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Heavy Music on Trial
Pussy Riot and the persecution of sonic blasphemy

Pussy Riot performing/protesting at the Kremlin

Pussy Riot formed in September of 2011, in direct response to Russian president Vladimir Putin announcing that he intended to run for a third term. Wearing brightly coloured ski masks and performing music-based protests, the feminist punk collective have staged spontaneous events on the roof of a detention centre, in Red Square and, on February 21, on the main altar of Christ the Saviour’s Cathedral in Moscow.

From the altar, the centre of the Russian Orthodox church (which has notoriously close ties to the Putin government and is one of their staunchest and most vocal backers), the woman sang, denouncing the entanglement of church and state, protesting the confinement, the political and religious orthodoxy both institutions impose upon the behaviour of women and citizens and general. They stood on the heart of patriarchy in Russia and screamed.

You can watch the entire performance, which lasted less than a minute, here. Five members of the amorphous collective perform a song entitled “Holy Shit.” They chant, “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out!” Security guards take their guitars and lights, shove the women from the altar, as they kicked and sang as long as they could. At the time, no charges were filed, no arrests made.

*              *            *

On May 24, 2010, Richmond, Virginia-based metal band Lamb of God performed at Klub Abaton in Prague. A notoriously political band, many of their songs use Biblical references to make anti-religious statements and the group often tackle the hypocrisy of authority. During the show, a 19-year-old fan, Daniel Nosek, jumped onto the stage three separate times. Some footage of the concert has been assembled by the Gauntlet. At least once, Daniel briefly headbangs on stage before jumping off and crowd-surfing away. The third time Daniel gets on stage, Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe and a security guard collectively lead Daniel back to the edge of the stage; the security guard shoves Daniel off and back into the crowd.

The third time he was removed from the stage, with a shove that looks no more violent that the hundreds of incidents I’ve witnessed at concerts where a security guard removed an overly excited fan from the vicinity of the performers, Daniel landed badly. He hit his head on the concrete floor. 14 days later, he died, reportedly of a brain haemorrhage due to injuries he suffered at the concert.

Lamb of God and Randy Blythe state that they were never told a fan had been injured in any way at the show and never knew that he died.

*                 *                *

A few weeks after the Cathedral protest, three young women – Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were arrested on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.” The women have been held in prison since their arrest, despite the fact that none of them have criminal records, they are charged with non-violent offences and two of them have small children. They have been repeatedly denied bail.

Their lawyers have stated that the three women have been deprived of sleep and food during their imprisonment, particularly during the days leading up to the trial. During the trial itself, the women are allegedly roused before 5 a.m. and forced to remain awake for hours, without food, before the hearings begin. The court sessions last up to 11 hours, and they are not taken back to their cells until well after midnight. Alyokhina became so exhausted that she fell ill in court on August 1 and received treatment.

The identities of the women who actually form Pussy Riot are deliberately obscured, both to protect the protestors from persecution and to allow the group to remain open and changeable – anyone can, or could be, a member of Pussy Riot. The three women charged can’t even be properly identified in the video that captures their protest and none of the protesters were identified by authorities at the scene of the protest. As Carole Cadwalladr of the Guardian stated, “The Russian government has gone and arrested an idea.”

*                *             *

On June 28, 2012, Lamb of God flew to the Czech Republic to perform at the Hard Rock Cage in Prague. At the airport, Randy Blythe was arrested and later charged with manslaughter related to the 2010 incident. Initially, authorities claimed that Blythe had assaulted Daniel Nosek with kicks and punches, which caused his injuries. His bail was originally set at four million Czech koruna, which the prosecution quickly had doubled to eight million (approximately $387 000 Canadian dollars).

Blythe was able to raise the money quickly (with the help of donations from Lamb of God’s fanbase), but the prosecution repeatedly and successfully challenged Blythe’s release. Currently he remains in Pankrác Prison as Lamb of God is forced to cancel tours and devote all of their efforts toward attempting to secure their singer’s freedom while the trial inevitably proceeds.

*                *              *

The two cases are wildly different from each other. In one case, singer Randy Blythe, the outspoken frontman of one of the United States’ most respected heavy metal bands, is being held on questionable charges in a foreign country. In the other, three women who may or may not be members of Pussy Riot are being prosecuted in their country for protests against several of the institutions in power (political, religious and patriarchal).

Pussy Riot were engaging in an act of protest; Lamb of God were on their way to play a show. In one case, the only thing that was injured or damaged was the apparently gossamer-delicate sensibilities of the religiously orthodox and the politically empowered. In the other, a young man died.

But there is something else, a thread that weaves its way through both stories like a red-hot wire, something searing and singeing the edges of each narrative. It’s not just the individual people that are being put on trial in these incidents, but the bands and collectives they represent, the ideas that inform their conceptual framework and the aesthetics that govern their work. In both cases, it is heavy music itself that is being placed on trial.

Both cases should be international incidents of epic proportions. In regards to Randy Blythe, the United States embassy in the Czech Republic should be working around the clock to have him freed and returned to his country safely. And the Pussy Riot protests should be getting the same kind of international coverage and respect that other demonstrations around the world are accorded, while similar outcries for the release and fair treatment of the three women should be demanded at an international level. These are both acts of scapegoating and injustice, attempts to silence ideas that go against dominant ideologies.

Both cases, however, also provide difficult champions to rally behind, difficult causes to support. Despite the fact that Pussy Riot stand for the cause of young, educated, middle-class citizens, most Russians do not approve of their method of protest and, while they hope for shorter sentences than the maximum of seven years that could be handed down, 26 percent of Russians believe the three women deserve prison sentences of six months or more. The image of the balaclava-clad punk snarling out ugly, angry music is still too alienating, too frightening, and the impulse is still to muzzle them, even if what they are saying is right, because they said it a little too loudly, a little less prettily than they should have.

In a searing piece for the Daily Maverick, Richard Poplak quoted the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church: “We have no future if we allow mocking in front of great shrines and if some see such mocking as some sort of valour, as an expression of political protest, as an acceptable action or a harmless joke.” In allowing such a “joke” to take place, he said, “the devil is laughing at us.” However, Poplak is absolutely right when he notes that, “The devil will be laughing even harder if Russia debases herself further by jailing a few punk rockers for speaking truth to power.”

In the case of Randy Blythe, Alex Skolnick (the legendary guitarist of thrash metal heroes Testament) flatly suggested that anti-metal bias has kept the case from becoming a high-profile international incident. Skolnick stated: “This case is barely making a dent outside of Randy’s hometown of Richmond, VA. One can’t help wonder if prejudice against metal and its reputation could have something to do with this. As one fan posted on Twitter: ‘Justin Bieber gets a speeding ticket and it’s headline news. Randy gets put up for manslaughter in another country – nothing.’”

In both cases, charges have been laid against artists – whether men or women, punks or metalheads, protesters or singers – who use angry, often ugly, challenging and difficult music as their medium. They have been accused of violence and obscenity, variously, and in both cases have been imprisoned and prosecuted with a virulence usually reserved for the most extreme and wicked of criminals, denied bail and the basics of comfort and health.

The people they represent, the people they speak for and make art for, the average person in Russia or the United States or anywhere in the world: those communities are not nearly angry enough, not making nearly enough racket about these disgraceful and cowardly miscarriages of justice.

I argue it’s because they make loud noises, use bright colours, have long hair and bad reputations, and aren’t quiet and orderly like we’re taught to be, because they stand in the sacred heart of things and scream. If ever there was a time to make a grand, terrible noise in protest, so loud they can hear us even in the Czech Republic and Mother Russia, it is now.

____

Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard, and subscribe to our newsletter.

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