeyah: Well, he sings about pluralism, about peace, he sings about unity and about accepting everyone and for everyone to participate in this beautiful society rather than being targeted out. He talks about inclusion basically. And that’s really been the force of why he’s received this sort of punishment and this sort of treatment.
Guernica: The others?
Deeyah: You know, I didn’t actually know what most of the artists were singing about, when I was selecting the material. To be quite honest. Later, of course, I did.
Guernica: You speak five languages. Shouldn’t you have learned all fourteen artists’ languages before putting out the album?
Deeyah: [laughs] Yeah, right. But for me it was all about the musical language. As you may have noticed, even without knowing the language we can connect and pick up and hear whatever we need to.
Guernica: Yes, the moods of the songs seem clear.
Deeyah: I do think this is why music is seen to be so dangerous to many people. And I think this explains why some governments try to control it. Because of what it can do. It can encourage defiance and rebellion and all those things.
Guernica: It’s true. I wanted to start a revolution after listening to Queensryche in college. I of course disavowed the revolution later on, just from seeing photographs of their haircuts. But I guess that’s pop culture.
Deeyah: There you go.
Watch Tiken Jah Fakoly, “Quitte le pouvoir”
To contact Guernica or Deeyah, please write here.
Photograph of Deeyah courtesy of Listen to the Banned