Freedom of Expression: A vital issue for all artists & musicians

Deeyah – WNN GlobalARTS

Deeyah photo
Born and raised in Oslo, Norway, to Muslim immigrant parents, (with a Pakistani father and an Pashtun/Afghan mother) critically acclaimed composer and musician Deeyah believes deeply in the rights and freedom of all artists to express themselves. As a music producer bringing the most important human rights issues today to the front of our world, Deeyah is working tirelessly. Image:

(WNN) London, U.K., WESTERN EUROPE: Artists around the world can find themselves banned, censored, persecuted, imprisoned and silenced by states, religious movements, corporations, retailers and lobbying groups, even their own families. Detractors confused and threatened by the emotional power of art have been seeking to repress human creativity and inhibit diversity for centuries.

Across all art-forms numerous artists have faced suppression in the name of ‘morality’, ‘decency’ or ‘community sensitivities’. They have been jailed, tortured, harassed, threatened, marginalized, and even killed for the ‘crime’ of self-expression.

Artists also confront other, more invisible, forms of suppression, such as self censorship on the basis of gender and sexuality, or the fear of losing financial or institutional support, causing offense, or ‘provoking’ violent public and media reactions, harassment and threats in which censorship may be disguised under ‘noble’ concepts such as ‘cultural sensitivity’. The result of these pressures is that expressions of creativity may be aborted before being formed, or develop in stunted form.

Historically, artists have pushed the boundaries of society.

The role of art and artists in society varies, pivoted upon the choices and perspectives of any individual artist. Art can be merely a form of entertainment, or can demonstrate the proficiency of technique – but art can also be a form of resistance, protest, disobedience, freedom and subversion. Each motivation is as valid and necessary as the next: the voices and work of the whole creative sector are foundational to a healthy, open society.

A few weeks ago in early June (2013) I had the honor of being invited to speak at the UN in Geneva alongside Freemuse, one of the most active and effective international organization working for freedom of expression for artists, musicians and composers worldwide, following the report launched by the UN on the right to freedom of artistic expression and creation. I was joined by four extraordinary people: Manny Ansar (Mali), Didier Awadi (Senegal), Nadia Plesner (Denmark) and Jonathan Stanczack (Israel/Palestine).

I hope that this public stand from the UN will provide the encouragement many artists need in their solitary battles, so that artists continue to dissent, challenge sensibilities, provoke debate: to carry the possibilities of the future with the traditions of the past, to reflect authentic and personal experiences of society in the present.

However difficult or subversive the work of an artist may be, I call on institutions to stand for freedom of expression, and support the free exchange of ideas and opinions fearlessly and to embrace the positive value of controversy and disagreement. Comprehending the diversity of opinions is the only means to understand ourselves and our society. Support from the highest levels of society is absolutely central to developing a society that is able to defend artistic freedom whenever challenged.

I know from personal experience that today self-censorship in the West is increasing.

The fear of violent reactions is silencing voices that really need to be heard. This is exacerbated by another form of suppression known as corporate censorship which is also becoming stronger in the West, and which needs to be challenged more readily.

My own life and work as an artist stems from personal experience as an intersection of my own experiences as a woman and an artist with my socio-political commitments and concerns about the world we live in. As an artist I feel a great sense of responsibility to participate in our world during these challenging times. I believe in art as a vital form of critique of society, an instrument for social change, and also a source of beauty, history and freedom.

Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat
Iranian muscian and singer Mahsa Vahdat sings in concert. Born in Tehran in 1973, Mahsa is one of the musicians highlighted in Deeyah’s important album “Listen To The Banned.” Vahdat’s music can be accessed worldwide, but not in her own home country. Image: Bar-ax

Through experiencing repression, I feel compelled to protect this precious freedom. My life and reality have been directly impacted by the realities of social oppression. If one is deprived from freedom of expression then one lives with a desire to support, protect and nurture freedom of expression not just for oneself – but also for others.

Any diminishing commitment to freedom of expression will be damaging for society as a whole because it robs us all of ideas, possibilities and voices that are necessary for an open, healthy discourse and plural society.

Many cultural organizations are overly cautious about the possible legal, financial or public relations consequences of supporting challenging work. We need to build a robust defense for artists’ rights to create work that pushes boundaries and promotes debate about controversial issues. Artistic freedom of expression is vital if we are to have an open cultural space in society. In the West this is often taken for granted: sadly, this is not true for many minority artists in the West who may encounter additional and debilitating obstacles from both their own ancestral communities and society in general.

We need more dialogue in our societies not less and artists are needed in playing their part in opening up the possibility of addressing difficult realities through the arts by touching people in a way that politicians and academics can’t do. I look forward to true freedom of artistic expression. In the meantime I stand in solidarity with my fellow artists around the world to continue to work for a more open, equal, just, inclusive, peaceful, imaginative, fearless, thoughtful and creative world.


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As a film and music maker Deeyah explores political, cultural and social conditions, particularly focusing on women and human rights. The experience of living between two cultures, both the beauty and the challenges, dominates her artistic vision. In 2010 she co-produced the critically acclaimed Listen To The Banned album with the program manager of Freemuse, Ole Reitov. In 2011 she produced Nordic Woman. In 2012 she was awarded the Ossietzky Prize by PEN for outstanding achievements for freedom of expression. The same year she directed and produced Banaz: A Love Story, her first documentary film covering the tragedy of honor killing. Screened at international film festivals and broadcast on national television in the UK and across Europe and North America, Deeyah’s film won critical acclaim as well as prestigious awards, including the Peabody Award. Continuing her commitment to the issue of honour killings and honour-based violence, Deeyah co-founded HBVA (Honour Based Violence Awareness network. Today her human rights work continues as she works with her brother, actor Adil Khan, to bring the AVA Foundation, a non- profit educational charity forward to provide arts education, mentorship and outlets of self-expression for marginalized children and young people across the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora communities in Europe and the US.  She continues her work today as an artist and activist through FUUSE, her social purpose music and film company.


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