Pop

Nicki Minaj + The Long History of American Celebrities Performing For Dictators

Some artists play dumb, while others merely don't care. Here's why it should matter to all of us.

-by Zack Sigel

Nicki Minaj could once brag about being paid $50k for a verse before she’d ever released an album. Several albums, mixtapes, and countless recordings later, what might her fee be for performing an entire concert for, say, a murderous dictator in Angola? Apparently, it was just $2 million, which is actually an improvement over Mariah Carey’s asking price to perform for the same totalitarian two years earlier.

Under José Eduardo dos Santos, who has rigged every election in his favor since taking power in 1979, some Angolans have done quite well for themselves. These Angolans just happen to be related to dos Santos, and they have made off with billions of dollars. The rest of the country is mired in almost unimaginable poverty and suffering. As Michael Specter, writing in The New Yorker, describes it, “Half of Angolans live on less than two dollars a day, infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world, and the average life expectancy—fifty-two—is among the lowest.” Last April, dos Santos’s thugs massacred as many as 1,080 civilians living within the vicinity of a religious sect in the country’s central Huambo province.

It has only been a few days, but Nicki’s response could go one of two ways. The first is to do what Beyoncé and Usher did when it belatedly emerged that they had played at a New Years’ Eve party for Muammar Gaddafi. (Jay-Z and Russell Simmons were also in attendance.) Both performers claimed ignorance of their sponsor’s history and donated the millions in proceeds to charities when it came to light and fans were outraged.

Mariah Carey, who shared the stage with Beyoncé at the same party, also apologized, but evidently kept the money and went on to accept the paycheck from José dos Santos just two years later. Gaddafi ruled Libya by fiat from 1969 until his death in 2011, using his money and influence to subsidize terrorism around the world, including the bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie that killed 270 people in 1986. He or his family shelled out millions to secure performances by Nelly Furtado in 2007 (she donated the money to charity); Lionel Richie in 2006, to mark the twentieth anniversary of an American air strike that itself was a response to a Gaddafi-sponsored suicide bombing in a nightclub; and 50 Cent in 2005, at a private party during the Venice Film Festival to which Gaddafi’s sons Al-Saadi and Mutassim brought Anna Kournikova as a date. As commanders in the Libyan army, Al-Saadi and Mutassim were responsible for prolonging the unnecessary bloodshed that characterized the 2011 Libyan Civil War.

Nicki may not ultimately go the “I didn’t know and I’m sorry” route that her colleagues chose. For one, it’s insulting to the intelligence of her fans, who will suspect that when Nicki was squirreled away to a secret location in a poverty-stricken country she must’ve guessed something was amiss. It was insulting, too, when Beyoncé, Usher, and Mariah Carey lied about their involvement with the Mad Dog of Libya, because none of them knew that Russell Simmons had already spilled the beans on Twitter that very same night. “@ khadafy party,” he tweeted just hours before the ball dropped at the 2009 celebration.

And such an out wouldn’t have been believable with the evidence the “Anaconda” singer was already plastering over Instagram. “Oh no big deal… she’s just the 8th richest woman in the world,” Nicki captioned a photo of her standing with dos Santos’s daughter, whose fortune could feed the entire country her father is intentionally starving. To the caption, Nicki added, “Success is yours for the taking!!!!!” Indeed.

More likely, Nicki Minaj will follow the path of Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, who recently became BFFs with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Kim’s reign of fascist terror hardly needs to be recounted here, as there are few with access to the Internet willing to defend or tolerate him. But Rodman, perhaps living up to his nickname, didn’t feel the need to do anything but own it, and even used his platform as unofficial ambassador to a failed state to criticize President Obama. That is perhaps a more honest response than what Sting offered after he was caught, in 2009, performing for Uzbekistan’s dictator, a man known for boiling his enemies alive. In a statement, he said, “I am well aware of the Uzbek president’s appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment,” but he was playing in the benevolent interest of “the open commerce of ideas and art.” That might’ve been noble had any Uzbek citizen been able to actually attend the show.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, jurors spent hours debating the involuntary manslaughter charges against Officer William G. Porter for the death of Freddie Gray and still couldn’t come to a decision. The judge declared a mistrial, which doesn’t bode well for the upcoming trials of the five other indicted cops. Gray, recall, was a young black man who was arrested under spurious circumstances and emerged from the back of a police van with a severed spine. Nicki Minaj has been an important supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, and no one would have batted an eye had she performed in Gray’s hometown.

Perhaps, then, the best model for response would be that of Jesse Owens, the track-and-field star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens, who was black, was aware of Hitler’s culture of racist totalitarianism and used the games to put the lie to Aryan superiority. There is some debate about whether Hitler shook Owens’s hand, but it is a matter of record that Roosevelt did not. In Germany, Owens was allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites, but, returning home to Jim Crow’s America, he was asked to ride the service elevator to his own honoring reception. That same year, he told a Republican rally that “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” Owens offered a similar remark in Baltimore six days earlier, nearly eighty years before the murder of Freddie Gray.