Let’s talk about censorship. Not just the government-sanctioned kind, but the subtle, pervasive forms instituted through politics and history.
In regions plagued with conflict, voices are literally stamped out. And in many areas of the world, colonization has subjugated entire nations for generations. In Fusion’s Residente series, Puerto Rican musician René Pérez Joglar, AKA Residente, travels around the world making music in places that have long known censorship, although at times by a different name.
Residente first experienced censorship at home in Puerto Rico. In 2009, at an MTV Music Awards ceremony, Residente, then the front man of the wildly popular Calle 13, grabbed the microphone and insulted the territory’s governor on national television. He was banned from playing for four years on the island where, as part of the U.S., freedom of speech is supposedly protected under the First Amendment.
The experience restricting his freedom of expression informed him as he traveled the world producing the series and his latest album . He travels to nations where voices from below are seldom heard, beginning in Siberia. There he meets the Tuvan people, an ethnic group nestled in a mountain range between Russia and Mongolia.
The region and its people are known for their traditional throat singing, with long, haunting notes that imitate the sounds of nature. Unique sounds like these were what Residente was looking for when he began his global search for roots and identity. In the mid-1900s, the region was annexed by the Soviet Union, and campaigns to end the locals’ lifestyle, including Buddhist and shamanistic religions, left long-lasting scars.
The attempts to erase parts of the Tuvan culture amounted to a form of censorship. Throat singing, an indigenous musical style, is tied to religious ceremonies. Residente found that the art form has faded among younger generations.
Further south and east, in southern Ossetia, Residente finds another form of censorship known by a different name: war. The Caucasus region has a long history of conflict and instability, buffeted by imperialist conquest and local resistance. Generations have felt the impacts of war, which go much further than those killed in combat. The widespread poverty and isolation resulting from conflicts has left the former Soviet Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia economically devastated.
Located at the edges of Turkey, Iran, and Russia, the region has been a staging ground for military, political, religious, and cultural conflicts over several centuries.
After singing with the widows of Ossetia, Residente heads to China—known throughout the world for censoring artists, writers, and anyone seen as a threat to the centralized, communist government. The battle to control its citizens’ access to the Internet alone made the phrase “The Great Firewall” world-famous. Perhaps most famous were the clashes between artist Ai Weiwei and the Chinese government. Ai gained international notoriety after an earthquake in 2008 led to the deaths of 5,000 school children. He accused the government of covering up poorly-constructed buildings and of corruption among officials. He created an art installation using thousands of backpacks in remembrance of the children who died.
As an outspoken opponent of the government’s role in censorship, Ai spent time in jail, under house arrest, and under constant surveillance.
In one of the final episodes, Residente travels to Burkina Faso, a former French colony. The West African nation is young and drenched in remnants from its colonial past, from its architecture to fashion. Independent since 1960, its official language—French—may be the strongest reminder of its not-so-distant colonial past. Although more than 70 languages are spoken in Burkina Faso–many of which are indigenous—most people don’t speak French. In essence, that blocks many there from truly engaging with their own government. It’s censorship by default.
See our schedule to find the next episode of Residente, and hear the voices of these nations and their struggles.