Tuesday, May 10, 2016

o ban, or not to ban: music faces the test


When Malawian musician Sonye stepped into the recording studios, his overriding thought might have been to step past reality and win the battle against his usual self.

Indeed, his ‘Tsika’ hit song reverses the conventional meaning of reality and, instead of suggesting that the persona is in down-trodden mood [as the literal meaning of ‘Tsika’ suggests] it is a state of merry-making he is talking about.

Every time women and girls sing ‘Tsika/Tsika Mtsikana tsika/’, the sense is that of celebration [which elevates one’s mood from bad to good] throughout: Be it at bridal showers, weddings, parties or drinking joints.

That’s what happens in an artist’s mind: A scene of constant bustle that constantly redefines people’s understanding of the world and, sometimes, as in ‘Tsika’, turns some conventional meanings upside down to create new meaning.

However, Sonye’s ‘Tsika’ has divided public opinion, with gender, culture and moral experts suggesting that the lyrics are demeaning to women and that the song should, therefore, not be entertained on radio stations.

Suddenly, the artist who saw the waves of creativity elevate him to instant fame has turned into the hunted—a diminutive creature at risk of being dwarfed by the vastness of gender and moral activism. It has even reached the extent where some radio stations no longer play ‘Tsika’, thanks to those who find its lyrics offensive to women.

Still, others feel that imposing bans on songs turns the artistic landscape into a narrow sphere and inhibits creative thought.

Where else, they ask, is it more possible to live a life-outside-life than in the arts? Where else, if not in the creative industry, can the artist’s mind be in full flower?

Travelled road

While debates over whether to ban songs deemed inappropriate to some quarters of society may be new to some, the country’s music history is littered with such events.

For example, San B’s ‘Amake Junior’ hit once attracted the wrath of gender activists in the early 2000s, so much that it was banned on both public and private radio stations.

Gender activists reportedly did not like the portrayal of the persona ‘Amake Junior’, who they said was portrayed as clueless [by calling each and every child ‘Junior’] and irresponsible [by failing to advise her son ‘Junior’, as represented through such lines as ‘M’malo moti mwana mumulange/Tabwera iwe/Ufatse iwe/M’malo moti muzimdzudzula.../].

And ‘Amake Junior’ faded from the airwaves as quickly as it hit the speakers.

Just recently, reports have filtered in that the song ‘Dzuka Malawi’, composed by Lilongwe-based musician Francis Kalawe, has been banned on some public radio and television stations, ostensibly because of the political connotations of the song.

For starters, United Democratic Front president, Atupele Muluzi, used the refrain ‘Dzuka Malawi dzuka’ to drum his ‘Ung’onoung’ono’ manifesto message home. But this is the story of yesterday.

Veteran musician Lucius Banda has also had his fair share of bans on the tax-payer funded public broadcaster, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation.

However, while the banning of songs on political grounds has been a common phenomenon in Malawi, the suspension of the same on gender grounds is as recent a phenomenon as San B’s ‘Amake Junior’. The tendency can best be described as the ‘child of the new millennium’, considering that the trend started with ‘Amake Junior’ in the early 2000s.

Tsika’s turn

The sound of Sonye’s ‘Tsika’ has silently been muted in some private and public radio stations, resurfacing the old debate of gender and cultural sensitivity versus artistic license.

While the Musicians Union of Malawi (Mum) has called for dialogue between those who support the ban of songs based on content and the artists themselves, one of the gender and human rights activists who have been in the forefront calling for the ban on hits such as ‘Tsika’ has justified broadcasting houses that have adopted this position.

Speaking to Weekender on Wednesday, gender and human rights activist Emma Kaliya said songs such as ‘Tsika’ are demeaning to women.

“The issue is not just an activism issue; it’s a moral as well as principle issue. The issue [of songs that demean women] was tackled at a Sadc [Southern African Development Community] Gender Protocol meeting held in May [this year] in Malawi and it was observed that songs that demean the status of women are defeating principles of the Sadc Gender Protocol.

“So, without mentioning radio stations [that are not playing ‘Tsika’], it is true that some radio stations are not playing the song because of its demeaning lyrics to women. Sadly, there are some media institutions that have become immoral to the modesty of women and keep on playing such songs,” said Kaliya.

Kaliya added that radio and television stations that keep on playing songs that “undermine the modesty” of women were taking part in “promoting wrong things” in society.

“Surprisingly, these things [playing such songs] continue happening in the country. I am completely saddened with media houses who are promoting this practice. Of course, the artist is free to create anything but the media houses have a responsibility to scrutinise artistic works such as songs and make sure that they are in order. The media’s role is to educate and not promote insults,” added Kaliya.

While acknowledging that artists could explore all areas of life, Kaliya said the media has no business in “pleasing artists who are immoral”.

However, Mum president, Rev. Chimwemwe Mhango, has asked members of the general public not to rush into calling for impositions of bans on songs whose content they do not agree with, saying songs may not always mean what listeners think they do.

“People may conclude wrongly, which necessitates that artists should be involved. Songs should not just be banned anyhow and it’s always necessary to talk to the composer, reason together and, where it is agreed that a mistake might have been committed, correct such mistakes,” said Mhango.

He added: “The one thing about art is that things may not be what they seem to be. Art can be poetic. Meanings are not what they always sound and it is important that people should not take the lyrics literally. For people to appreciate, they need to go deeper and deeper in analysing content, hence the need for artists and concerned parties to sit down and engage each other.”

Mhango also expressed surprise that some of the songs people complain against are liked by listeners.

“Arguably, one would say: ‘Why do people like the song so much? Why do people like it?’ You will find that some of the songs that are deemed controversial enjoy massive airplay and are liked by people. This means they have appeal,” said Mhango.

Official side

Meanwhile, Director of Culture in the Ministry of Culture, Dr. Elizabeth Gomani Chindebvu, has said, used productively, creativity is an instrument that can be used to promote culture and create cultural awareness among people.

“That said, creativity should be on the people’s side, instead of being at the expense of people. So, while we know that creativity plays a crucial role in cultural development, it should not mean that people should accept offensive stuff,” said Gomani on Wednesday.

Speaking on the issue of whether it is justifiable for some segments of society to propagate the idea of banning some artistic works such as songs, Chindebvu said sometimes such sentiments may be a reflection of general perceptions of the citizenry.

“We don’t operate in a vacuum; we serve the people. We appreciate the fact that artists are also using culture but, at the same time, creativity is there for people’s enjoyment. If people are not enjoying [and are, instead, complaining] then they can speak out because creativity is there to serve as a source of enjoyment,” said Gomani.

Whatever the case, music could be turning into a jungle only the ultra-sensitive may come out of unscathed.

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