For any practitioner of the arts, the question of censorship, of what is acceptable for public display and what is not, has always been on the table, and societies down through the ages have been grappling with this issue.  One can safely say that censorship will always be with us, in one form or another, because the contributing factors are cross-dimensional as well as varied and complex, and to look at the recent Mavado controversy here is to see many of them operating.

20090928soitgoIn the first place, as with any art form, subjectivity is playing a major role. Some people think Mavado is a crown prince; some people think he is an abomination. Some people think the state should not censor artistic expression; some think it absolutely should. Some people feel artists can influence human behaviour; some people feel that they have virtually no effect. Some people see censorship of any kind, whether by the state or anyone else, as invasive; others vehemently argue it is in fact the duty of a responsible state.  But subjectivity is a fairly clearly defined aspect; the other creatures at play in the issue are, as Johnny Braff would put it, “more slippery than a ochro.”

In almost all of these arts restraint issues, we have to bear in the mind that creative outputs are almost always a reflection of the society that spawns them.

Bob Dylan, for example, was not leading American youth with his protest songs a few decades ago; he was scratching around as a folk performer, dabbling in traditional songs, until he began singing about the issues he was hearing from the young people of his own time. He was not leading them anywhere; he was just describing where they had gone.

The rap singers in the US are talking about the life they know first hand in the ghetto. The raw violent scenarios in a Mavado song come from a life that he sees every day around him. The Chilean singers performing in the coffee-houses in Toronto in the 1970s were singing about life under Pinochet as they knew it. Those artists are not creating the behaviours; they are simply reporting them. Admittedly, many times they go beyond simply reporting, but the essential point remains – it is reality based.

However, the divergent point, in the case of Mavado – and in others such as Buju Banton with his homophobic songs – is the view that, while these traumas exist, the artistic glorification of these behaviours (violence, thuggery, gay bashing, etc) should not be allowed; such recordings should be banned and permission for live performances refused. The contrasting view is that artistic expression should not be restrained by the state, full stop, because that stifles creativity. Whichever side you’re on you will meet opposition, and the complexities do not end there.

The matter gets very tangled when we come to the question of influence. Okay, goes the argument, the singer or painter may be indeed reflecting what is real in the society, but he/she should not be allowed to propagate venom because – this is key – it will cause others to behave likewise.  Furthermore, the disclaimers by these controversial artistes that they are simply presenting not endorsing, do not wash: if you are singing about a behaviour and not condemning the behaviour, it is disingenuous, as Orrin Gordon pointed out in a recent letter to Stabroek News, to then say you are not advocating it.

 Space does not permit discussion of all the aspects of this matter, but the question of influence is almost impossible to establish.  Indeed, in keeping with my previous point, the sociologist will tell you that singers like Mavado and Buju are not influencing anyone; that in fact what they do is a result of them being influenced by the world they inhabit, instead of the other way around.

Having said that, in any society that seeks to develop and uplift the lives of its citizens, there is clearly a responsibility to protect them from proclamations, musical or otherwise, that pander to the dark side of human nature. As to what form that should take, each society must make its own decisions.  In an authoritarian one, as in the former Soviet Union, those decisions were made by the state and protestations were simply ignored. In a more relaxed environment, such as Guyana today, the subjectivity ingredient is in full swing causing all sorts of claims and counter claims.

In artistically free societies, the question of public choice is significantly involved.  Popular music, by definition, means the material has somehow caught public favour, which means the public wants to hear it, and a promoter will inevitably book an artiste purely on that basis – wide public appeal – and so the wheel turns. If the majority have voted their approval – by buying the product – shouldn’t the wheel be allowed to turn?

Furthermore, is anything achieved by such bans? If the music is popular, it is being widely played, or copied. It is already in people’s minds. In this internet and Ipod world, banning the song from radio, or blocking the live performance, will not remove it. The people who made it popular in the first place will continue to give it their approval, and, as Orrin pointed out, will show up and roar as with Buju and his gay bashing song. I see the need to raise concerns about material that is degrading to mankind, but I think we have to protest its appearance knowing that it’s unlikely we are changing attitudes. I also commend the contention that some resistance is better than no resistance at all, but I close as I started: this is very vexatious problem.

Popular artistic exercises almost always have a life of their own with a fire that continues to burn despite all the water we sometimes throw on them. Offensive as they are to many, rap videos with women as mute sexual vessels continue to proliferate; despite the fervent complaints about lewd dancing in soca shows, it continues to attract crowds; the inane lyrics of the ‘jump and wave’ writers that have some of us shaking our heads don’t seem to bother the party crowd one iota. The lesson there is that as offensive, or inane, as these things are to many, many more of us find appeal in them and flock to those expressions. Cultures, in either majority or minor positions, ultimately choose what they want. It has always been so, and I see no evidence that things are about to change.

That may be seen as a defeatist note on which to close, but, as we say in the Caribbean, so it go.

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