Dying for a Song


In this recently broadcast radio programme, BBC Radio 4 speaks to musicians from across the globe who have been persecuted for their art. Some have risked being banned or exiled from their communities for speaking out against perceived injustices and corruption; others are being tortured, imprisoned and even killed.

It’s an engaging and illuminating listen. Not just because one can better understand the value and power of music as a force that can challenge and change aspects of society, but also becuase it highlights the price and responsibility that comes with having a public platform for one’s art.

From the BBC website:

Rex Bloomstein hears from musicians from around the world about how they have been persecuted for raising their voices against political, cultural or religious repression. He talks to artists whose say their songs have led to their imprisonment, torture and to the continuing threat of violence; artists who have been driven from their homelands, artists who, literally, risk dying for a song.

Freemuse, an international organisation set up to defend freedom of expression for musicians says in one recent year alone it registered 469 cases of censorship and attacks on artists around the world, nearly double the previous year’s figure.

In the wake of horrific murders, such as that of Syrian protest singer Ibrahim Quashoush, found dead with his throat cut, Rex hears stories of tremendous courage and determination not to be intimidated and silenced. Egyptian singer Ramy Essam tells talks of he was brutally tortured after his songs rallied the crowds in Tahir Square during the Arab Spring. Iranian singer Shahin Najafi continues to perform around the world despite a fatwa calling for his death, after his songs upset the religious leaders in his home country. He says: “At night I turn to the wall and slowly close my eyes and wait for someone to slit my throat”.

Lebanese rock band Mashrou’Leila talk of how various Arab countries have tried to suppress their often provocative satirical songs addressing politics, religion and gay love.

Deeyah Kahn tells Rex that she was forced to flee Norway in the face of violent threats from her own Pakistani community aimed at stopping her singing. And he hears from Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat, banned from singing in her own country because she’s a woman.

Form 696: The Police vs Grime Music

One might say that grime music has always been trouble. The problem child of late 90s UK garage, grime swapped the champagne dances and hyperspeed feminine R’n’B vocals for braggadocio, street tales and a willfully jarring sound palette thick with foreboding and menace.

Even as early luminaries like Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Logan Sama and Kano (later Lethal Bizzle and Skepta) packed venues and amassed sales, plaudits and prizes, the grime scene has continually been accused of providing a breeding ground for violence. In its 15 years, countless beefs and a small number of violent incidents in and around performance venues have only fanned the flames that the grime music and its parties harboured and glorified criminality.

Unsurprisingly, the state of the grime scene has not gone unnoticed by authorities. In 2008, The Metropolitan Police devised Form 696, a risk-assessment form that must be submitted by performance venues two weeks prior to an event in order to determine whether a licence should be granted (or revoked); failure to submit it can lead to a £20,000 fine or six months’ imprisonment. The form requests that licensees provide personal information about performers (stage name, real name, date of birth), and is specific to situations where:

“…you hold an event that is – promoted/advertised to the public at any time before the event, and predominantly features DJs or MCs performing to a recorded backing track, and runs anytime between the hours of 10pm and 4am, and is in a nightclub or a large public house.”

Metropolitan Police, Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696

Form 696 was revised from eight to four pages in 2008, the original having gone a step further, requesting the home addresses and phone numbers of all artists on the bill, and that details of ethnic groups likely to attend the performance be declared (these were removed as it was thought that they did not add value to the form).

The specificity of the above definition draws a uncomfortably tight border – one might say a noose – around black electronic music: techno, hiphop, dubstep, reggae, jungle and grime. Given the huge resurgence in grime music in the past five years, it is not surprising that the overtones of racial profiling have drawn criticism from prominent figures within the scene.

Released in 2014 and presented by JME, The Police vs Grime Music examines the effect of Form 696 on the grime scene and questions the lack of transparency in the process. Crucially, it asks why there has been no attempt made by the Metropolitan Police to engage in discourse with the scene’s promoters, artists and audiences on the issue of safety at grime events.

As the documentary notes, Form 696 (and by extension the police force) does not have the power to shut down an event, but it does place venues under huge pressure to pull out on the grounds of public safety. The explicit link with artists made on the form effectively chokes the scene, with venues fearful of losing their reputation and licences, and promoters less likely to host MCs and DJs who have been written up on 696s for cancelled events.

While it is disappointing that the Police themselves do not offer comment, The Police vs Grime Music remains a faithful illustration of the relationship between crime, media and culture. It exemplifies how, when a perception of threat is connected to ‘street’ music, that fear can severely damage the discourse between authorities and the social sub-groups it is identified with.


Barron, L. (2013). The sound of street corner society: UK grime music as ethnography. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16(5), 531-547.

Hiscox, D. (2009). Public enemy no 696. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/jan/21/police-form-696-garage-music.

Ilan, J. (2012). ‘The industry’s the new road’: Crime, commodification and street cultural tropes in UK urban music. Crime, Media, Culture, 8(1), 39-55.

Metropolitan Police Service (2009). Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696. http://content.met.police.uk.

Thornton, S. (1995) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.