Protest songs have an indelible place in our history–from Woody Guthrie to Public Enemy and everything in between. But while those songs helped inspire social movements, what if the very act of making a song–and listening to it–was a protest in and of itself?
In March 2018, people in five countries that limit press freedom were suddenly able to access the news in a different way: via streaming music services. Songs with lyrics explaining recent events that might have been censored from the news were available as part of a project called the Uncensored Playlist, which adapted stories by prominent journalists into song. Because it’s impossible to block individual songs on music streaming services, the information stayed online, even as the governments worked to hide it in other mediums.
The project is the work of ad agency DDB Group Germany for its client, the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders Germany, the German branch of the national press freedom organization. It’s the winner of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards in the Advertising category.
The playlist, which launched as part of World Day Against Cyber Censorship, worked with journalists from China, Egypt, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam–all countries in the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index. The agency worked with a musical director to write lyrics in English and the native languages based on the information in the articles and set them to music. They were then uploaded to Spotify, Apple Music, and Deezer, where they’re still available.
Exiled Chinese journalist Chang Ping’s songs, “Freedom Cage” and “Speech is Freedom,” serve as broad indictments of censorship of China’s press. In Uzbekistan, Galima Bukharbaeva’s work deals with government corruption: “A Businessman Died” examines how the government creates false police reports, while “Dear Mr. President” examines the case of an entrepreneur whistleblower who spent years in jail.
In Egypt, Basma Abdelaziz’s songs include “Hunger Games,” about the disparity in lifestyles between wealthy government officials and the poor. In Thailand, a newspaper called Prachatai used material about politically active underground radio DJs who risk being charged with a law that makes it a crime to criticize the royal family. In a bold move of mixed-media, Prachatai’s other song is called “Infographic” and is based on a graphic explaining that law.
The topics might seem a bit dense, but in countries where this information has a hard time getting out, the playlist was valuable in doing just that. And the songs themselves are catchy enough to help them spread. In Vietnam, blogger Bùi Thanh Hiếu, who blogs as-Người Buôn Gió (“The Wind Merchant”) wrote about Vietnamese politician and businessman Trịnh Xuân Thanh’s prosecution and trial and the death of a 17-year old named Do Dang Du in police custody. The government may have succeeded in keeping the news out of the media (and Hiếu was forced to seek asylum in Germany), so it must have been frustrated when one of the songs peaked at #7 on the Vietnamese iTunes charts.