Culture

Divas Sing for Despots, Round 15

Minaj at the MTV Video Music Awards in August. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)

Give rap superstar Nicki Minaj credit for having not a sliver of shame.

After human-rights activists begged her not to sing at a Christmas show in the brutal African dictatorship of Angola for a reported $2 million, she flaunted her dealings with its regime. She posted photos of herself boarding a Gulfstream jet for Angola, another of her arriving, one of her in a sheer bodysuit prepping for the show, and one of her in concert with the caption Angola has my heart. And, obviously, the fat paycheck has her heart as well.

Minaj claims an interest in bettering people’s lives, and she and her managers have joined up with the Black Lives Matter movement. She even spent time last year lamenting to Rolling Stone that black celebrities are slow to speak out against injustice.  

But Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, notes the hypocrisy in Minaj’s stance: “Minaj’s payday is all the more jarring given that she and her managers joined the chorus of the Black Lives Matter movement. It appears that when those black lives happen to be in Angola, their lives matter less than a paycheck from a dictator.”

Halvorssen’s watchdog group has been a singularly effective at tracking celebrities who cash in on dictator gigs. He has blown the whistle on Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, and Hilary Swank for cavorting with criminal regimes, whether it’s Qaddafi’s Libya (Beyoncé), Turkmenistan (Lopez), or Chechnya (Swank). When shamed by the Human Rights Foundation, all three singers apologized, and Beyoncé donated her fee to a charity in Haiti.

But Minaj has not backed down. Halvorssen wrote an open letter to her asking: “What kind of inspirational message is she sending to millions of young Angolans by performing for the dictatorship that has literally stolen their freedom and their future?” She tweeted this reply: “Every tongue that rises up against me in judgment shall be condemned.” Sounds like something the imperious queen from Alice in Wonderland might say.

Until her trip became controversial, Minaj could be excused for not knowing much about life in Angola. But by now, she must know that Lusty Beinao — a fellow rapper from Angola — sits in a fetid jail cell, condemned by dictator José Eduardo dos Santos. His crime? Along with 17 others, he was charged with “rebellion” for discussing a book on nonviolent resistance in the vein of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Other artists in Angola have been persecuted and barred from performing or sharing their work. Dos Santos’s security services have been linked to a massacre of religious dissidents earlier this year, an incident that has drawn the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The 73-year-old Dos Santos has served as president of his country since 1979, maintaining power through rigged elections, a secret police network, and the ruthless exploitation of his country’s oil, diamonds, and other resources. He has parceled out lucrative positions and stakes in state monopolies to friends and family alike. A key beneficiary is Isabel dos Santos, his 42-year-old daughter and now a multi-billionaire. Much of her wealth is derived from her 25 percent stake in Unitel, a mobile-phone company with strong ties to her father’s government.

#share#It was Unitel that sponsored Minaj’s trip to Angola. It charges extortionate prices for cell-phone usage thanks to its quasi-monopoly position. Maka Angola, a group that fights corruption in Angola, reports that Isabel dos Santos benefits more than anyone else from her country’s blood-diamond trade. Just this month, Transparency International identified her as one of the world’s 15 “most symbolic cases of grand corruption.”

But Minaj was thrilled — even starstruck — to meet the Dos Santos daughter. She posted a picture of the two of them with this caption:

Oh no big deal . . . she’s just the 8th richest woman in the world, (At least that’s what I was told by someone b4 we took this photo) Lol. Yikes!!!!! GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!! S/O to any woman on a paper chase. Get your own!!!! Success is yours for the taking!!!!! #Angola thank u to the women who brought me out here as well.

A common excuse made for those in the “Celebrities with the Dictators” club is that they can’t be expected to know much about places they visit, and they also aren’t political figures. But that’s not how songstress Mariah Carey now sees it. Carey was strongly criticized in 2013 for singing at a holiday party held by the Angolan despot. But years before, after her embarrassing 2008 New Year’s Eve concert for Libya’s murderous Qaddafi clan in St. Bart’s, she had pledged that she wouldn’t do concerts for dictators. In August 2014, Carey dumped her manager, Jermaine Dupri, perhaps in part over the bad publicity and ongoing fallout from her holiday concert in Angola for the Dos Santos regime.

Carey’s statement of regret, issued after she performed for the Qaddafi clan in St. Bart’s, is worth quoting (though it’s also worth noting that she expressed her contrition a full two years after the performance):

I was naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for, I feel horrible and embarrassed to have participated in this mess. Going forward, this is a lesson for all artists to learn from. We need to be more aware and take more responsibility regardless of who books our shows. Ultimately we as artists are to be held accountable.

In Political Pilgrims, the sociologist Paul Hollander skewered Western intellectuals for their credulous trips to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. He found it appalling that because of their estrangement from their native lands, they were eager to extend sympathy to almost any regime with a political system hostile to the West. But at least most of them were idealistic, even if clueless. Today’s celebrities are more pragmatic: They are going to Angola and Turkmenistan merely for the cold, hard cash.

— John Fund is National Review Online’s national-affairs correspondent.

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