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Braving High Risks and Heavy Censorship in China, Tibetan Musicians Sing Their Love for Tibet

Popular Tibetan singer Gepe was arrested after singing in a music concert. Screen capture from YouTube.

Popular Tibetan singer Gepe was arrested after singing in a music concert. Screen shot from YouTube video.

Gebey, a Tibetan singer who had been detained at the end of May following a live performance in Ngaba Prefecture, eastern Tibet, has been released from detention. Gebey (sometimes spelled Gaybay or Gepey) has chosen a dangerous profession in Tibet – he has been arrested and re-arrested for his music many times in recent years.

Tibet, which has been under Chinese control for over 60 years, has seen large scale uprisings against Chinese rule as recently as in 2008. These, combined with ongoing self-immolations which have taken place all over Tibet as a form of political protest since 2009, have resulted in frequent heavy military lockdowns and routine blocks on communications. Tibet is an area the size of Western Europe, without a single foreign journalist stationed, no diplomatic representations, restricted access to tourists, no free media, and heavily censored internet. Even though China officially only refers to the area of central Tibet as Tibet Autonomous Region, Tibetan areas that are now integrated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan are often the epicenters of resistance to Chinese rule. Even so, censorship and imprisonment of cultural figures extends to all areas of Tibet.

It is amongst this backdrop that the singers, artists, and writers in Tibet today have to work. Despite all of these restrictions, Tibetan cultural expression is flourishing today. Gebey is just one example of an impressive output of new songs, singers, music videos and live performances.

According to Radio Free Asia, following the release of his album in October 2012, Gebey went into hiding to avoid contact with the police after “Chinese authorities [...] banned and confiscated a recording he released that year which was deemed to contain nationalist themes”. Here are a few translated lyrics from Gebey's song Victory to Tibet:

Victory to the Gods!
Victory to Tibet!
Today, victory to an auspicious day!
Today, wish-fulfilling day, victory to Tibet!
For the reunification of Tibetans, home and abroad, victory to us!

Separatist activities, ethnic feelings, and nationalist themes

When it comes to sentencing singers to prison terms, the accusation of “separatism” is met with the heaviest punishment. For example, for “separatist activities,” singer Tashi Dhondup was ‘sent for one year and three months’ hard labor from December 3, 2009 to March 2, 2011, in accordance with Clauses 4 and 13 of the re-education through labor policy of the State Council of China.

Artists in Tibet have to tread an incredibly fine line in their creativity and artistic expression. The themes that inspire great artistry are often also the most politically loaded. This has been the case with several artists, including young singer Lolo, who was sentenced to six years in prison in February 2013 following the release of his album Raise the Tibetan Flag, Children of the Snowland, which carries politically charged lyrics that refer to the banned Tibetan flag, self-immolations and Tibetan independence.

In March 2012, Radio Free Asia reported a story about the detention of Ugyen Tenzin, a young singer from eastern Tibet who released an album titled, An Unending Flow of My Heart’s Blood. Duldak Nyima, a Tibetan who is living in exile but continues to be in touch with Tibetans in Tibet, has been quoted as saying that, “Before the release of the album, [other Tibetans were worried about] the album’s consequences and advised the singer against distributing it.” Although Tibetan singers rarely provide direct commentary, instead letting the work speak for itself, the album’s DVD features Ugyen Tenzin speaking openly about his reasons for releasing his album. “[Tenzin] also said in the DVD that he is doing this for the religious and political cause of Tibet; he was … discussing the Tibet issue and Tibetan identity,” said Nyima. Despite being aware of the consequences, Ugyen Tenzin released the album. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

The censorship of music within both Tibet and China has been known to reach absurd heights. In April 2011, China’s State Council Information Office issued a directive for websites to delete Shapaley – a fun and clever viral rap video by Gamahe Danzeng, a young Tibetan from Switzerland, about Shapaley, a kind of Tibetan food. The directive The Song Meat Pancake stated: “All websites, particularly those with video and audio channels, are to look for and delete the song ‘Meat Pancake (Rou bing)’ by Gamahe Danzeng,” While not explicitly political, the lyrics asserted Tibetan identity and imbued a sense of pride in being Tibetan – sentiments clearly not to be tolerated.

The dangers of distribution

Since there are no public lists of banned songs, ringtones or music videos, they are disseminated freely until a detention or crackdown takes place. In a piece titled What Kinds of Songs Are ‘Reactionary Songs’?, written in 2009, Tibetan writer and blogger Tsering Woeser described how “Lhasa’s deputy police chief had announced in a press conference that they had just detained 59 rumour-mongers who had been ‘inciting ethnic feelings.’” Their method of rumour-mongering? “Illegal downloading of reactionary songs from the internet in CD, MP3, MP4 and other electronic formats, for sale to the public.”

These detentions show that songs carry potential risks at every level, from the producers of the music, to those who acquire the music, to those who then share it. Further, detentions do not require a trial or to be processed by a government agency – as with this case, if the local police chief perceives a work to be “sensitive,” its author is subject to punishment.

Popular music, coded language

Since the end of 2012, the online translations project High Peaks Pure Earth has been translating music videos from Tibet on a weekly basis. [Editor’s note: The author of this post is a founder of High Peaks Pure Earth.] The project translates music videos of various musical styles and genres – some are highly politically sensitive, while others are widely available all over Tibet, but they are all popular videos that have all been available online at one point or another.

Music for sale in Lhasa. Photo from Woeser's blog. Used with permission.

Common themes of these music videos include calling for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, calling for unity amongst all Tibetans, hoping for a reunion of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet and, most recently, recalling and celebrating Tibetan origins and history. Often, Tibetan singers will use metaphors to evade censorship, such as referring to the sun to mean the Dalai Lama, the moon to mean the Panchen Lama and the stars to mean the Karmapa (the head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, currently living in exile in India). Here are a few translated lyrics from Tashi Thaye's The Auspicious Triple Gathering:

The day of auspiciousness
The sun, moon and stars gather
An auspicious day
A wish-fulfilling day
When the sun, moon and stars gather
Tibetan loyalty won’t be forgotten
When the sun, moon and stars gather
Tibetan loyalty won’t be forgotten

Tibetan scholar Lama Jabb has written, “Popular music indicates the tentative formation of an embryonic public space within which Tibetans are expressing their common concerns and collective identity under difficult political circumstances. Popular songs provide a channel for voicing dissent, while also reinforcing Tibetan national identity by evoking images of a shared history, culture, and territory, bemoaning the current plight of Tibetans and expressing aspirations for a collective destiny.”

These music videos from Tibet carry important messages to the outside world, as well as assert and reify a collective Tibetan identity. In the introduction to the recently published report by Voice of Tibet and Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy titled Banned Expression: Stifling Creativity and Dissent in Tibet, influential Tibetan poet Yidam Tsering is quoted as having once called on artists and intellectuals “to love their people by representing their joys and sorrows, hopes and despair, pain and pleasure.”

It is therefore quite moving to see Tibetan singers taking on this role as unofficial spokespeople for their society. Their work does not come from a standpoint of anger or bitterness, but from an immeasurable pride in Tibetan history and confidence in their convictions and in Tibetan identity.

How you can help: Sign UK-based organization Free Tibet's petition; and follow the “Banned Expression” Facebook page by Voice of Tibet, High Peaks Pure Earth and Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide, and Global Voices for Artsfreedom.org. The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the author Dechen Pemba, Freemuse and Global Voices and linking to the origin.

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