Entertainers have been learning the hard way that there are consequences for celebrating dictators. In the past, pop stars could engage in low-risk, high-reward transactions with human rights violators. A couple of songs and a few hours of photo-ops made for a quick and easy way to pull in a small fortune. However, with the advent of smart phones and social media, these collaborations are getting harder to keep under wraps, and often lead to PR meltdowns for performers and unwanted attention for the tyrants who pay them.
Three recent examples involving Africa are a case study in what not to do. First, there’s Beyoncé, Nelly Furtado, 50 Cent, Usher, and Mariah Carey, who performed for up to $2 million each for parties hosted by the family of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Once exposed, the stars were quick to say that they were unaware the gigs were for the Gaddafis. In the ensuing PR aftermath, they apologized and claimed to have donated their fees to various aid and human rights charities. Mariah Carey led the charge with the boldest statement defusing the matter: “I was naïve and unaware of who I was booked to perform for. I feel horrible and embarrassed to have participated in this mess. Going forward, this is a lesson for all artists to learn from. We need to be more aware and take more responsibility regardless of who books our shows. Ultimately we as artists are to be held accountable.”
Fast forward and the same Mariah Carey was caught performing for the longtime strongman of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos. Carey was paid more than $1 million to celebrate dos Santos, who has a 35-year track record of murdering his critics. Mariah’s unrepentant manager Jermaine Dupri washed his hands of her previous accountability statement and claimed that he didn’t know how to use Google and knew nothing about Angola. He defended her performance, saying they did nothing wrong, that it was “not his problem that the country is run by a cold-blooded despot.”
Now R&B singer Erykah Badu is at the center of another debacle involving an African autocrat. In her case, the PR meltdown involves crass admissions of not caring about human rights and lashing out against her critics.
While recording an album in South Africa last week, Badu “hopped a helicopter” and flew into Swaziland, where she performed at a birthday party for King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch. She sang for the King, later even visiting one of his sprawling palaces, and presented him with gifts. Meanwhile, just 20 minutes down the road—in a kingdom where political parties are banned and criticism of the government is against the law—seven Swazis were arrested for wearing t-shirts that criticized the King. In the same prison, an iconic journalist and human rights lawyer are jailed in leg irons. (Disclosure: the lawyer, Thulani Maseko, is scheduled to speak on May 13 at Human Rights Foundation’s upcoming Oslo Freedom Forum).
Badu’s management refused to answer repeated requests for comments, but Badu gave a lengthy response to the Dallas Morning News. She claimed the visit “was harmless,” that “she thought nothing of it,” that—despite information widely available on Google and Wikipedia—she “went into a situation not completely knowing the political climate of the kingdom.” She also said that “all the money that I got from the trip I gave to all the servants” in the house where she stayed, which contradicted a previous statement saying that she was not paid.
The PR disaster unfolded on Twitter. Badu first brushed HRF and other human rights groups aside, retweeting a comment that she “owes nobody an explanation of why she performed in Swaziland.” After her timeline began to erupt with commentary, she started attacking her critics. She called an Africanist at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights a “monkey” and others “idiots.” She proceeded to tweet that she would even play in North Korea for “the people.” When asked about the activists that were jailed for wearing t-shirts with political slogans, she replied that “treason is a crime in any country.” When a Swazi told Badu that he was “directly affected by Mswati’s oppression,” she fired back, saying “U on twitter tho, oppressing me.”
Rather than taking a break, Badu spent a solid eight hours tweeting non-stop at anyone and everyone who brought up her appearance in Swaziland. She failed to disclose that she was brought there by Jacob Arabo, a convicted felon who spent years in U.S. federal prison for lying to federal investigators after being accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars of drug money. Arabo, undoubtedly in Swaziland to score a shady business deal, wasn’t alone in bringing Badu to the King. According to a government-owned paper, her show was sponsored by Salgaocar, an Indian mining giant that operates a huge iron ore facility in a Swaziland nature reserve. Badu has not made a comment about her corporate sponsor, which has come under heavy fire for corruption, water pollution and grotesque environmental damage.
We messaged Badu privately, offering a potential way forward, suggesting that she could denounce Mswati’s dictatorship, and perhaps say a kind word in solidarity with Swaziland’s political prisoners. But instead, she dug in deeper, arguing that the Swazi regime is an important part of African culture and that criticism of the king and his ancient custom is tantamount to racism. George Ayittey of the Free Africa Foundation reminds us that the Swazi monarchy is a British colonial creation that gives a bad name to African kings, who were historically go-betweens with religious functions. Traditionally, he says, such leaders did not hold absolute political power, drive Rolls Royces and Maybach limousines, fly around in private jets, collude with foreign resource-extraction conglomerates or stash their massive fortunes in Swiss bank accounts.
If Badu bristles under criticism for entertaining King Mswati, she’ll really be frustrated by the world’s reaction when she performs at a concert this May sponsored by the dictator of The Gambia. After seizing power in 1994 military coup, Yahya Jammeh is best known for spending millions of dollars on private parties, for promising to inflict “the ultimate penalty” on homosexuals, for warning the UN that gays are “a threat to human existence,” for claiming that he can cure AIDS in three days, and for executing and disappearing hundreds of his critics. After her Swazi quagmire, perhaps Badu will reconsider her scheduled performance in The Gambia, where she would provide cover for yet another despot, this one a lot more murderous than King Mswati.
Some argue that artists are apolitical and can play no role in the struggle for human rights. What’s clear is that many have actually taken the side of the oppressor: Badu joins Kanye “Kazakhstan” West, Hilary “Million Dollar Chechnya” Swank, Dennis “I’m not responsible for my North Korean adventure because I was drunk” Rodman, and—the queen of dictator clients—Jenny “from the Eastern Bloc” Lopez, who raked in $9 million over two years performing for five tyrants in various post-Soviet states, including Turkmenistan. Just as these artists provide cover for autocrats, others have actively pursued an agenda of support and solidarity with dissidents. During the 1980s, the influence of international artists on South Africa’s apartheid regime made racial injustice the trending topic decades before Twitter existed. Or consider the power artists had in casting Chile’s military dictatorship as a ruthless monstrosity that deserved sanctions and isolation.
George Clooney made a PSA to support Ukraine’s democracy activists. Jude Law starred in a video for the persecuted Belarus Free Theater art group. Madonna spoke out on behalf of Russia’s Pussy Riot. Christian Bale tried to visit Chen Guangcheng when he was under house arrest in China. Susan Sarandon signed a letter in support of Turkish anti-government protestors. Jon Stewart hosted Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef on The Daily Show. Kevin Spacey wrote a post on his website in support of Venezuela’s student protestors. Mia Farrow consistently tweets about human rights violations across the world.
Instead of capitalizing on her prominence to make controversial money, Erykah Badu should acknowledge her celebrity power and consider taking a public stand against dictatorship. In today’s world, even a single tweet in solidarity with the jailed Swazi lawyer Thulani Maseko could be significant. Such a gesture could be inspirational to millions living under tyranny, and could serve as a loud warning to oppressors that their behavior has a price. And it would cost Badu nothing.