Mariah Carey did it. Nellie Furtado did it. So did Sting. And now, Jennifer Lopez (affectionately known as JLo) has reignited a stormy debate about celebrities and the benefits they get from performing for dictators with spotty human rights and environmental records.
Earlier this month, JLo was called out by the media for headlining at a private event whose audience included the president of Turkmenistan. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been credited with numerous human rights abuses since his rise to power in 2006. Human Rights Watch calls Turkmenistan “one of the world’s most repressive countries” where “media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal.”
For her rousing performance, Lopez received more than $1 million, above the standard fare, apparently, for musicians that play in controversially hot scenarios. Unlike other musicians who have been criticized for performing for dictatorships, she hasn’t said that she would give up the money. It’s a shame, because those who have either sent back or donated the pay have helped to send the message that performing music in dictatorship countries is not the problem. It’s the legacy they leave behind – the impression of what’s ultimately important – that makes the difference.
Like many readers, I was bothered by the nonchalant way in which JLo’s publicists dismissed the issue. According to the press statement, JLo apologized for the event, which had actually been arranged at the behest of China National Petroleum. She and her media representatives had simply been unaware of Turkmenistan’s record.
“(Had) there been knowledge of human rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended,” her readers were assured.
Apparently, end of discussion.
But it seems to me that the broader issue here isn’t just whether human rights abuses were underplayed, or whether a dictator’s unsavory image is being bolstered by a North American star. The real issue has nothing to do with whether she should or shouldn’t have rubbed celebrity shoulders with a dictator. It has to do with the future impact that such actions have on goodwill ambassadors who use art, music and writing to change human rights and ecological perspectives.
It’s interesting that Turkmenistan’s environmental record went unmentioned recently by the press. The former Soviet Union nation faces several environmental calamities as a result of its methods of harvesting natural resources. Its previous ecological record has been questionable, at best.
Artists have been traveling to troubled nations for hundreds of years, many with the intent of carrying forth a message of change. During the Cold War, the “Jazz Ambassadors” played an unforgettable part in bringing nations together through music. Jazz greats like Dizzie Gillespie and Louis Armstrong are just a few who have been credited with connecting East with West when political diplomacy failed.
The same kind of gentle artistic diplomacy continues today with “Rhythm Road,” a joint project of the U.S. State Department and the Lincoln Center. Stops include Oman, China, South Korea and some 90 other countries that may or may not have heard American composers.
But of course, music is only one vehicle, and human rights is only one of the many challenges that “art ambassadors” help to overcome. Art has been bridging the gap of the “have” and “have nots” of ecological disparity for decades as well. Music, writing and the visual arts play an important role in educating people about ecological issues around the world, including in countries with poor human rights records and shaky or nonexistent democracies that may overlook environmental justice as well as human rights issues.
Image courtesy of Ana Carolina Kley Vita