Islam, Censorship and the Real Threat to Our Freedom of Speech



Within hours of the tragic and deadly attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, millions of sympathetic individuals worldwide had offered their condolences to the families of the deceased and denounced radical Islamists for their continued attacks on the most precious of all Western liberties: freedom of speech. The tragedy sparked a massive outcry throughout the Western world, and drove thousands of cartoonists, writers, and news organizations to publish a wide array of satirical comics (many depicting the Muslim prophet, Muhammad) in a show of solidarity with their French colleagues.

Today, it was announced that the first edition of Charlie Hebdo to be published since the attacks will depict another image of the prophet Muhammad on its cover.

I have spent the past few days reading about the aftermath in France, Europe and the rest of the world, and the consequences that innocent Muslims here in Canada and elsewhere are dealing with, by being judged, discriminated against and grouped with extremists because of association alone. As the story kept unfolding, I began to feel more and more disturbed by the discrimination I came across on every medium that discussed the attack. In recent times, it has become a commonly-accepted idea that our freedom of speech is under attack by radical Islam. Heartbreaking events, such as the attack in Paris, serve as a platform upon which the public can rally against a common enemy. And while I wholeheartedly support the sentiment of wanting to protect our liberties, I can’t, in good conscience, ignore the regular instances in our everyday lives in which our ability to speak freely is challenged.

The fact is, for the overwhelming majority of us, radical Islam actually represents the smallest of all current threats to our freedom of speech.

Recently, an article published on the New York Times revealed the following terrifying findings:

Some 75 percent of respondents in countries classified as “free,” 84 percent in “partly free” countries, and 80 percent in countries that were “not free” said that they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about government surveillance in their countries.

Smaller numbers said they avoided or considered avoiding writing or speaking on certain subjects, with 34 percent in countries classified as free, 44 percent in partly free countries and 61 percent in not free countries reporting self-censorship. Respondents in similar percentages reported curtailing social media activity, or said they were considering it, because of surveillance.

Jennifer SchuesslerWriters Say They Feel Censored By Surveillance

But it’s not just the government, either. It’s regular people like you and I who stifle free speech. We have structured systems, industries, and social institutions in such a way as to make it difficult, if not impossible, to exercise free speech and challenge the status quo.

When was the last time you spoke freely about a controversial issue in the workplace without feeling nervous, or fearing repercussion?

Civil liberties don’t disappear overnight, with a single attack. They are slowly, pervasively, and systematically eroded away over time. The massive public outcry in the wake of the Paris attack has been encouraging, but where are the marches denouncing the government’s ever-tightening grip on our vocal chords?

Are we less scared of Islamic militants than our own governments?

Stephanie Charbonnier (better known as Charb, the chief editor of Charlie Hebdo) said in an interview two years ago, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” This statement has resonated with me more than I could ever have imagined, and has forced me to re-evaluate my own beliefs and values. I grew up in an isolated country [Albania] suffering at the hands of a terrible dictatorship that had plagued its people for more than four decades. While my memories of my childhood are foggy, few things have remained as clear in my mind as the sense of helplessness and fear Albanians felt every day, and how that all changed when they stood up united and fought for their freedom in the early ’90s. From that moment on, things were never the same. As one of my favourite artists and activists said:

Once you’ve tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and no one can take it. Then, you can be more powerful than a whole country.

Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry

Political opinions aside, I applaud anyone who has been brave enough to speak out after the attack — I find their courage inspiring. However, it is important not to delude ourselves into thinking that all we have to do to protect freedom is to stand up united when it is threatened by “outsiders.” It is vital that we take a stand in our day-to-day lives, and put the idea of freedom of speech into action. After all, a freedom that solely exists within our minds is not a real freedom.


Poverty, Discrimination, and Social Injustice: This Is About More Than Racism

Kena Betancur / Getty

“With great power comes great responsibility…”

I came to North America when I was 14 years old, but I had been dreaming of America, “the land of freedom and equality,” ever since I was a child. To a country like mine, America represented the way life should be, where everyone was treated equally, fairly, and had the same opportunities to excel in life. It’s because of my love affair with the United States since I was a child (to this day, most of my professional and many of my personal ties lie there), that I feel the need to speak out regarding the current issue of racism and inequality  that has deeply affected many people.

I have been asking myself, “Is this going to make a difference? Will sharing my voice really change anything?” There’s an inherent helplessness and powerlessness that I, and many others, face regarding what is happening. But change cannot happen if I continuously expect others to take the lead or to speak out for me. It matters that I speak out — it matters that everyone speaks out.

The death of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager in Florida who was shot to death for “looking suspicious” in a white neighborhood, once again brought to the surface the issue of racism in the United States, and, ultimately, provided a platform for the disenfranchised African-American community to speak out about institutionalized racism. This case has had a ripple effect since, with race becoming the elephant in the room that the United States as a country seems powerless to address. His death has been followed by the deaths of two other, unarmed, black people in 2014: teenager Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Their deaths, similar to Martin’s, have deepened the wide racial divide stemming from the United States’ history of slavery and discrimination.

It is no coincidence that these events have sparked such a visceral reaction when one considers the poor economic state of the country at large, which typically pushes oppressed groups to find a scapegoat for their difficult living conditions. This behavior can be observed in many countries around the world: Greece, with the downturn of its economy and subsequent rise of radical right-wing political party Golden Dawn, is the most obvious example in the Western world, but it is hardly an isolated case. Similarly, it is no coincidence that radical Islamic groups emerged in the Middle East following Western military intervention that devastated the region, or that Hitler’s Nazis were able to turn Germany’s population against Jews during an economic depression.

A population is most susceptible to extremism when it feels that its survival is threatened through poverty and systemic failures. In 2012, 35% of black people were living in poverty, compared to 13% of white people. African-American culture is not inherently poor, problematic or inferior — rather, it is the economic system itself that has failed the black community.  It is of utmost importance to recognize this simple fact, because the system is slowly failing us, tooGiven the United States’ role on a global scale, it is crucial  for the country as a whole to address the deep and divisive issues within its borders, as it cannot lead other nations if it can’t even lead its own.

The America that I knew as a child is not the America that I know today, but not all hope is lost. The people protesting in Chicago, Ferguson, New York City and other cities, give me hope and the courage to speak out.  The system in place has been broken from the very beginning. It might take entire generations to fully address, but there is no better time to start than now.

Unless we, the citizens of the world, can rebuild the very foundation of our societies, we might never have the luxury of living in a world where social injustice, racism and poverty cease to exist.

Penises, Butts, and Gossip: Why Modern Journalism Sucks

My social media feeds are full of rants (and often snarky comments) from frustrated people in the entertainment industry. What worked so well for many years suddenly doesn’t seem to work anymore. Distribution of music has never been easier (Soundcloud, BandCamp, Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, etc.) and there are more publications, magazines, and blogs than ever before. Why, then, is it so difficult to secure artists and brands the exposure they deserve?

Well. The past two weeks, publications have been busy publishing articles on Kim Kardashian’s butt and Lorde’s “feud” with Diplo regarding his “tiny penis”:

The Guardian
Taylor swift ‘booty’ diss by Diplo inspires Lorde’s wrath

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Diplo Disses Taylor Swift’s Butt, Lorde Follows Up With the Perfect Comeback

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The Huffington Post Entertainment
Lorde Totally Owns Diplo After He Disses Taylor Swift on Twitter

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Rolling Stone
The Everything Index: Kim Kardashian’s Pavlovian Posterior Experiment

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Fact Magazine
Diplo Prompts Gross Taylor Swift Kickstarter; Gets Shamed By Lorde For His ‘Tiny Penis’

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CNN Entertainment
Make fun of Taylor Swift? Not on Lorde’s watch

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Lorde Perfectly Disses Diplo After He Insults Taylor Swift

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Lord explains her Diplo ‘tiny penis’ comment

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NY Daily News
Lorde defends Taylor Swift, disses Diplo’s “tiny penis” on Twitter

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Fox News Entertainment
Katy Perry’s boyfriend Diplo disses Taylor Swift’s butt; Lorde disses Diplo’s manhood

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Asses of Fire: Why Kim Kardashian’s Magazine Shoot Failed to ‘Break the Internet’

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Lorde Clarifies Comment About Kim Kardashian’s Butt

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Lorde says Kim Kardashian cover of Paper magazine is ‘pure heaven’

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Getting to the Bottom of Kim Kardashian’s Alien Appeal

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Time Magazine
Kim Kardashian’s Butt Is an Empty Promise

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I could go on for hours with similar examples, but you get the point. Instead of using these platforms, which reach millions of people, to promote and reward deserving individuals for their skills and talents, the relentless pursuit of advertising revenue has pushed us to cover gossip about butts and penises.

We get it —

Kim Kardashian has a huge ass, and Lorde made fun of Diplo in a hilarious way. And that’s a great way to get people to click on your website! Great, now writers and journalists are using wasting their skills writing about ludicrous and irrelevant stories, and all is well.

It’s easy to poke fun at these publications for struggling to adapt to technology and the internet. In order to remain relevant and make money, they have opted to become TMZ-esque because it’s easy and it works. But I can’t see this being a long-term solution, because all of these publications are becoming mirror images of each other and nothing more.

One of these days, we will start to care about journalistic integrity once more. We will begin to write stories that deserve to be shared with the rest of the world, and we’ll reward people who have earned the exposure through hard work and creativity and not through their fame. But that day is not today. And thus, everyone (artists and publicists included) needs to adapt the way they work in order to succeed.

The Bystander Effect (Or Why We’re All Responsible)

Within the past two weeks, Kesha has sued producer Dr. Luke for sexual assault and battery, and now 8+ women are coming forward to discuss their horrific encounters with Jian Ghomeshi. While I feel for the victims and wish for them to get the justice they deserve, I feel far more anger and disappointment toward all of us — the bystanders.

The fact that we allow these things to happen and simply turn a blind eye, often continuing our interactions with these predators as if nothing has happened, is utterly depressing and disgusting. The worst part? It is to be expected, and none of it is shocking. Statistics show that we have all been there in a way or another — we have friends or loved ones who have gone through similar situations, or we have tried to sweep incidents under the rug, often because “it is not our business to get involved or comment on the situation,” making victims feel marginalized, lonely and hopeless when they should feel anything but.

We need to stop gravitating toward the myth that assault accusations are often perpetrated by scorned women against nice guys who do not deserve it, or that certain things are just “guy things and no harm was meant cause boys are just going to be boys.” We need to take into account the fact that assault and harassment happens regularly, and that will never change until these predators, who are often friends of yours and mine, are the ones who feel the shame, guilt and isolation.

Please stand up for your fellow colleague, friend, acquaintance or what-have-you, not only because they are someone’s sister, daughter or mother, but because they are a human being.

Why is the Music Industry Hurting Those Who Make It Possible?

The issue of internships has become a hot topic in the music industry lately, and I, for one, welcome the debate. Normally, I try to not take any “political” stance when it comes to issues in the industry, as there are often pros and cons to everything; furthermore, I try to not alienate people with whom I have a professional relationship, since we are all entitled to our own opinions… which can often differ tremendously. With that being said, I do not want to shy away from the issue of internships, as my extensive experience as an intern in the music industry has made it an issue extremely close to my heart. It is my belief that interns, along with musicians, are seriously undervalued and exploited by the overly aggressive and competitive mindset that has come to dominate certain pockets of the industry.

For me to say internships are all “good” or all “bad” would be an overly simplistic and grossly inaccurate statement — for they are neither. The internship experience depends heavily on its execution, and if the internships come with something other than just the promise of “invaluable experience” and “perks that come with the job” that companies so masterfully use to their advantage, then I strongly believe they are the best way for anyone to get started in an industry. But that’s a “Duh! Obviously!” statement and common sense, right?

Unfortunately, this is not always how internships work, despite the fact that their contributions often play a large role in the day to day operations of the company that they are a part of. Many intern positions, especially in the music industry, have no “trial period” or an “end date,” and they exploit vulnerable young interns whose passion and innocence drive them to volunteer vast amounts of their time and talent indefinitely. While it is ultimately up to the intern to decide when to call it “quits,” many are instilled with the false belief that if they just keep working hard, they will eventually be rewarded.

There are interesting parallels between interns and musicians in terms of the challenges they face. The way many interns are treated is no different than the way musicians are treated when they work for years for the chance to perform at a major festival, only to be rewarded by “exposure” while festival organizers are going home with millions of dollars, or when Grammy-nominated artists are only making $4.60 from >14k plays of their tracks in a year (and let’s not forget the salary gap between Pandora executives and Pandora artists). By focusing on maximizing profits and individual achievement, the industry is failing the very people who allow it to exist in the first place . I strongly believe many of these musicians, like interns, deserve a much larger share of the pie than they are currently being given, and I would expect any genuine lover and supporter of all things music to feel the same way.

I recently read an article titled “Why The Hardest Workers Win And The Complainers Lose…And I’m Totally Fine With It” by fellow Ontarian entrepreneur and founder of Audio Blood, Sari Delmar, whom I have a lot of respect for. But, I could not disagree more. There is no place for the idea of “natural selection” in the music industry, because of one simple fact: amazing things happen when people come together. Over the course of my career, I have seen the AbsolutePunk community come together to raise money for Andrew McMahon when he became ill with leukemia; I have seen fans come together to fund kickstarter projects, or to help out bands in need when their vans break down. I have seen people involved in the industry help each other out at festivals with hotel/housing accommodations and everything in between (even people who work at competing agencies or companies – imagine that!) or work together toward projects; and I have seen artists collaborate, tour and work together just to help each other out.

These experiences are reinforced by this quote from an interview I did with Arum Rae, an incredible musician from Austin, TX:

2 years ago, we were on tour with Gary Clark JR. and our van died in AZ coming back from CA. Although we did finish the tour, I felt like ‘Well, I’m never going to make any money or a name for myself in this industry but I still have these songs that I really care about and … fuck it, I must record them.’ I got two jobs and shared my vision with some close friends. Jim Eno (drummer in Spoon) owns Public Hifi in Austin, TX. He gave me studio time upfront. Chico Ramanath sound design for Gary Clark JR produced it and all of the musicians agreed to play on their down time. Not just any musicians… JJ Johnson (John Mayer and Tedeschi Trucks Band) committed to my project.

And Toronto band PUP drove the point home further, when they used their time with my managing editor on Made of Chalk, who was writing a feature on them, to talk about the Toronto community  – its artists, the record labels and the fans. This band is continuously using their new found success and the spotlight to bring attention to fellow musicians!

I was lucky enough to start working on AbsolutePunk almost a decade ago. What I have achieved since cannot solely be afforded to “hard work.” I have only been able to get this far because I have had others support and believe in me every step of the way. I have had fellow writers help me edit my pieces, fellow music lovers recommend me bands that I would go on to work with, friends help me raise money to launch projects, and even musicians themselves helping me in any way they can. I’ve had publicists share their contacts or put me in touch with the right people so I could promote the artists I work with. And I’ve even had writers on competing websites work with me to provide coverage for some amazing musicians, because, when it comes down to it, we all got involved for the same reason: to promote the music we love.

I can’t argue with the idea of hard work, as I believe it is a necessary component of success in any industry. Everyone needs to work hard in order to get where they want to be. However, it is completely wrong to assume that people who have not succeeded financially are not working hard enough, or lack the necessary passion to get there. There are innumerable members of the music community who have yet to reap the benefits of their hard work. The problem lies not with them, but the prevailing attitude of unhealthy competition and greed in the industry as a whole. There is, unquestionably, enough money in the industry to ensure that musicians, interns, publicists, writers, sound engineers, tour managers, and festival organizers alike can enjoy a comfortable existence, so why are so many people struggling?

We must, as an industry, regain some perspective and begin appropriately rewarding the people who make everything possible. Community is of importance, as it compels us to work together. That isn’t simply a matter of efficacy, but of humanity, as we are social creatures that care and that’s what we should maximize, not profits.


If you’d like to get in touch or work together in some capacity, please don’t hesitate to reach out via email