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Censorship of music: who gets to sing in Belarus?

On 2 November, Belarusian bard musician Zmicer Vajciuškievič had a 25th-anniversary concert in Minsk. Before that, he had been unable to perform in Belarus in public for many years. Along with some other musicians, he became a part of...

On 2 November, Belarusian bard musician Zmicer Vajciuškievič had a 25th-anniversary concert in Minsk. Before that, he had been unable to perform in Belarus in public for many years. Along with some other musicians, he became a part of the blacklist of “politically inappropriate musicians.”

While the particular reasons for banning a musical show in Belarus change from event to event, the possibility of concerts taking place unchangeably depends on the authorities.

The official motivation of concerts’ cancellation often refers to extremism, the “low quality of lyrics,” or logistical obstacles such as overlaps with other events. Although excuses vary, there exists a clear pattern: Belarusian authorities attempt to restrain musicians for social and political reasons.

While Belarusian musicians face strong censorship, many pop-stars refusing to admit Belarusian national identity and statehood continue to perform in Belarus. Despite a few positive changes, so far authorisation for public musical performances and shows in Belarus remain a field controlled by the regime.

Black-listed-musicians: who and why?

Siarhei Mikhalok. Source: novychas.by

Already in 2000s, the authorities had restricted public performance rights for several famous Belarusian musicians. Liavon Volski who demonstrated clear opposition to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and his regime became one of them in 2004. Such artists as Siarhei Mikhalok and Zmicer Vajciuškievič have faced bans and restrictions on performing on Belarusian stages. An unofficial black-list of Belarusian musicians has recently included more artists such as Vinsent and the band Dzieciuki.

In most cases, musicians face obstacles in form of last-minute cancellations and shows being called off for unclear reasons. For example, the band Dzeciuki had been trying do a gig in Minsk for 2016. At first, the club refused to host the concert. Next, the ideological department of the Executive Committee in Minsk asked to send them the lyrics of the songs. The Executive Committee then issued a statement for an official cancellation of the band’s concert. They had concluded the band’s lyrics were of “low quality,” and thus the band was not given permission to perform.

This happens to Belarusian musicians directly or indirectly opposing to the regime. It is especially topical for rock musicians, because rock music in Belarus often translates protest of society against the state. Rock artists, such as Siarhei Mikhalok, who is famous as the frontman for bands Liapis Trubeckoj and Brutto, live and perform abroad.

Indeed, Siarhei Mikhalok faced a pressure after insulting Lukashenka in an interview to 1tvnet, an online news portal. Mikhalok said Lukashenka “initiated a genocide against the Belarusian people” and that Lukashenka ”hates the Belarusian people.” After the interview, Mikhalok had to leave the country for several years.

Only in 2016 was Mikhalok able to return to Belarus, performing in Homiel and then in Minsk. However, until now his second band, Brutto, meets constant restrictions on songs and places to perform.

Although the reasons and explanations by authorities for banning musicians vary, the scenario of blacklisting looks the same. The local authorities cancel concerts at the last minute. It happened with Belarusian singer Vinsent when authorities banned his concert at Minsk-Arena in 2016. In September 2017, the leader of the band Dzieciuki faced being blacklisted when he tried to receive a permission to perform in Minsk with his solo project.

After expressing a political or social position that opposes preferences of the officials, musicians can become blacklisted. Vital Hurkou, the world famous sportsmen from Belarus, lost financial support from the Ministry of Sports for a collaboration with Brutto. In 2014, the band Amaroka was refused the right to perform after authorities deemed the songs to be extremist. TuzinFM, a Belarusian video-driven music website, believes the authorities at present have blacklisted four musicians.

Doubtful pop-stars in Belarus

While officials aim to prevent anti-regime singers from performing, they pay little attention to the people denying Belarusian nationhood and statehood who come to sing from abroad. Recently, Viktor Kalina, who supported separatists in Ukraine and posed with weapons on occupied territories in Ukraine, had a tour in Belarus. Ukrainian authorities have already put Kalina on a list of people dangerous for national security, because of his close ties with the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Despite this, Kalina received permission from the Belarusian authorities to perform.

Viktor Kalina. Sourse: belsat.eu

Indeed, his concerts in the Belarus often receive support of the local authorities, who help to distribute tickets in towns like Vitsebsk and Brest.

Civil society activists have protested Kalina’s concerts. In October, Vitsebsk and Brest activists sent an appeal to the authorities demanding cancellation of Kalina’s November performances in the largest Belarusian towns. This prompted Kalina to write a letter to President Lukashenka with a request to protect him from Belarusian nationalists.

Civil activists’ efforts are not always in vain. Two years ago, local authorities positively reacted to a letter from activists and banned one of Kalina’s concerts. However, most recently authorities appear reluctant to forbid Kalina from touring. After a concert in Hrodna on 4 November, the singer posted on VKontakte, a Russian-language version of the social networking site Facebook, saying that his concert was successful despite the “animals” who tried to cancel it, reports Belarusian Partisan.

In addition to musicians, Belarusian authorities rarely prevent visits of pro-Russian artists, who believe in the idea that all the Russian-speaking territories should belong to Russia. On 25 November 2016, Russian propagandist Vladimir Soloviev, who became famous for his open pro-Putin and imperialistic views, came to Minsk to give a book reading. Despite protests and appeals of Belarusians, he managed to perform in Minsk. So far, it seems pro-Russian imperialism looks less dangerous to the authorities than music critical of the Belarusian government.

Why Belarusian authorities censor music?

Raper Face. Source: hrodna.life

Raper Face. Source: hrodna.life

The logic behind the motivations of Belarusian authorities to ban concerts remains hard to understand. In October, authorities forbid Russian rapper FACE to perform in Belarus. After submitting song lyrics to the Executive Committee, authorities refused to allow his concert.

FACE’s songs contain much swearing, stories about drug abuse, and stimatisation of certain groups of people. A month before his slated performance, Belarusian musician Dzianisau, who based his songs on Belarusian poems written by Ales Chobat (a member of the Belarusian Writers Union), also received refusal to perform in Minsk for allegedly writing “low quality lyrics.” While Belarusian musicians of varying success fight for their rights of freedom of expression, Belarusian society attempts to confront imperialist adepts like Viktor Kalina.

During the last years, Belarusian musicians with the help of the public have been gradually receiving more freedom of expression without censorship. Consistently, the most difficult time for musicians to perform are the pre-election months during the presidential campaigns, for example in 2010 and 2015. It also seems that the authorities see less threat in musicians during the middle of the electoral cycle. Fewer musicians tend to be blacklisted, and officials allow more concerts and put less censorship on Belarusian musicians.

However, the authorities hold an administrative resource in their hands with which they can get rid of “politically inappropriate” musicians wherever they want. It becomes especially topical on the eve of elections when the regime demonstrates its power. It appears that music in Belarus is not so much the sphere of culture and business, but more the sphere of ideology and politics.

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Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik is an analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre and MA student at Stockholm University.
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