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The American celebrity love affair with the world's worst autocrats

  • 29 Jan 2019

Mariah Carey’s upcoming concert in Saudi Arabia is just the latest episode of American celebrities flirting with dictators in exchange for substantial fees.

Mariah Carey poses with her star after it was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, August 5, 2015. ( Reuters )

Mariah Carey is facing a backlash from human rights activists shortly after announcing her planned concert in Saudi Arabia.

The American star is scheduled to perform in Saudi Arabia for the first time on Thursday, along with Sean Paul and DJ Tiesto.

Critics say the Saudi kingdom is using the event as a tool to repair its damaged global reputation over the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its brutal war in Yemen, said to be responsible for the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis”.

Although the Saudi kingdom has been praised over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s so-called liberalisation agenda, which has lifted restrictions on the entertainment industry, the kingdom continues to jail an unknown number of women’s rights activists, as well as at least 120 other political prisoners.

Many activists and commentators, including Khashoggi’s editor at the Washington Post, demanded Carey reconsider her decision to perform in Saudi Arabia, drawing her attention to human rights abuses in the country.

However, there is a long history of American celebrities who have performed for either leaders or the family members of leaders who stand accused of large-scale human rights abuses.

Nicki Minaj - Angola

In 2015, Nicki Minaj came under fire for her performance in the capital of Angola, Luanda, at a concert organised by the Unitel communications firm, owned by the family of the country’s controversial then-president Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

Dos Santos, 76, who stepped down two years ago, had ruled the country for 38 years with an iron grip despite having never been democratically elected. During his rule, he had been accused of using the country’s vast oil wealth to enrich himself and his family while nearly half of the population lived below the poverty line and 56 per cent of those employed were classified as “working poor”.

"Dos Santos has made it his policy to harass, imprison, or kill politicians, journalists, and activists who protest his rule," the Human Rights Foundation said in an open letter to Minaj.

But after being paid a reported $2 million for her performance, the rapper responded to the criticism on Twitter in her own style, saying: "Every tongue that rises up against me in judgment shall be condemned."

Jennifer Lopez performs at the birthday party of Turkmenistan President, 29th June, 2013.(AFP)

Jennifer Lopez - Turkmenistan

“Sorry”, Jennifer Lopez said, after she added to her long history of performing for authoritarian leaders and shadowy businessmen with a birthday concert for the president of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a man whose 12-year rule has been called one of the “most oppressive” in the world.

In exchange for a reported $1.5 million, Lopez took to the stage to sing her biggest hits with a small surprise at the end; singing happy birthday to the president in a traditional Turkmen outfit.

The leader of the former Soviet bloc nation, who recently lifted a golden weight bar amid applause in a cabinet meeting, has been accused of exercising absolute power over all aspects of life in the country and also launching repeated bloody crackdowns on dissidents.

Beyonce - Gaddafi’s son Mutassim

When Wikileaks took global politics by storm in 2010, it also covered Beyonce’s secret concerts.

According to the leaks from US officials, former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's son Mutassim threw a lavish party on New Year’s Eve 2009 on the island of St Barts in the Caribbean. Beyonce, along with Usher, gave a performance that may have cost Libyans much as $2 million.

When her set for the son of Gaddafi made headlines, Beyonce, to distance herself from the Gaddafi regime, announced that she would donate the concert money to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti in the wake of the devastating natural disaster.

Whether publicly or in secret, a whole roster of stars has performed for authoritarian leaders who hold the worst records on human right abuses and deadly crackdowns. While some refer to these concerts as the classic commerce of art, others ask if it is ethical to help authoritarian leaders repair their clouded legacies in the world.

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