May 30, 2020

Can China control Bjork’s blast?

Before I launch into this edition of Sounding Off, there is something I have to clarify. By and large, I can’t stand politically motivated or inspired music. I like to keep my politicians and musicians separate.

I don’t feel like I need a musician telling me how to feel about world and national political issues. I can make up my own mind, thank you very much. A few examples of highly irritating political music jump out at me right away, including Bright Eyes’ “When the President Talks to God,” Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town” and Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin.”

I get it. You guys don’t like America, which is fine. At least foist your political agenda on the masses in a tasteful and well-articulated way. The Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” certainly comes to mind.

However, I will say there is one thing that irritates me more than politically-inspired music, and that is governments that try to stifle it. On March 4, the BBC reported that the singer Bjork, while playing a concert in Shanghai, China, shouted “Tibet! Tibet!” before playing a highly charged rendition of her song, “Declare Independence.”

To put this in the most unbiased way possible, China has controlled Tibet since 1951.

In a follow-up report issued on March 13, the BBC said, “China’s Culture Ministry last week said it would tighten controls over foreign artists” after the incident. The ministry was also reported to have said Bjork’s performance “broke Chinese law and hurt Chinese people’s feelings.”

While the Chinese government has said this will not impact other foreign artists, “particularly during the Olympic Games,” the BBC reported that China typically examines foreign artists’ set lists prior to concerts, and forbids the performance of subversive material.

Granted, I am no expert on the Tibetan independence movement, but I do know this is a touchy subject with Chinese people, particularly within the past few weeks. Bjork’s political statement was most likely coordinated with the marches and demonstrations of Tibetan monks that have taken place.

Apparently, Bjork’s outburst may have offended the Chinese people. The BBC posted a comment from a Chinese Web site that read, “Wow, the nerve! Where did she get the courage to do this? Weirdo!”

I suppose that in a country where the state controls the media and many other aspects of day-to-day life, the concept of free speech might seem weird. China’s state-controlled media is the primary source of my doubts regarding the outcry over Bjork’s performance.

It may seem a bit presumptuous of me to rhetorically impose a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution on another country, but as a journalist, I think the global community as a whole can benefit from freedom of speech.

I am delighted that within the past few decades, China has made progress both in addressing human rights issues and opening itself to the rest of the world. I think that the welcoming of a pop culture icon like Bjork certainly attests to this.

However, a government should not pick and choose among the more desirable elements of pop culture for the purpose of stifling political speech. In the realm of promoting freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas, China certainly has a long way to go. Often, a song or performance is the most effective way to deliver a political message. Perhaps if more artists and musicians possessed Bjork’s courage, free speech in China could make continued progress toward becoming a reality.

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