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It wasn’t something people were okay talking about.” Taboo, Banned and Suppressed Music

From February until September 2024, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will be showcasing an exhibition called Beyond the Beat: Music of Resistance and Change. Brought together through collaboration between the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, The National Music Centre, Museum of Pop Culture and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the exhibition shares the cultural power of musicians through the decades. 

Displays throughout the exhibition show videos, photos, instruments, lyrics and clothing articles used by musicians as far back as the 1930’s. Attendees have the opportunity to make their own concert posters with touchscreen tools or dance at the YMCA at an interactive station. A large screen station sits in the center of the room, with comfortable seating, and plays a series of interviews with artists shown throughout the exhibition. Artists discuss their creative motivations and their perception of music’s power throughout their careers. 

Among the artists who shared their stories onscreen are sister group Tegan and Sara. The Calgary-born twins have been performing together for 25 years and recognize that music is invaluable in voicing the needs of the people and changing social norms. In an interview with the CMHR as part of the exhibition, the two explain how they were inspired by their mother, who was very invested in politics and social justice. As they grew as artists, they incorporated their perspectives on topics of social justice into their work. 

“It felt very natural when we started our career to continue her work on our own. As our profile has grown, our investment in causes that matter to us has, too. As women and queer people, we have fought tirelessly to raise awareness and money for LGBTQ+ organizations and women’s issues.” 

Near the beginning of the exhibition are displays of artists involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, which opposed institutionalized racism and racially targeted violence from police. NWA, a Los Angeles group from the late 80s, described their displeasure with the Los Angeles Police Department through poetic and profane verses. As is the case with many of the artists whose work is seen throughout, they wrote about what they saw and experienced. 

Nearby is a photo of guitarist Tom Morello, a member of the 90’s rock group Rage Against the Machine. Among their most famous songs is ‘Killing in the Name,’ which was written about the violence of LAPD officers against black people in America. The song was written as a response to the 1992 acquittal of four police officers who were caught on camera violently and needlessly assaulting Rodney King. The acquittal of said officers lit a match in Los Angeles, where many people experienced the prejudicial tendencies of the police on a daily basis. The fallout of the situation was the infamous LA riots, which led to the death of 63 people, the arrests of more than 12,000 and damages exceeding $1 billion. 

Booths pertaining to feminist empowerment are near the back. An outfit worn by Ann Wilson from Heart, a woman-led rock band whose debut album Dreamboat Annie made waves in 1976, a year after they opened for Rod Stewart in Montreal, which drew attention from the press. From that album was their lead track ‘Crazy on You’ which peaked at number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Their subsequent album started with ‘Barracuda,’ a song inspired by experiences Ann Wilson had with a sexist promoter. 

The same encasement titled ‘Rise Up! Music That Empowers’ has an original handwritten version of ‘Bad Reputation’ by Joan Jett. Jett and the Wilson sisters from Heart were among the first women to break into the mainstream as female rock stars. Jett’s ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was number one on the Billboard charts for 20 weeks in 1982. Jett quickly became a feminist icon, making room for female performers who came after. 

Many booths pertain to Indigenous musicians and their fight for equality through music. One such display is called ‘Resurgence: Where Do We Begin?’  

“First Nations, Inuit and Metis artists have long used music to honour and protect their traditions,” the sign on the installation says. “Whether it’s for a community celebration or an act of resistance, their music soundtracks a way of being that shares vital knowledge and upholds the rights of Indigenous peoples. By drawing on memories that persist beyond colonialism, Indigenous musicians are fuelling a resurgence of their ways of knowing.” 

Upon entry, attendees are given a small disk that resembles a record. The record is then used to interact with various parts of the exhibition, playing music or starting videos. One such part near the end shows songs which caused outrage at the time they were released for various reasons. The rejection of Elvis Presley, seen as too provocative in the 1950s or Indigenous musician Link Wray in 1958, whose wordless piece ‘Rumble,’ artists have been accused of social disturbance as long as the record industries have produced their creations. When ‘Rumble’ was banned, it was the only instrumental song that American radio stations had banned. It was thought the title would provoke violence among young people. 

Music in the 1960s was a major influential factor in the counterculture social shift happening at the time in the United States and eventually Canada. While people gathered on streets and campuses, their anti-war ideologies and fight for women’s rights were replicated and given a massive stage by musicians of the era, such as Canada’s own Neil Young. In May 1970, the American National Guard shot and killed protestors at Kent State University in Ohio. Soon after hearing about the tragic killings, Young wrote the song ‘Ohio,’ which he recorded with his group Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The song was banned in many jurisdictions across America, but the message was not lost due to the attempted repression. 

In 1975, a country singer named Loretta Lynn shook American culture to its core with her song titled ‘The Pill.’ As the name suggests, the song is about the newfound adoption of women’s reproductive rights. The song was quickly banned from radio stations, but as is so often seen, corporations or politicians could not silence the message itself.  

“All I’ve seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor’s bill,” Loretta Lynn sings through the screen. “I’m rearin’ down your brooder house ’cause now I’ve got the pill.” 

Such conversations were disapproved by the general public and elected officials, creating the rejection of her music. 

“It wasn’t something people were okay talking about,” a CMHR staff member explained. “When you have an artist like Loretta Lynn writing about these taboo issues, it makes it less taboo, and in some ways, I think it helped to start conversations.” 

All of this and more is shown and discussed at Beyond the Beat. Music brings people together, whether to dance and celebrate or the lyrics that unite us; music is a universal shared human experience cited as having been invented as much as 40,000 years ago. While hearing the stories of others, we connect with them as we relate to their words and fight the same fights together.  

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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