‘Free speech is like money. Some people just have a lot more of it than the others.’
This thought resonated across thousands of minds around the globe when the vocalist of Rage Against the Machine, Zack De La Rocha, belted out ‘Bulls On Parade’ with guitarist Tom Morello sending a 13,000 strong crowd into a frenzy.
Rock music and activism have always gone hand in hand. Since the origin of rock in the 1950s, through the Golden Age and the Progressive until the current Punk and Alternative age, there have been bands that have voiced out their political opinions in cheeky ways.
Rage Against the Machine, an American metal band, popular for its leftist political views have been active since 1991. The rap metal band is best known for its songs Killing in the Name of, Testify, Bulls on Parade, Fist Full of Steel and Wake Up, all of which brew leftist rants against corporate America.
The controversial band has rubbed the American government the wrong way on several occasions. At Saturday Night Live in 1996, they almost went on-air with inverted American flags on their amplifiers and drum kits. This sort of rebellion seemed to be a precipitate of the 70’s Classic Rock era that saw bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.
The advent of these rebellious bands took place more than a decade ago. Now, in 2012, we still have bands that are in the spot light for all the wrong reasons. Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk rock band was arrested in August for staging anti-Vladimir Putin protests in public places in Russia. They pulled the last nerve when they rallied at Moscow’s main cathedral, against the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting the president. Three of the band members were sentenced to two years in prison.
Within hours, worldwide protests to set the band free broke out among punk-rock fans. Twitter handles appeared hoping to give the band moral support.
PussyRiotQuotes It (govt) is so clearly invested in serving only narrow corporate interests it makes us sick just to breathe the Russian air
PussyRiotQuotes “Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here. This is a trial of the entire political system”
Despite these protests, two of the band members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, have been sentenced to two years imprisonment and are serving time in prisons in remote parts of Russia. A third member got away thanks to the international outcry.
This injustice brings to mind the lyrics of RATM’s Township Rebellion:
“Rebel, rebel and yell
‘Cause our people still dwell in hell
Locked in a cell
Yes, the structure’s a cell”
This injustice is also unfair because there have been a plethora of bands/band members that have gotten away in spite of atrocious behaviour in public; although not necessarily politically offensive, just outright assaults on human sensibility.
For instance, Jim Morrison, vocalist of The Doors, was charged for ‘lewd and lascivious behavior in public by exposing his private parts and by simulating masturbation and oral copulation.’ He was sentenced to three years and 150 days of imprisonment but his death turned out to be his saviour. Jim Morrison died in Paris before he could serve the sentence and was even offered a posthumous pardon by the state of Florida for his lewd behaviour. In 1998, band members of German metal band Rammstein, of the Du Hast fame, were charged for continuous acts of (brace yourself) Sodomy on stage. They were arrested for just one night and slapped a fine of (believe-it-or-not) $25.
The list of such downright despicable bands is endless and will mentally scar you. I’ll spare you the shudder. Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Manson and Cannibal Corpse are just few of the others who contribute to such appalling acts.
Pussy Riot seem rather subtle and innocuous in comparison to the bands from the 70’s-90’s. Their voice is the voice of liberty and dissent. They are the voice of several Russians who do not want to be jailed for thinking that there should be a separation between the church and the state. Pussy Riot were jailed for what Russia ludicrously called “blasphemy.”
But in a world where blasphemy as a crime is indeed a historic thought, Pussy Riot are considered heroic. They have been deservedly nominated for TIME’s Person of the Year 2012. They are considered inspirational and courageous for standing up for themselves and against the country.
Roger Waters, vocalist and guitarist of progressive rock band Pink Floyd, shared a message of solidarity with Pussy Riot saying, “We greatly respect your bravery and resolve. I was much encouraged by the anti-Putin, pro Pussy riot and Freedom demonstrations in Moscow, we are with you. There are more of us willing to stand up to errant authority, in the fight to create free societies with just laws, than there were yesterday, and there will be more tomorrow. Our numbers are growing.”
On December 10,, 2012, a Russian priest, (mind you, a priest) Sergei Baranov, who made statements supporting the band and said what Pussy Riot did was “necessary protest,” reported to Czech Radio that he’s been receiving threats and intimidation from the church and the state. “The band is only expressing their opinion. Coalescence of the state power with the church is one of the biggest problems plaguing the country,” he said.
On asking Darya Golovko, one of the members running the solidarity campaigns for Pussy Riot in Russia, whether Nadezhda and Maria might be released soon as a result of the campaigns, she said “I do not want to guess on chances of their early release. It is not law and logic that has guided the Pussy Riot case so far. We keep our fingers crossed though.”
With respect to support from India, “I personally have not encountered information about solidarity activities in India. There are some Indian nationals living in other countries and possibly participating in solidarity actions there,” she said. Golovko also added that international support gives power to the imprisoned.
India today has many such rebellious bands, one of which is, Imphal Talkies –a band from Manipur as is evident from the name. They are based in Delhi and compose songs about problems plaguing the North East. They have been featured in The Dewarists and Tehelka’s The Music Project.
Most of their songs are in protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Their song Qutub Minar talks about a man taking the Qutub Minar away from Delhi to Manipur until Manmohan Singh repeals AFSPA. Although composed in a folk genre, the song has a haunting tone to it. Their song India, I see blood in your hands sings about the activist Irom Sharmila, Kashmir, Gujarat, suicidal farmers and everything from East to West and North to South. Their music very subtly brings to the fore year-long built up frustrations and inner hate.
Be it RATM, Pussy Riot or Imphal Talkies, the rage doesn’t end with their music. All of them have inculcated activism into their lives and believe they are here to fight for justice and freedom of speech.
Pussy Riot’s release
Of course the Pussy Riot story has a happy ending! After nearly two years of being arrested (eight months after I wrote most of this article), Nadia and Maria were released on December 23, 2013, despite them not having completed the two-year sentence. Both band members believed it was not an amnesty but just a PR stunt by Putin, ahead of the Winter Olympics that Russia is hosting in 2014, and that their attitude towards him hasn’t changed. But the fact remains that they are out of prison and the band can reunite and continue making music, hopefully in a safer way, without being imprisoned, without having to live away from kith and kin.
See what the world thought of them being imprisoned here.
To support Pussy Riot and stay updated about them, follow them on Twitter here.
To read about Pussy Riot’s trial, click here.
To know more about Rage against the machine, click here.
To listen to Imphal Talkies, click here.