JLo: The Environmental Price of Singing for Dictators

Jennifer_Lopez_dictators_environment_Ana_Carolina_Kley_VitaMariah 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

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

7 responses

  1. “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.”

    Hang on a minute. So you’re grouping environmental justice with human rights issues? Let’s make a differentiation here. Singing for dictators isn’t good, that’s one thing. Performing in a country with a poor environmental record, that’s quite another. If it’s wrong for an artist to perform in a country with a poor environmental record, then surely it should be wrong to perform in the US, which has one of the highest ecological footprints in the world and one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, far worse than Turkmenistan on both? Or any other Western democracy with similar issues? Your last sentence makes the implication that ONLY “countries with poor human rights records and shaky or nonexistent democracies” may “overlook environmental justice”, and that is simply not true.

    1. Thanks for weighing in! I’ll let Jan respond to your point about her last sentence, but on the issue of human rights and environmental justice, we believe human rights IS an environmental justice issue. The point is that a poor environment has a negative impact on human health – and a disproportionately negative impact on the world’s poor.

    2. First of all, environmetal and social justice issues are very closely related. you make a fair point about the us, however.

      Anyway, If Jlo’s music were in any way about education, or working for better government, then I’d say sing away. However she is more about money, vapid song and dance routines, and probably can’t find Turkmenistan on a map. It’s that willful ignorance which is offensive here and is indeed at the root of both social and environmental problems globally.

      1. Thanks Dave!
        Just for the note, while JLo’s music doesn’t concentrate on educational issues per se, she has been very active in women’s rights and domestic abuse issues in Mexico. I also think music doesn’t have to be educational in topic to be educational or positive in influence. She is most certainly a role model when it comes to inspiring self confidence and higher aspirations for many young people, which is great. I also think that is true in the benefits of music as an educational tool in other venues. It comes down to how its used, and as you say, the goal in mind.

    3. Hi Ming – Thanks for your comments!
      Jen expressed what I was going to say in regard to human rights and environmental rights quite well. I’ll just add, that our posts on EJ go into this perspective (particularly, see my first and second post on EJ, which delve into the relationship between EJ and civil rights, and the efforts by US EJ organizations to reach an understanding with environmental groups on this point (you can find them by going to my home page).

      You are correct, and I wasn’t saying that ONLY countries with poor hr records or shaky democracies overlook it. I was speaking in regard to events outside of the US, so my comment was meant to highlight those issues. You raise a good point, which I see as our willingness to look the other way when it comes to events within our country, but can willingly point fingers regard to what a musician can do outside of our borders. But even though I raised the mention of EJ, my comment was in regard to international issues. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. Thanks again for bringing up these excellent points.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. On the issue of EJ, I would agree that governments that respect civil rights are more likely, though not guaranteed, to listen to the demands of their people on environmental issues. I still don’t quite understand your point on issues outside of the US, though – why should environmental issues outside the US should be differentiated from the same issues in it? Most of Europe, East Asia and Oceania faces many of the same issues. Or are you referring specifically to developing countries?

        1. My point is not that there is, or should be a differentiation between environmental issues (or imperatives) in the States than outside the States. My point had to do with the impact of her actions, which in this case, involved performing for a head of state with less than reputable standing in regard to both human rights and environmental issues. That was the only distinction: the geography of the event at the time.

          But your question raises an interesting point, which is why we hold artists to a higher bar before the international community than we do before communities within our own country? As you point out, EJ issues, human rights issues, and civil rights issues aren’t limited by borders. My simple answer is that reputation dominates here: we believe that what one person from our country (our community) does reflects on us all. But in truth, there isn’t any difference between inequities and wrongs at home than abroad.

          Thanks for these great comments!

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