Did she just say what I thought she said?
That was the question on the lips of my fellow revellers as we filed out of a Shanghai auditorium after Björk’s March 2nd concert. During her finale, the stomping mad anthem “Declare Independence,” the singer had pounded her bare feet, raised her hands, and directly addressed her Chinese fans through anger-swelling lyrics such as, “don’t let them do that to you,” “protect your language” and “raise your flag.” When the backing lulled, Björk whispered against the microphone, “Tibet, Tibet.”
Such a direct call for Tibetan freedom is a shocking gesture by a visiting artist. Though many activists have argued that the region’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is its rightful ruler, China has ruled its westernmost region since 1951 and any discussion against this is taboo. Indeed, although Chinese-language message boards lit up, state-run media did not report on the incident.
Björk has come under fire for this specific song before. The music video for “Declare Independence” may show Björk in a jumpsuit bearing the flags of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, but in Japan last month, she dedicated the tune to Kosovo’s struggle – a gesture that angered the organisers of a Serbian music festival at which she had been slated to perform.
In Shanghai, the controversial protest was a surprising finale for a strong set that otherwise contained few surprises. The act opened with the slowly-building “Earth Intruders” and moved forward with a laser-show that clicked on during a heartfelt “State of Emergency,” which played while Chinese security guards wearing white gloves paced the aisles. Hits such as “Army of Me,” “Bachelorette” and “Desired Constellation,” backed by the all-female Icelandic brass band, Wonderbrass, satisfied Björk fans who had, on the most part, never seen the singer before. Björk has only travelled to China once before, playing in Beijing in the 90s.
Björk’s fan base in China is huge. Nicknamed “The China Girl” in her youth, Björk is known to her Chinese fans as “Bi-Ya-Ke,” the name they screamed at the 4,000-capacity Shanghai International Gymnastics Centre which looked about 80% full, with seats going for as much as US$210. The Chinese singer, Faye Wong, claims her own success was based on a youthful desire to imitate Björk, and some Chinese fans at the show even sported Björk’s trademark tribal face-paint. When, to acknowledge applause, Björk sweetly whispered “xie xie” (Chinese for “thank you”), fans only applauded even more.
In response to the media hailstorm surrounding her “Tibet Tibet” call, Björk released a quiet statement: “I am first and last a musician,” she wrote. “And as such I feel my duty to try to express the whole range of human emotions. The urge for declaring independence is just one of them but an important one we all feel at some times in our lives.”
During the finale, the local fans around me belted out every lyric: “Damn colonists/ Ignore their patronising/ Tear off their blindfolds/ Open their eyes.” In Shanghai, the “Paris of the East” long ago colonised by the West, the Icelandic singer’s lyrics could very well refer to Tibet, as she pointedly argued, but they also said a lot more.