R&B singer Erykah Badu’s decision to perform for two African heads of state who have faced criticism over their human rights records has sparked a backlash among advocates.
The Grammy Award winner is scheduled to perform during a Gambian music festival that begins in the West African country on Friday.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who described gay men as “vermin” during a February speech that commemorated the country’s independence from the U.K., is scheduled to formally open the event on Saturday. The long-time African president during the aforementioned speech also said the acronym LGBT “can only stand for leprosy, gonorrhea, bacteria and tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence.”
Badu’s trip to Gambia is scheduled to take place less than a month after she sang at a lavish birthday party for Swazi King Msawti, III.
The Swazi Observer reported Badu gave Mswati a $100 bill with a “special stone that she said would uplift His Majesty’s spirits when he was feeling down” during the April 24 event that took place at one of the monarch’s numerous palaces.
“I am so happy to be in the country,” she told Mswati, according to the newspaper. “This is my second time in Swaziland and the last time I was here there were a lot of women dancing in a forest. I love being in Swaziland.”
Pedro Pizano, a former Human Rights Foundation staffer, and Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights noted in a Slate.com op-ed that Swaziland has faced repeated criticism over a host of issues including violent crackdowns against pro-Democracy demonstrators and human rights advocates and the imprisonment of journalists.
A U.N. report notes that up to an estimated 28 percent of people between 15-49 in the landlocked African country between South Africa and Mozambique lived with the virus in 2012. Mswati’s brother in 2010 sparked outrage among Swazi HIV/AIDS advocates when he said pharmaceutical companies and condom manufacturers had “exaggerated” the epidemic’s threat.
“By literally lending their voices to these absurd spectacles, performers like Badu endorse these brutal regimes, providing a veil of legitimacy to otherwise tarnished and compromised leaders,” wrote Pizano and Smith in their op-ed. “These headline events are most often used for domestic propaganda purposes, propping up unabashed human rights abusers like Mswati.”
Badu on Twitter questioned whether Pizano was “gay” as he pressed her to respond to questions about Swaziland’s human rights record — she proceeded to refer to him as “Satan.”
“Devils are easy to spot in any color,” Badu later tweeted to Smith.
She proceeded to describe Smith as “racist” and a “monkey.”
Badu also rebuked others who have urged her not to perform in Gambia.
— ErykahBadoula (@fatbellybella) May 4, 2014
Badu responded to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on Sunday via her Twitter account.
@mklavers81 u too late bro.. Read the feed.
— ErykahBadoula (@fatbellybella) May 4, 2014
“Erykah Badu has the basic human right to speak and to sing wherever she wants, unfortunately that is not a right that ordinary Swazis or Gambians have,” Smith told the Blade on Monday. “Freedom of expression, assembly, association, and freedom of the press are severely restricted in both of these countries.”
Badu is the latest U.S. musician who has faced criticism for performing for world leaders with questionable human rights records.
Mariah Carey reportedly received $1 million to perform at a 2009 New Year’s Day party on the French Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy that one of the sons of then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi hosted. She later apologized, but she reportedly received another $1 million last December for a private concert for Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos last December.
Jennifer Lopez last June apologized for singing at Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s birthday party. Human Rights Watch has described the former Soviet republic’s government as “among the most repressive in the world.”
Beyoncé — who donated the $1 million she received for performing at a Gaddafi family party in Italy in 2007 to charity — and Jay-Z last year faced criticism from Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and other U.S. lawmakers after they traveled to Cuba.
“It is incredibly irresponsible for public figures like Erykah Badu to in effect pay respect to notorious and horrendous human rights abusers like King Mswati and Yahya Jammeh,” Smith told the Blade. “It’s a slap to the face to their many victims — those starving, those in prison, and the thousands in exile — and it sets a horrible example. Her actions and her defense of those actions are unacceptable.”