Celebrities aren't the UN but can use concerts to defend human rights

Nicki Minaj’s on-off concert in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has once again shone a spotlight on the thorny business of artists who agree to perform in countries with abysmal human rights records.

Was she right – finally – to call it off? Should she ever have agreed to play in a country where women are treated as second-class citizens, where same-sex relations are forbidden, and where a whole host of other basic rights are denied?

It sounds like a no-brainer – don’t go. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

Musicians like Minaj are understandably keen to play in front of their fans in all sorts of countries, including Saudi Arabia. After all, they’re in the entertainment industry. If the popular demand’s there, you satisfy the demand.

And ordinary Saudi fans of Minaj’s raunchy brand of pop (of which there are apparently a surprising number) aren’t themselves the people responsible for institutional human rights abuse in Saudi Arabia, so why punish them?

Artists – and their management and publicity teams – will very likely go back and forth on this. Do we play? Is it worth the reputational risk?

At Amnesty, we don’t believe in telling artists to ‘boycott’ this or that country.

Instead, number one, we say: ensure you are not, in any way, contributing to existing human rights violations through a specific performance.

If, for example, you’re a singer asked to play a concert in a stadium that’s just been built on land which has seen local people’s houses illegally destroyed, then playing there would be a form of complicity in the act of forced dispossession. Similarly, if the catering company at one of your foreign shows is an abusive employer, then you shouldn’t be party to this abuse by using them.

Number two: when agreeing to play in a country with a very poor human rights record (and we’re talking about scores of countries, not just obvious ones like Saudi Arabia, China or North Korea), you should be prepared to use your influence for good. Raise human rights issues directly where you can. Speak about cases publicly. Advocate for them after you’ve left the country.

While the match was never played due to injury, tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic agreed to play in Jeddah last year and we asked them to tweet their support for human rights defenders who’d recently been jailed in the country. Similarly, this May, we called on the boxer Amir Khan – also hired for a well-paid exhibition bout in Jeddah – to go with his eyes firmly open and with a preparedness to speak about human rights issues wherever possible.

There’s often a degree of fuzziness – perhaps unavoidable – in this. Madonna was criticised by some people for agreeing to perform at the recent Eurovision in Tel Aviv. For sure, Israel’s human rights record is dire, not least through its half-century military occupation of the West Bank. But others praised her for including both Palestinian and Israeli flags in her show.

At the end of the day, it’s unrealistic to expect singers or sports stars to act as celebrity arms of the United Nations. That’s not their job.

But they don’t operate in a vacuum either. They need to understand the reputational risk of accepting big money from hosts with dire human rights records. And that risk is compounded if they make no effort to address some of the grim realities of where they go.

Nicki Minaj says she’s now ‘educated’ herself about how women and LGBTI people are oppressed in Saudi Arabia, and how basic freedom of expression is denied. Minaj is an expressive performer free to speak her mind. It would be great if she continues speaking out on Saudi human rights issues.

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