"Freedom of expression has always mirrored political developments. When you get more populists, you get more limits to freedom of expression," EMC Co-Secretary General Simone Dudt said. The Freemuse report also showed that of all artists, musicians were those most often had their free expression violated.

Limiting musical freedom of expression takes place at multiple levels, explained Dudt and co-secretary general Ruth Jakobi. "It's not just I cannot perform and I cannot move. It's also I just don't get the opportunity to perform."

From the Iranian underground to a stage career in Scotland

Farzane Zamen faced this situation at home in Iran, where the Islamic government prohibits solo female musicians from publicly performing or publishing their music. Zamen spent most of the past ten years composing songs in her room in Tehran, recording them in private studios and publishing them on online platforms like U.S.-based Radio Javan.

While she was asked to sing at private gigs for mixed audiences, she always turned the opportunities down. "I didn't feel comfortable because anything can happen, even at the concerts where musicians have permission," she recalled.

Zamen has lived in Glasgow, Scotland, since 2017, first as a sponsored artist and then as a refugee. Her decision to apply for asylum was coloured by the release of her first album in 2018. Entitled Z Bent, Zamen described it as a critical take on the discrimination Middle Eastern women face. When she tried to publish the album on Radio Javan, the site's admins turned her away, saying it was too political and that other admins inside Iran had been imprisoned for publishing underground music.

"It was a very sad day for me, because I found myself in a situation where the regime controls even the media outside of Iran," Zamen said. As her album flew under the radar at home there was still a heightened sense of risk after the release. Combined with another crackdown by the regime against protesters and the general musical restrictions in Iran, Zamen then decided to apply for asylum.

Music goes on

Zamen doesn't hold out much hope that the situation for musicians in Iran will be improved. "As long as the Islamic regime is there, the hope for change is zero. Even sub-zero," she said.  And while she wishes she could be at home to connect to music-loving Iranians, she is inspired by her new musical freedom in Scotland. "Here I am a performing artist and I am really good at it," she said with a light laugh. "Honestly!"

Essam cannot return to Egypt. He has also been charged in the Balaha case, which he believes the government is using to intimidate other artists. But he and imprisoned lyricist Galal will continue to make music. They will soon release a song on the Sudanese democracy movement and Essam is currently setting Galal's prison poem "The Tartan Shirt" to music.

Essam doesn't believe there is freedom of expression in Egypt right now, but art can morph around repression, he says. The form may change, "but the message and the core will be there. And the people in the streets are smart enough to understand the message between the lines and behind the words."

Cristina Burack

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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