Pussy Riot and Four Other Bands That Lost the Battle with Authority But Won the War

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The members of Pussy Riot show the court's verdict, which led to their sentencing to two years in prison.
If there's one thing the Pussy Riot trial has taught us, it's that protest music can still be a dangerous, subversive tool. By performing an anti-Putin "punk prayer" during a guerrilla action at a Russian Orthodox church, Pussy Riot intended to provoke and offend. Many saw their action as blasphemous, and it's not surprising that ordinary Russians disapproved. But whereas such a stunt would have earned them, at worst, a fine or a light sentence in most Western countries, the three Rioters are about to spend two years in a Russian prison, essentially for protesting Putin and his policies.

Here in the United States, it's been some time since rock and roll, hip-hop, or any other form of popular music shook society's pillars. Even when certain musicians have attracted government heat, they've benefited from a Constitutionally derived and strongly-defended free speech tradition. The Weavers spent a few years on a government blacklist in the 1950s; John Lennon battled the Nixon administration to procure American citizenship; and Ice-T found his band, Body Count, dropped from its record label and chastised by Charlton Heston post-"Cop Killer." Yet despite the great personal and career damage each of them experienced, there was never any real question that they'd end up doing hard time for their statements. Hundreds of artists and punk rockers protested Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during the George W. Bush era; almost all continued to create without fear. Meanwhile, in Russia, even chess legend Garry Kasparov found himself allegedly arrested and beaten while demonstrating against the Pussy Riot verdict. It's a scary, surreal thing to behold.

But Pussy Riot is hardly the first group of young people to be branded as dissidents by its homeland government. As their story continues to evolve, here are four other musicians that fell afoul of their respective regimes. Inevitably, all of them ended up being celebrated worldwide.

1) Plastic People of the Universe. In 1968, inspired by Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground and a temporary period of liberalization, this Czechoslovakian band formed and began playing around Prague and elsewhere. After drawing on the work of Czech writer Egon Bondy for inspiration (even titling an album Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned), the Plastics and their fans found themselves harassed by the Communist government. The band went underground: lyric books were surreptitiously and selectively passed around, and their concerts were billed as "weddings" to take an advantage of a loophole in Czech law. In 1976, however, several band members were tried and arrested for "organized disturbance of the peace." In protest, some of their biggest fans, including Vaclav Havel, wrote the Charter 77 initiative, and eventually ended up running the country.


Plastic People of the Universe playing a "wedding party."

2) Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. In the late 1960s, the Brazilian tropicalia sound merged traditional bossanova and samba with Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and the psychedelic Beatles of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Today, tropicalistas such as Os Mutantes, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Valoso are considered among the era's most innovative artists, In 1968 Brazil, though, playing anything that could be branded "rock and roll" was enough to make you a genuine governmental threat. In December of that year, Veloso performed a satirical version of the Brazilian national anthem on national television. Gil and Veloso were arrested shortly afterward; they spent three months in prison and four months under house arrest before ultimately being deported. Gil ultimately returned to Brazil in 2003 as the Minister of Culture. Like Plastic People's fans, the very people ostracized by their government ultimately had a role in running the country.


Gilberto Gil with Os Mutantes, "Domingo no Parque," 1967



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