Musicians often have a tenuous relationship with social norms. Some artists throw caution to the wind and cross the invisible line of propriety. Others become controversial just for existing or speaking with someone considered politically volatile. Instead of unpacking ostensibly problematic lyrics or behavior, many are quick to ban the offending musicians. The artists on this list found themselves on the end of some surprising and high-profile bans during their careers.
Lady Gaga has been banned from several countries over the course of her career. The first wave of bans came in May 2012 when she embarked on her international Born This Way tour. Indonesia forbade the singer from performing there, albeit unofficially. While the country is technically secular, conservative groups such as the Islamic Defense Front wield significant social influence. The Front called her blasphemous and claimed her fans worshipped the devil. Gaga, faced with threats of violence if she performed there, canceled her tour. A few days before, conservative and religious groups in the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand followed suit and banned her performances.
In 2016, Lady Gaga met with the Dalai Lama. That meeting would sound innocent to most, but China's issue with Gaga's actions dates back to the Chinese Civil War. The Dalai Lama lives in exile in India, having fled there in the late 1950s when the Chinese Communist Party brought Tibet under China’s control. Tibet now has a measure of autonomy. However, China is still Tibet’s nominal ruler and notoriously sensitive to any influential nation or person showing allegiance to the Dalai Lama and Tibet. Lady Gaga was labeled a “wolf in monk’s clothing” and forever banned from touring in China.
Singapore banned Led Zeppelin at the height of the band’s popularity in 1972 over a minor cultural difference. In February 1972, Led Zeppelin planned a pre-tour concert in Singapore as a kind of headline act to kick off their wider tour of Australasia. Singapore officials would have none of it, however, not unless the band members agreed to cut their hair. No one, not even international superstars, was allowed in the country with long hair. Led Zeppelin refused, so Singapore refused entry. Three years later, the band faced a more serious ban.
Three years later, Boston banned Led Zeppelin in a big way. They canceled the band's 1975 Boston Garden concert and enacted a five-year ban. Founder Jimmy Page didn’t even know it happened until 2020. Page mentioned he came across the mention while researching the band’s history. Fans waiting overnight to buy tickets got a bit too feisty, stealing beer and concessions, setting chairs on fire, and causing $30,000 in damage. Boston mayor Kevin White, furious at the chaos the band caused when they weren’t even present, said they would never perform in Boston.
Pussy Riot’s second notable banning happened in 2018. Russia banned Pussy Riot from leaving the country under any circumstances. The government claimed the members, primarily Maria Alekhina, failed to complete their community service following protests Pussy Riot held earlier in the year. But in the ultimate poke in the eye, Alekhina found a way out anyway, flew to Edinburgh, and had the band tweet about it.
The U.S. banned Amy Winehouse from attending the 2007/08 Grammys after the Back to Black singer was arrested in Norway. Charged with possession of cannabis, she was soon admitted to Capio Nightingale rehab center in London after reportedly smoking cocaine. While some rightly worried the drug charge would prevent her from obtaining a visa — it did — there was also the issue of her rehab and the danger leaving might've posed to her health.
Later that year, Winehouse attacked Sherene Flash, a fan and dancer, during a party. Flash asked Winehouse for a photo, and Winehouse reportedly punched her in the eye. Two months and a Caribbean vacation later, Winehouse returned to England and turned herself in, whereupon authorities charged her with assault. As a result, the U.S. banned her from performing at Coachella.
For many, Bob Dylan symbolized counterculture in the 1960s. His songs expressed what people thought but were too afraid to say. Despite being a leading figure of the new culture wave and having plenty of protest songs to his name, Dylan rarely faced serious opposition, outside the BBC banning “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” in 1962 because it used the phrase “god almighty.” That changed in 2010.
China decided Dylan was a risk and banned him from performing in Shanghai and Beijing. The ministry of culture offered no solid reason for the decision, other than Dylan’s status as counterculture icon in the past. Dylan actually had Bjork to thank for his ban. Chinese officials became much more cautious in the years following an unexpected and unwelcome stunt she pulled during a concert there.
Icelandic singer Bjork wrote both humor and serious political intent into her song “Declare Independence.” On the one hand, her experience growing up in the former Danish colony of Iceland taught her the value of independence. She wanted Greenland and the Faroe Islands — and, later, any nation facing oppression — to have the same freedom. On the other, she thought inserting a bid for independence in a song about relationships sounded funny. But one country didn’t find it very funny.
In 2008, Bjork performed in Shanghai. She sang “Declare Independence.” And she wasn’t talking about Greenland this time. Bjork added “Tibet! Tibet!” at the end of the song and set off a wave of backlash that ended with the Chinese government banning her. This time, they actually had the people’s support as well. They believed Bjork was insensitive for visiting their country and bringing up such a divisive issue out of nowhere.
Gloria Estefan was two years old during the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Her family fled to the United States, though her father took part in the failed Bay of Pigs operation and faced two years of jail in Cuba as a result. Her mother, a teacher, lost her academic credentials. It’s no surprise Estefan spoke out frequently against the Cuban government. Naturally, she was put on the unofficial Cuban blacklist of artists forbidden from performing in the country or having their songs played on Cuban radio. That started changing in 2012, but it wasn’t enough for Estefan.
She refused to perform in Cuba until conditions changed drastically. Estefan said that, while the nation needs income from tourists and there are signs that positive change is coming, she couldn’t possibly perform there and keep her opinions to herself. More importantly, she cited the hypocrisy of visiting Cuban hotels and restaurants the Cuban people themselves could never visit. Until the country changes for the better, Estefan is staying off the island.
Polish metal band Behemoth invites controversy with its album names (e.g., 2014's The Satanist), getting on the wrong side of activist groups and politicians alike. While they don’t actually rip up Bibles wherever they go or incite murders, it hasn’t stopped people from flinging such accusations around anyway. Behemoth had a key performance banned in Poznan, Poland, in 2014 for no apparent reason other than, as frontman “Nergal” said, being “public enemy number one.” That was nothing compared to what happened in Russia, though.