With freedom of expression increasingly under threat by authoritarian governments worldwide, 2016 yielded a crop of loud, defiant tunes from an assortment of envelope-pushers, political dissidents, and would-be pop icons.
While not all the artists on this list intended up upset the global autocrats, they all made statements against oppressive power structures.
“For the Freedom” – Chunhyok Kang
North Korean refugee rapper Chunhyok Kang crossed the border into China with family when he was young and never turned back. Currently living in exile in South Korea, Kang – who also creates drawings, paintings, and other visual art – has adopted hip-hop as his preferred medium to tell the story of North Korea’s holocaust to his southern neighbors.
In interviews, he has described his imprisonment in China as “torture” and thanked family friends for bribing Chinese police into allowing them into South Korea. While in China, he first heard “K-Pop,” an American-influenced rap-pop hybrid genre so despised by the Communists in Pyongyang that the South Korean government played it loudly on the border during Kim Jong-un’s birthday this year.
Speaking to Radio Free Asia, Kang says hip-hop’s origins are in a “plea for human rights,” making it an ideal genre to tell the stories of oppressed and starving North Koreans. His latest song, “For the Freedom,” is a protest of “spoiled young politician” Kim Jong-un as much as it is a personal retelling of the struggle his family endured to escape him.
“Abajo Quien Tu Sabes” – Porno Para Ricardo
The Cuban anti-communist punk anthem, whose name translates to “Down with You-Know-Who,” came out eight months before You-Know-Who’s death last month, and the same number of months before Porno Para Ricardo frontman Gorki Águila was detained arbitrarily for being in the presence of an international human rights attorney (he was also arrested, along with bandmate Lia Villares, the month “Down with You-Know-Who” came out).
The music video features classic speeches against Elvis Prestley and the Beatles by Cuban dictator You-Know-Who, a compliment to the crassly disrespectful lyrics against the Cuban Communist regime.
“They can toss you in the tank because the law is useless,” the song warns, an experience everyone in the band has had for, among other things, silent protest “concerts” and standing in solidarity with the Ladies in White. The Ladies get a shout-out in the song – “they beat women who carry flowers/we seek to overthrow the regime of pain” – but generally remains lighthearted, suggesting that, “with mockery, we can defeat the Castros.”
“Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan” – Germany’s Extra3
The satire show Extra3 found itself in the crosshairs of an increasingly sensitive Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with their tune, whose title translates to “Erdo-how, Erdo-where, Erdogan.” The song mocks Erdogan for having a “swollen neck” as much as it does for shutting down newspapers who dare publish news that is unfavorable to the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as accusing Erdogan of “loath[ing] the Kurds” and being “brothers in faith” with the Islamic State.
Erdogan’s government summoned the German Ambassador demanded an explanation for this independent satirical production, but ultimately failed to get the program’s producers in trouble, as insulting the Turkish president is only a crime in Turkey.
“Oh My God” – Namewee ft. 911
Malaysian rapper Namewee did not set out to write a protest song when he came up with “Oh My God,” a song whose lyrics tell the story of an unlucky man who is turning to a higher power, any higher power, to turn his life around. The music video for the song featured multiple religious settings – including a church, a Buddhist temple, and a mosque – and the word “allah” appeared in the song’s lyrics, however, prompting Malaysia’s Islamic police with arresting him and charging him with “defiling a place of worship with intention to insult religion.”
The rap group 911, which also appears on the song, is of Chinese descent and not present in Malaysia at the time of Namewee’s arrest. Malaysia thus demanded Interpol help arrest the rappers, a request that Interpol did not heed.
“Laila Main Laila” – Shahrukh Khan ft. Sunny Leone
Another song whose creators did not intend to cause a stir with, nor did they – it was the risque music video, part of a larger Bollywood feature titled Raees set for a 2017 release. The video is out, however, and it features former pornographic actress and current Bollywood star Sunny Leone in romantic scenes with Shahrukh Khan, one of Bollywood’s most famous actors. While the segment would barely merit a PG rating in America, Pakistan’s Sharia-based society has reportedly frowned upon the entire film, with reports in July suggesting that Pakistan’s Censor Board would ban the movie. DNAIndia suggested it may be banned in relation to “the recent murder of Pakistani social media celeb Qandeel Baloch by her brother.”
The Censor Board never got a chance to review Raees on individual merit. In October, the government of Pakistan banned all Indian entertainment in response to growing tensions with its neighbor on the Kashmir border. In response, the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association (IMPPA) banned Pakistani actors from working in India, directly affecting the production of Raees, no longer able to feature actress Mahira Khan.
“Laila Main Laila” was released earlier this week, suggesting the film’s release is back on schedule.