Sun. Sea. Sand. Suppression
Why anyone watches the news any more is beyond me. Since March last year, the whole affair follows a familiarly, bleak pattern; statistics about death, no end in sight etc. However, watch the news carefully, all of it, and you will find a trope common to all the major UK networks: the offset story.
These stories, more often than not from abroad, usually depend on the domestic tales of woe that precede them. They come in various guises, but the two stars of the show are the novelty report, and its dystopian older brother the ‘look how bad it is there’ tale.
Growing up in Scotland the former was always a familiar ending to Reporting Scotland etc, twenty minutes of knife crime and recession would be followed by a five minute skit about a dog from Barra that had learned Morse code, or a Kirkcaldy man who had made the world’s biggest collection of pineapples. Something like that, something to take the edge off.
This wee news item equivalent of a Xanax was much the preserve of the regional news shows, the brief cutaway from the ‘UK’ news in which worldly matters were discussed and there was no room for code-savvy canines.
Anyway, the ‘UK’ news was always similarly grim, a half-an-hour blunder through all that unites the peoples of these islands; bad government, nepotism, unemployment, austerity, a widening gulf between rich and poor etc, all the defining characteristics of being British you know. Our state-sponsored television, evidently viewing novelty stories as being somehow beneath them, thus tended to finish each programme with a horror story from another country.
The message? If you think it’s bad here, just wait til you see…(insert non-European, non-Caucasian, preferably dictatorship HERE).
But this piece is about music, not news brainwashing.
I got to thinking about the news because of its attitude to freedom of speech in terms of artistic expression. The segment to assuage viewers on this term invariably focussed on faraway nations with draconian laws on the matter. The prime culprit was usually Iran.
From a broadcaster’s point of view, the questionable freedoms of the UK could be offset by a quick glance to Iran, where such innocent acts as singing in public or tweeting one’s opinion about the glorious regime would often result in penal sentences or worse. Yes, the UK is OK, you can speak your mind about anything with total impunity … unless you start digging up our colonial history, criticising Winston Churchill, suggesting that Trans people should have civil rights, hypothesising that Scotland would be better as an Indepen….WHOA WHOA WHOA. LOOK AT IRAN! These teenagers face the gallows for making a rooftop video of Pharell Williams!
No, the mere fact that free speech won’t end in any kind of criminal prosecution is one of the facets that I have always taken for granted, especially being a musician whose music focuses on highlighting all the stuff that the news seeks to offset. Songs about political nepotism, bad government, incompetence, social inequality. It’s a laugh riot.
Anyway, back to music.
Being blasé about my right to criticise the powers that be was far from my intention, in fact that right is an extreme privilege in a world in which many artists face penal sentencing and even the death penalty for merely using their art to tell the truth. But you don’t have to look to Iran for the news segment that underpins my privilege: you can look at Spain.
It’s close, it’s hot, it’s cheap, Ryanair AND Easyjet fly there. There is no longer any need to associate the contemptuous, state-sponsored repression of free speech with faraway Tehran. Broadcasters take note.
The Pablo Hasél story has been written about in depth, most eloquently by Ben Wray at Bella Caledonia. I strongly urge you to read Ben’s piece which gives a great background into the current situation in Spain, one I was too well aware of having lived the last six years of my life there. But to cut a long story short, a rapper, Hasél is in prison for having expressed negative views about the monarchy, police tactics, and state-sponsored murder.
His imminent incarceration now takes Spain into first place above our old stalwarts of repressive state apparatus, Iran, in terms of currently incarcerated musicians. Spain. Not Iran. A nation made famous for being the number-one tourist destination worldwide, a previous recipient of the sporting zenith of the men’s football World Cup, Spain is now the go-to place for repression of an artist’s right and duty to express themselves and highlight what they see as wrong in society. Enhorabuena*.
In the internet age, free speech as a concept can quickly descend into mudslinging in comment sections and displays of ‘I know better’, indeed depending on the circumstances, I would fully expect the standard broadside of anonymous bile that claim that inciting anti-Semitism, extolling the virtues of the InCel movement, or claiming that Trans people should not be afforded the same human freedoms as everyone, all fall under the concept of free speech.
The reason for this moral blur when it comes to speaking one’s mind is surely testament to the power of human expression. Put that expression in a catchy hip-hop number and governments could fall, seriously. The fact is that the above examples use speech to propagate hatred and fear, whereas Hasél merely said it how it is. The words that have sent him to prison are not incendiary hate speech, or selfishly driven diatribes. They are the truth. Even if you love the Bourbon monarchy or idolise the heavy-handed tactics of a fascist police force that has changed only in the shape of their batons since the days of Generalissimo Franco, it is impossible to deny the former’s current tax exile and the latter’s ‘caught of camera’ savagery. This honesty on the part of the artist has resulted in his jail sentence. If that is not repression, suppression, or a myriad of other -ions, then I don’t know what is.
The Spanish state has tried to doll it up as justice; Hasél’s case is an apparent incitement of violence and threat which seeks to unpick the oh-so-solid foundations of democracy upon which Spain in built. It comes to me as little surprise that the so-called freedoms of post dictatorial states often draw on the previous themes of the very state that the new regime seeks to replace, whether though battle or the ballot box; these include Post-Pahlavi Iran and Formerly-Franco’s Spain, two regimes incidentally that were directly set-up and supported by the UK, bastion of free-speech values.
Artistic expression as a framework for truth and progress is the very essence of what it means for me to be a musician. To go to prison in a 21st century western ‘democracy’ is a sign of utter regression, both on the part of the Spanish state, as well as that of neighbours, like us, who seek to frame such blatant injustice as something distant and alien.
I value my right to free speech in my music, but in doing so I must acknowledge and support musicians such as Pablo Hasél for whom the mere essence of artistic expression has been taken away. In the UK, which is far from the egalitarian utopia that many neo-liberal demagogues claim it to be, it does not take much imagination to see a red, white, and blue future in which free speech becomes state property.
Looking longer-term, the UK government’s response towards ‘woke culture’; a culture which far from seeking to silence the rampant right-wing bigotry that seemingly drives the nation, actively seeks to frame such diatribes within a socio-cultural context that had been conveniently airbrushed from our national narrative up until the last few years, has actually been guised under the concept of defending free speech. Some claim indeed!
In my view, so labelled ‘woke culture’ and its targeting of right-wing viewpoints is not the same as state-sponsored repression. The latter is upholding the unaddressed wrongs of the past while the former seeks to contextualise those wrongs in the present. Here in Britain, the campaign against ‘woke culture’ represents a no-brainer on the part of a UK Government whose ‘defending Britain’ politicking is clearly a huge attraction for the majority of the electorate. We live under a government capable of doing and saying anything in order to remain in power. If this means pandering to the majority by silencing those that don’t tow the party line, then it is far from a leap of faith to suggest that free speech in this country is under threat. The recent government appointed ‘university free-speech champion’ is the first step on a slippery slope to a state that tells you what you can say, and what you can’t.
Events in Spain are a relic of dictatorship that looms large in living memory for Spaniards, and the detention and incarceration of anti-regime figures was and indeed still is, the natural order of things. Though the current socialist government has claimed that such draconian rules are to be imminently reviewed, the sad news is that any leniency on the part of a fragile coalition government could potentially be electorally fatal for the PSOE-Podemos union. In this sense the parallel with the UK is chilling. Thus, Hasél will spend the next part of his life behind bars; a last-resort deterrent reserved for those considered a genuine danger to society. Perhaps it could be argued that inflammatory lyrics on some level jeopardise the fabric of society, but I ask myself; under what circumstances would I want to be part of a society whose recourse to a chequered past is through silence, suppression, and ultimately violence?
Aside from the inherent injustice suffered by artists worldwide who have not had the privilege of Pablo Hasél’s demographic; as a cisgender, caucasian, European man, history often dictates that struggles such as these are at best the predeceser of social change, or at worst a way of garnering a lot of media attention to a cause, the current events in Spain should serve as a worldwide call for artists to defend the rights that we have to express the truth through artistic expression. If we do not hold repressive powers to account now, then ultimately it is us who will be held to account by them. By that point it will be too late to say anything at all.
Image credit: Emilio Morenatti