Black metal band Watain's lead vocalist Erik Danielsson at a recent live performance. Photo: Instagram

Southeast Asian metalheads descended on Singapore last week for an event they hoped would be infernal and enthralling: a live concert performance by the acclaimed Swedish black metal band Watain.

Known for their abrasive sound and unhallowed imagery, the group had been given official approval to play their first-ever show in the wealthy city-state on March 7. Fans, however, were left disappointed when a media regulator announced the show’s cancellation just three hours before it was set to blast.

The state’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), a regulatory agency, announced the show could not go on due to its “potential to cause enmity and disrupt Singapore’s social harmony.”

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) raised “security concerns” about the event, while Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam acknowledged a public outcry against the group, though he denied that an online petition calling for the concert’s cancellation had forced the government’s hand.

The petition, which had gathered more than 16,000 signatures before the show, called on lawmakers to ban Watain and Soilwork, a comparatively anodyne Swedish heavy metal band scheduled to perform in Singapore in October.

Rachel Chan, the petition’s initiator, claimed both bands’ songs contained “subliminal messages” that promote death and suicide.

Survey: Was the government right to cancel the concert?

Watain at a recent live performance (not in Singapore). Photo: Twitter

The ban has sparked a debate over whether music and other artistic expression that gives voice to divisive or potentially problematic ideologies have a place in a nation that stringently regulates public speech and media in the name of religious and social harmony.

The authorities’ handling of the concert’s cancellation has also courted criticism.

Watain applied for an entertainment license in late December, a process which required it to provide the show’s setlist and song lyrics, according to the band’s booking agent. IMDA initially approved the license on March 5, two days before the concert, but concerns were raised over aspects of the band’s performance and stage backdrop.

True to black metal’s dark aesthetics and jarring theatrics, Watain’s members – who are all avowed theistic Satanists – usually perform in black and white makeup alongside inverted crosses, flaming tridents and animal carcasses.

IMDA chose to allow the gig on condition that the band met certain “stringent requirements”, including the omission of songs deemed as religiously offensive, a prohibition on references to religion or religious symbols, and a ban on performing “ritualistic acts” on stage.

Age restrictions were also imposed, barring anyone below the age of 18 from attending. The event’s organizers had sold around 150 tickets and said they had incurred financial losses of over US$11,000 due to the last-minute cancellation.

Others questioned why the provocative gig was initially approved given that the MHA had labeled Watain as denigrating religion and promoting violence. Following the cancellation, Shanmugam said he could not see how the band could perform in Singapore in light of its anti-Christian song lyrics.

Singapore's Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to journalists during the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore luncheon in Singapore on December 2, 2016. The danger of attacks by Islamic State (IS) supporters in Southeast Asia has increased as the group searches for new fronts after setbacks in the Middle East, Singapore's internal security minister warned on December 2. / AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN
Singapore Law Minister K. Shanmugam at the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore December 2, 2016. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Watain have “even said they encourage any terrorist acts committed in the name of the band, and various other statements which are quite offensive,” he told reporters.

“The claims are not false,” Erik Danielsson, Watain’s frontman, told Asia Times. “Music and artistic expression like ours will always be met with a certain degree of opposition,” he said, placing his group in a cultural context alongside “things that have been the trademarks of global heavy metal culture for the past fifty years and cause for alarm plenty of times.

“The question at hand, however, is not whether their fear is justified. It is whether they are to decide for others what form of culture they can and cannot have access to,” the vocalist said. Danielsson said the IMDA gave the band a list of songs they were not allowed to play, selections he deemed as “seemingly random.”

“Anyone even remotely familiar with our catalogue of songs could testify to the hopelessness in the endeavor of trying to find a song that does not in one form or another promote Satanism,” said the musician. “If Watain gets on a stage and performs, there will be elements of all the things that these people tried to censor.”

Black metal music gained notoriety in the early 1990s after prominent musicians credited with establishing the sub-genre’s distinct sound were implicated in a series of murders and church burnings in Norway.

The sub-genre is synonymous with anti-Christian and misanthropic themes, with some artists advocating various forms of Satanism or paganism.

Watain leader singer Erik Danielsson, a self-professed Satanist, in a file photo: Photo: Facebook

With unconventional song structure and intentional low-fidelity production, black metal has long since advanced beyond its underground roots. Indeed, its popularity as both a musical and cultural form has spiked in the last two decades, witnessed in the sub-genre’s growing international fan base.

Black metal has won a strong niche following in Southeast Asia, particularly in Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia. Its popularity has alarmed religious authorities to the extent that Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council declared “black metal culture” as being haram, or religiously prohibited, in 2006, with any association with it punishable under sharia law.

The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), the most powerful agency in the country’s religious bureaucracy, resisted the ban at the time, saying it favored “intensive counseling sessions” for black metal adherents over an outright ban of the music.

Bishop Terry Kee, president of Singapore’s National Council of Churches, praised the Watain concert’s cancellation, citing concerns that “open endorsement of satanic violence could have deleterious effects on impressionable and restless youths” and that the group’s presence would be hurtful to the cause of religious harmony in the officially secular city-state.

The group’s local fans, however, were not amused.

A photo taken at a meet-and-greet with the band circulated online showing would-be concert goers standing alongside Watain’s members with raised middle fingers. Shanmugam, speaking at a Malay Muslim community gathering, asserted that the photo had gone viral “across the Christian community.”

Watain fans react in unison to the official decision to ban the band’s show. Photo: Boplay Photos

The law minister was later panned by netizens for raising racial matters when he appeared to single out “a group of Malay young men” in the photograph, which appeared on Watain’s social media pages.

Shanmugan said that it was crucial to show that the picture does not represent what city-state’s Malay Muslim community thinks about Christianity.

“It’s a very dangerous game when authorities start turning what basically is a photo of a group of unhappy people into a racial statement with anti-religious overtones,” said Gary Ng, a local photographer who took the image of the black-clad multi-racial crowd. “All I see is racial diversity that cuts across all races,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Music fans in Singapore have continued to speak out against perceived moral policing and say their passion for the extreme music scene is undiminished.

“The petition writer should have consulted with the organizers to find out what was going on before moving ahead with the petition,” Shaiful Risan, an underground music event organizer, told Asia Times.

He said the petition’s signatories had leveled “personal attacks” against the music’s fans and sought to ban the show “without understanding its niche context.”

Image used by Indonesian black metal band Sacrifice in one of its music videos. Photo: Youtube screen grab

Even in the realm of black metal’s boundary-pushing blasphemy, bans are not a given in today’s Singapore.

Bands known for their anti-Christian messaging such as Mayhem, Behemoth and Marduk have previously played in the city-state, albeit under IMDA-imposed restrictions. Organizers say Soilwork’s October performance will be staged as planned despite the petition’s call for its ban.

Singapore has mellowed considerably since past clamp-downs on various aspects of Western popular and alternative culture.

Singapore had refused entry to rock legend Led Zeppelin in the 1970s amid a government campaign against men wearing long hair. Songs by the Beatles and David Bowie were also banned from the airwaves, censorship that only started to ease in the 1980s.

But critics say the Watain concert’s cancellation sets a worrying new precedent, both for artistic expression and event organizers.

“Organizers just want to get a show going and if we have to undertake additional measures then we will,” said Shaiful, who said the cancellation showed a “misconstrued understanding” of the arts. “We are a fragment of society as well. We need our space, we need our noise. If we are not getting in anyone’s way, kindly leave us alone.”

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