Apology Tour: What Happens After Celebrities Entertain Despots

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IGOR SASIN / AFP / Getty Images

Jennifer Lopez performs at Avaza, near the city of Turkmenbashi (Father of all Turkmen), named after former president Saparmurat Niyazova on June 29, 2013.

Actress-musician Jennifer Lopez is under fire after performing “Happy Birthday” for Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a noted human-rights violator. Fresh off winning nearly all of the vote in a sham 2012 election, Berdymukhamedov has been accused by Human Rights Watch of torturing and “disappearing” dissidents, not to mention frequently attempting to outlaw satellite dishes in order to more easily control the national media.

It’s nearly implausible to think Lopez couldn’t have avoided celebrating a tyrant (and the subsequent bad press) with a quick Google search before her jet took off, but she’s far from the first celebrity to accept a dictator’s invitation (and compensation) without question. She later apologized, with her publicist saying, “Had there been knowledge of human-rights issues any kind, Jennifer would not have attended.” Here’s how others tried to explain their own run-ins with despots.

“I was naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for. I feel horrible and embarrassed to have participated in this mess.”
Mariah Carey, musician, said that in her March 2011 apology for performing at a New Year’s Eve party in 2008. Mutassim Gaddafi, one of the sons of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, had hired her to sing four songs on the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s. Carey donated all the profits from her song “Save the Day” to human-rights causes and said “ultimately we as artists are to be held accountable.”

In the mid- to late 2000s, a slew of American musicians performed for the quixotic Libyan dictator or at an event sponsored by his clan. After each occasion, like clockwork, they issued some form of contrite apology. About six years after 50 Cent’s 2005 performance at the Venice Film Festival was linked to the ruler, he made a substantial donation to UNICEF for women and children experiencing the turmoil in Libya. Around that time, as the Arab Spring swelled, similar announcements were made by other top acts. Beyoncé issued an apology after playing the same event a year later and donated her cash from a third-party promoter linked to the Gaddafis to humanitarian efforts in Haiti, a country still reeling from the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Usher, who didn’t perform but rather just appeared at Beyoncé’s event, donated to several human-rights groups after being “sincerely troubled” by the connection. Nelly Furtado, who received $1 million for a 45-minute show in Italy in 2007, also handed her check off to charity.

“I love Russia. I love the country. I love everything about Russia.”
Sharon Stone has a thing for Russia, apparently. The 55-year-old actress reportedly commands a $250,000 appearance fee, but such a hefty price tag does not appear to have deterred all customers. In 2011, Stone was in Moscow for a music-awards event when she issued the above unqualified endorsement of Russia, whose government has been at geopolitical loggerheads with the U.S. over a raft of issues. A year earlier, she was one of the main attractions at a Russian charity auction, where then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin graced the audience with his rendition of “Blueberry Hill” before joining Stone for a duet.

However, lest we worry that Stone actually believes her own words, she was in Georgia just two days after declaring her love of the country, hobnobbing with Putin’s major irritant, President Mikhail Saakashvili.

“The bottom line is I should know where I’m going. And I should do better research.”
Hilary Swank, a two-time Academy Award–winning actress, apologized for having helped Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin-backed strongman in Chechnya, mark his 35th birthday in October 2011. Alongside actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, British violinist Vanessa Mae and Seal, a British R&B singer, she flew into Grozny. Activists say Kadyrov’s administration is implicated in torture, abductions, house burnings and executions in the war-ravaged Russian republic. Human-rights organizations called for the quartet not to keep any gifts or cash — instead, donating it — so as not to trivialize victim suffering.

Swank alluded to learning that human-rights groups had reached out before her trip to deter her, but claimed she never received the warnings. “Shame on me, you know,” she said. “I definitely can guarantee I won’t go anywhere ever again without doing full research.” Seal was significantly less apologetic. He took to Twitter, saying as a musician, he preferred “if you would leave me out of your politics.”

“We’ve thought about the morals of it a lot. This band is not political, we are not out to make statements, we play to anybody who comes to listen.”
Brian May, of the famed British rock act Queen, was unapologetic when criticized for performing in South Africa during apartheid. In 1984, Queen defied the British Musicians’ Union’s cultural boycott against South Africa by playing multiple shows at the Sun City resort. As a result, the band was not only fined by their union, but also found themselves on the U.N.’s blacklist, where they would remain until the end of apartheid.

In 1991, May attempted to clarify why he and his bandmates had made such a questionable touring decision. “We broke their rules,” he said, referring to the British union’s, “there’s no doubt about that, but I think we broke that rule with the best motives in mind … We are totally against apartheid and feel very strongly about it. At the time, having carefully considered all the pros and cons for a year, we decided we’d do more to achieve the end of apartheid by going than by staying away.” However, bassist John Deacon’s previous statement that Queen was going to South Africa because “we’ve toured America and Europe so many times that it’s nice to go somewhere different” somewhat undermines May’s attempt to portray the musicians as political innovators who hoped to advance the cause of civil rights.