Nominees for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards – Arts

Visual Rebellion (Myanmar)

Visual Rebellion was established in December 2021 as a platform to showcase and support the edited work of journalists, filmmakers and artists across post-coup Myanmar.

Launched on International Human Rights day on 1 December 2021 by a team led by Nadja Houben (Human Rights in the Picture foundation) and Laure Siegel (Mediapart), Visual Rebellion is a platform to showcase and support the edited work of journalists, filmmakers and artists across post-coup Myanmar. The activities of Visual Rebellion consist mainly of a free public information service on what is happening in Myanmar and in Thailand, continuing education for their members in English, Thai and Burmese language on a range of topics including cybersecurity, investigations, photojournalism, as well as coordinating the production of photo exhibitions, documentary screenings and book publications to finance their studies or visas.

Toomaj Salehi (Iran)

Toomaj Salehi is an Iranian rapper who has been singing about injustice and abuses by the Iranian authorities against civil society. In 2022, during the ongoing protests, he was arrested and charged for his work.

Salehi is a well-known Iranian hip-hop artist who has released protest songs including Mousehole, Turkmenchay and Pomegranate. Many of his songs explicitly reference the human rights situation in Iran, as well as threats to civil society. This has led him to being targeted by the authorities, long before his recent detention.

Following the release of Mousehole, Toomaj was arrested in the middle of the night on 12 September 2021. He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the state," but after more than a week he was released on bail. In January 2022, he was sentenced to six months in prison but was released on a suspended sentence in February. He later appeared in front of the prison where he had been imprisoned as part of a music video for a song written in memory of the victims of Aban.

Due to Toomaj’s support of the the protests that erupted after the killing of Mahsa Amini while in custody, he was violently taken into custody on 30 October 2022. In November, Iran's judiciary charged Salehi with a number of crimes, including spreading "corruption on Earth," a charge that could see him sentenced to death, as well as charges that each carry 1-10 years of imprisonment: “propaganda against the state,” “formation and management of illegal groups with the aim of undermining national security,” “collaboration with hostile governments,” and “spreading lies and inciting violence through cyberspace and encouraging individuals to commit violent acts.”  While in detention, state media published a video purporting to show Salehi blindfolded, with bruising on his face, apologising for his words. Family members and human rights organisations have accused the authorities of torturing Salehi in prison to force him to make a false confession.

In July 2023, Toomaj was sentenced to over 6 years in prison for “corruption on earth”, as well as being banned from leaving Iran for 2 years. He is also banned from preparing, singing and producing music for 2 years. It has also been reported that he has been acquitted of two other charges - “insulting the supreme leader” & “communicating with hostile governments”.

Maria Lanko and Pavlo Makov (Ukraine)

In the midst of Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, the artist and curator worked to secure and transport Ukrainian art out of the warzone to ensure it could be protected and presented as part of the Venice Biennale. 

Maria Lanko (right) was a co-curator of Kyiv-based gallery, The Naked Room, who was selected to co-curate the Ukrainian national pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale. The piece selected to represent Ukraine was entitled ”Fountain of Exhaustion” by artist Pavlo Makov (left), which is a kinetic sculpture consisting of 78 bronze funnels, arranged in the form of a pyramid. The water poured into the top funnel divides into two streams, feeding the funnels below. “Only a few drops reach the bottom, symbolizing exhaustion on a personal and global level,” the curators said in a press release.

On the evening of 24 February 2022, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Lanko packed the installation into her car and she drove, heading for Venice. The journey took three weeks, after taking a week just to make it to the border between Ukraine and Romania. Due to Maria’s decision, the piece was able to be presented at the Biennale to enable Ukrainian art to be seen in this unique and important showcase of international art. The importance of this was highlighted by Lanko in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “When the sheer right to existence for our culture is being challenged by Russia, it is crucial to demonstrate our achievements to the world".

Rap for rapper


London drill rapper Rico Racks has been jailed for three years for drug offences and banned from using certain words in his rap songs.

This is not the first time rappers have been told by the courts to exclude certain words from their music, and this type of legislation has been criticised by Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg.

Read the full story here

Kill drill: The death of freedom of expression?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=""][vc_column_text]The right to freedom of expression is considered by many to be a cornerstone of a modern democratic society. Countries that fail to adequately protect this hallowed right – routinely censoring journalists, writers and musicians whose speech challenges and offends those in power – are rightly regarded by the West to be the worst examples of dictatorial, autocratic regimes.

But right here in the UK, artists are fighting the censorship of their work by global corporations bowing to pressure from and, arguably, colluding with the state and its organs. In May of this year YouTube, the video streaming platform owned by Google, succumbed to pressure from the Metropolitan Police and took down 30 music videos made by drill artists. The Met had been trying to persuade YouTube for almost two years to take down between 50 and 60 videos, alleging the material was contributing to the increase in violent crime on London streets.

This attack on the freedom of expression of musicians who make drill music does not stop at the removal of their videos from YouTube. Defendants convicted in criminal cases may in the future be banned from making music for a period up to three years if the offender is under 18 and indefinitely for adult offenders under criminal behaviour orders[1]. Crucially, the prosecution can use evidence to support the making of an order that would not have met the strict rules of admissibility as in a criminal trial[2]. The threat to freedom of expression goes further. The Met have expressed publicly their intention to push for new legislation, similar to anti-terrorism laws, that will criminalise the making of drill videos.

Drill is not for everyone. The lyrics are violent.  There is liberal use of expletives. Descriptions of acts of violence using knives and guns are common themes. The images portrayed in the accompanying videos are similarly hard-hitting. Large groups of mainly young, mainly black men can be seen inhabiting the screen wearing hoodies and tracksuit bottoms - the uniform of the young in some sections of society.

Drill DJs are not, however, pioneers of explicit lyrics and violent images in music. The genesis of what is known as drill in the UK today sprang from a trap-style rap that originated in Chicago in the early 2010s. The hip hop of the 1980s and the gangsta rap of the 1990s are all part of the same family tree of poetic verse poured over a thumping beat. Drill is a close relative.

Nor is it new to blame this type of music for inciting violence. In the 1990s C. Delores Tucker campaigned against violent lyrics aimed at women in rap music. Then, as now, there was little direct evidence of a causal link between rap music and particular acts of violence. What the critics of this music fail to grasp is that the lyrics of this genre of music are inspired by, and not the cause of, the violence that infects the lives of many of these young men.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width="1/4"][vc_icon icon_fontawesome="fa fa-quote-left" color="black" background_style="rounded" size="xl" align="right"][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width="3/4"][vc_column_text]

Censorship of a form of music which affords an already marginalised minority a rare opportunity to express themselves publicly is an attack against their fundamental rights as human beings.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_column_text]Looked at in its true context then, drill is less about inspiring violence and more about providing a narrative of lives defined by violence. They are telling the stories of their lives, minus the sugar-coating, just as other writers, poets and musicians have done before them.

The courtroom has often been the battleground of the clash between the values of the young minority against those of the old majority. In 1960 Penguin Books was prosecuted under the Obscenity Act 1959[3] for the publication of a book entitled Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The prosecution’s case was that the book had a tendency “to deprave and corrupt” those who read it in daring to portray the affair of a married woman with the family’s gamekeeper. Penguin Books was acquitted[4].

In 1971, the publishers of a satirical magazine were prosecuted when an issue of the magazine featured a sexualised cartoon of the children’s literary character Rupert the Bear. Known as the Oz trial, the three defendants were convicted by the Crown Court but were then acquitted on appeal[5].

Today, UK common law has arguably been strengthened by the enactment of the Human Rights Act 2000 by enshrining in law article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights[6]. One former Court of Appeal judge said this of the importance of freedom of expression: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”[7]

You or I may not wish to stream drill music videos on our mobile device. Many people may find the content offensive. The videos may even be performed by individuals who are suspected of a crime or have criminal convictions[8]. None of this should confer on the state, aided and abetted by global corporations, a wide-ranging power that ultimately infringes the right of musicians to express themselves freely.

This censorship of a form of music which affords an already marginalised minority a rare opportunity to express themselves publicly is an attack against their fundamental rights as human beings.

We all need to sit up and take notice.

1. Under Part 2 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Such an order may contain requirements for the defendant to inform the police of any activity that may be in breach of the order. The order may be varied, reviewed or discharged. Breach of the order is in itself a criminal offence.

2. An CBO was made recently against 1011 members Micah Bedeau, Jordean Bedeau, Yonas Girma, Isaac Marshall and Rhys Herbert. They are required under the CBO to inform the police 24 hours in advance of their intention to publish any videos online and are required to give a 48 hours warning of the date and locations any live performance.

3. The 1959 Act is still on the statute books.

4. R v Penguin Books Ltd. [1961] Crim LR 176.

5. R v Neville, Dennis & Anderson, The Times, 24 June 1971.

6. Article 10 (1) ECHR states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent states from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.” Article 10 (2) sets out limitations to this right.

7. Sir Stephen Sedley in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions [1999] Crim LR 998.

8. A number of successful high-profile rap artists have criminal convictions.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row_content"][vc_column][three_column_post title="Artistic Freedom" full_width_heading="true" category_id="15469"][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Colombian rapper Shhorai: “Can you imagine a society in which women have no voice?”

Shhorai 1Art has traditionally accompanied political and social movements in Latin America and the turn of the 21st century has seen a resurgence of diverse forms of expression, including hip hop.

“Hip hop has many faces — from the underground scenes to gangster rap — and it allows you to talk about many different things,” says Colombian rapper Luisa Ospina, aka Shhorai. “Many artists may talk about ‘bitches’, drugs and violence, and that’s fine for them, but it’s not for me, especially given the history of violence and conflict in my country.”

Shhorai, an independent hip-hop artist, educator and activist from Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, began rapping in 2003 at the age of 13.

“I started recording music at my home studio at 15, influenced by my older brother who is also a rapper,” Shhorai says. She released her debut album Verdades Hostiles in 2011, followed by Doble X: Inicio y Complemento in 2015. She has worked in collaboration with various Colombian artists, including Nkanto MC and Koriotto.

Taking inspiration from female MCs throughout the Americas – from Columbian duo Diana Avella and Lucía Vargas and Venezuala's Gabylonia to Queen Latifah, famed for fighting misogyny in US hip hop – Shhorai uses her music to explore the structures of gender and class which create disadvantages for so many Colombians. Despite the progress her country has made in the last few decades, many problems remain unresolved. “Women in particular in my country have poor access to decent jobs and education and too many sisters have been affected by violence,” Shhorai said.

“For indigenous women and women who work on the land, it is even worse: they work so hard but are still silent. Can you imagine a society in which so many women have no voice?”

“I was born in a culture which is all the time asking women: 'Why don’t you wear makeup?' 'Why are you so big?' 'Why do you eat this?',” she says. “So I rap a lot about empowering women and becoming more independent because often we don’t trust ourselves or know the inner power we have.”

For every 10 men in hip hop, there is only one woman, explains Shhorai. “So we are naturally at a disadvantage and often feel alone, so we have to work together,” she says. “And while I love feminism, I don’t like hate for men because I recognise that we are together and must fight together.”

Many women — as with many men — in hip hop, come from poor communities, not just in Medellín, but in Colombia’s capital Bogota and other cities like Cali.

There are many sides to Medellín. Foreigners may know it for its troubled history — Pablo Escobar, cocaine and the violence that accompanied them. Other visitors may be more aware of its current status as one of the foremost and growing art and cultural hubs on the planet. The city came out on top of Tel Aviv and New York and was named the world’s most innovative city in 2013.

“Medellín has become a much better city than it was 20 years ago — with many restaurants, a metro system, concerts all the time — but many still don’t see how hard it still is for many people who live here – those who don’t have the resources to go to university, or for the young people who have to fight against a system just to own something,” Shhorai explains. “The city has two very different faces.”

Poor communities and minorities like indigenous people “don’t have options” and often don’t have a say. “I want the world to pay more attention to the poverty because the rich downtown doesn’t need more publicity — it has enough,” Shhorai says.

This is what the rapper aims for in much of her work — whether in music, education or activism — when she talks about the political background and social conditions in her neighbourhood. “In this way, hip hop is for me a kind of liberty and at the same time an expression of love for my community.”

One of the big problems in Colombian society is how in many ways it has turned a blind eye to the problems faced by women and the poor alike. A byproduct of this, inevitably, is marginalised people turning to hip hop and hip-hop culture — from breakdancing, DJing, MCing and graffiti — as places where they can finally be heard.

“Hip hop was born in poor communities in the USA often by those living terrible conditions and I can see they discovered a way of getting together and doing something as a community,” says Shhorai. “This idea filtered back to us in Latin America and we got into hip hop for many of those same reasons, which is why rap music is everywhere in Medellín.”

“But above all, hip hop is an opportunity to be independent, and while it’s difficult, it is possible to create real change through art.”

Also read:
Zambezi News: Satire leaves “a lot of ruffled feathers in its wake”
Jason Nichols: Debunking “old tropes” through hip hop
- Poetic Pilgrimage: Hip hop has the capacity to “galvanise the masses”

8-9 July: The power of hip hop


A conference followed by a day of performance to consider hip hop’s role in revolutionary social, political and economic movements across the world.