Freedom of Expression Versus Censorship, the Never Ending Struggle in Music

From Hip Hop to Black Metal, music is always a source of controversy and a target of censorship; Andy Prizeman-Nolan examines.

For as long as art has been made, there have been attempts to control it. Media ranging from literature to gaming have been ridiculed for content deemed socially or morally unacceptable. The music industry has been no stranger to such criticism. Whether it be for portraying promiscuity, satanic undertones, or subjecting the youth to violent content, there always seems to be an artist at the forefront of another controversy. From NWA receiving a letter from the FBI denouncing their song ‘Fuck The Police’ to Judas Priest being sued by a disgruntled ex-fan claiming subliminal messages in their music caused him to shoot himself. No matter how many attempts have been made to regulate such content, it continues to exist and thrive regardless. In some cases, the dissension actively contributes to commercial success, helping musicians develop a brand and identity that may not have been possible otherwise. Looking at past controversies, ranging in severity, many have asked the question; where do we draw the line? Even if such a line can be established, is it even viable for methods such as censorship to be employed?

While some have sought to censor simply through public denouncement, there have been occasions where attempts to reprimand musicians have been much more severe. Polish Black Metal giants Behemoth have been subjected to this treatment on multiple occasions. In 2010, while on stage in their native Poland, vocalist Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski took a stance against Catholicism, brandishing the Bible as ‘a book of lies’, before ripping it up on stage. Despite being outwardly Satanic for most of their career, this stunt attracted more attention than usual. So much so, that they were put before a Court to defend what was described as an act of Heresy; the severity of which could result in two years prison time. Ultimately, they won the case and avoided prison but this wouldn’t be their last encounter with Polish laws and regulations. In 2018, they caused further controversy with their ‘Republic of the Unfaithful’ shirts, which many believed depicted the White Eagle, the Polish coat of arms, in a disrespectful light. This would come to little avail, as the charges were dropped later that year.

Were Behemoth’s actions controversial? Yes. Are people within their rights to be offended by them? Absolutely. Are court cases a reasonable measure to combat this? Not quite.

While some may point out that their actions were sacrilegious, they are ultimately free to express their beliefs however they choose. They have been more than vocal in their Satanic belief, and their audience is aware of this. Should they choose to integrate such ideologies to their identity, they’re allowed to do so, in the same way spectators are justified in their outward reactions. Social reaction is clearly part-and-parcel with an act as unapologetic as Behemoth, but legal actions being taken to qualm them sets a jarring precedent that can be detrimental to an artist’s freedom of expression. 

Sometimes, similar cases of obscenity have warranted arguably more drastic reactions. In 2009, at the age of 18, U.S. rapper Tyler, the Creator released his debut album ‘Bastard’. This self-released project showed promise for future success, as it landed at number 32 in Pitchfork’s top 50 albums in 2010. This success would not escape criticism, however, as songs such as ‘VCR’ and ‘Blow’ faced waves of public backlash as a result of the perceived vulgarity they portrayed. Had this been the extent of the discourse regarding the content, it would have been justified. However, Tyler would go on to face frenzied attempts at censorship, as he was banned from entering the U.K. in any capacity in 2015, with the Home Secretary declaring his influence “would not be conducive to the public good”. Not only was this  unwarranted, given the elapsed time since writing the songs in question and the nature of his ‘crimes’, but it came to little avail; the ban was lifted in May of 2019 and Tyler, the Creator is more popular than ever in the U.K. today. 

 Issues surrounding censorship in music aren’t a new concept. Musicians have been pushing these borders for decades now for a plethora of different reasons. So, is there a line that can be drawn? That’s entirely down to the listener to decide. Deeming something socially acceptable or not is a subjective practice and attempting to regulate it would be futile. Even if a sizable amount of people consider something distasteful or unacceptable, attempting to censor it typically yields little results. Simply put, people will listen to what they want to. If a musician has an audience that wants to listen, there’s little that can be done to prevent that in any meaningful way.