Twerking for a Dictator-King

Pop icon Erykah Badu just performed for Swaziland’s brutal dictator. Her response to being called out for it is worse than the performance itself.

Erykah Badu at SXSW.
Erykah Badu at SXSW on  March 14, 2014, in Austin.

Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung

On Tuesday, singer and international pop icon Erykah Badu went on an epic—and thoroughly perplexing—Twitter tirade to defend her actions in Swaziland last week. Badu, who claims to be a “civil rights advocate,” has been slammed by several human rights organizations for performing for the last absolute monarch in Africa, King Mswati III of Swaziland, who has maintained a dictatorial control of that country for nearly three decades. Badu, who sang “Happy Birthday” to the royal strongman, gave several gifts to Mswati at a swanky private event held at one of his palaces. The event was organized by the notorious Jacob “the Jeweler” Arabo, who recently spent two years in federal prison for lying to investigators about his role in a multistate drug ring.

The reality in Swaziland is clear. In fact, a wide range of reports on the human rights situation in the country have been consistent, citing abuses that violate a host of international human rights standards, including targeted killings by Mswati’s security forces; torture, beatings, and disappearances of pro-democracy activists and civic leaders; severe restrictions on freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly; and prohibitions on political activity, including banning all political party activity.

When called out for her actions and for her increasingly hardened defense of Mswati on Twitter, Badu played the victim, claiming that she was at first unaware of the “political climate” in Swaziland and was therefore being unduly attacked by self-interested human rights activists who were somehow using her as a platform to advance their “agenda.”

Over the course of several hours, Badu switched back and forth between her (still unclear) version of events in Swaziland, resorting to childish name-calling of well-respected researchers, human rights advocates, and policy professionals. Badu also claimed she was being “used” because it was “election season.” When we politely reminded her that there are no legitimate elections in Swaziland, she glibly responded: “ … that’s how KINGDOMS twerk.” Apparently so does she: for the highest bidder, irrespective of whoever he is or the suffering he has inflicted upon his people.

Nor was this Badu’s first visit to the Swazi kingdom. We are thus forced to conclude that Badu is either utterly ignorant of the long-standing—and according to some, worsening—humanitarian and human rights crises in Swaziland, or she simply doesn’t care.

If she was remotely curious about the conditions of the people in Swaziland, a quick online search would have revealed a country confronted with the world’s worst HIV/AIDS epidemic, a shockingly low life expectancy rate, and nearly half of the population living in chronic poverty. According to World Bank data, more than 60 percent of Mswati’s subjects live below the national poverty line. Meanwhile, Badu’s dictator crushes any semblance of dissent or yearning for democracy with state violence while living in cavalier luxury, enjoying a fleet of Maybach limousines (his favorite), a DC-9 jet, and foreign bank accounts estimated to be worth billions. Meanwhile, his subjects have to go to extreme lengths just to stay alive.

On Twitter, Badu claimed that she was in Swaziland “for the people,” stating she would even go to North Korea if invited. This flawed line of reasoning has been a routine excuse of artists who attempt to evade responsibility for their callous actions, from Seal to Julio Iglesias to Jennifer Lopez to Hilary Swank. What’s shocking about Badu is her clear lack of remorse or interest in understanding the worsening human rights crises that afflict the people of Swaziland. Badu is clearly living in an alternate reality, perhaps seduced by the rosy, albeit false, picture painted by her royal fan.

None of the above-mentioned stars were “playing for the people,” and neither was Badu. These appearances are typically paid for and hosted by regime henchmen, and only their closest cronies are invited. Sometimes the general population is forced to attend and commanded to revel in their leaders’ overall glory and their power to entice world-renown figures. Of course, this is precisely the problem.

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. These headline events are most often used for domestic propaganda purposes, propping up unabashed human rights abusers like Mswati. International stars like Badu cannot simply ask to be “left out of politics.” A celebrity endorsement, whether wholly explicit or implicit, emboldens dictators and leads to the further denial of fundamental freedoms and basic human rights.

Some of these stars, including Amanda SealesSting, and Hilary Swank, later apologized. Seales canceled her appearance. Sting and Swank promised to return the money they received and, as part of their reparations, provide increased and much-needed attention to these closed societies.* Often times, these efforts succeed where a well-intentioned white paper or human rights report might otherwise fail.

Badu has refused to acknowledge that she did anything wrong; instead, she has dug her heels in, at first claiming ignorance about the situation in Swaziland and later admitting to being an acquaintance of Mswati. At first she claimed to have not been paid for her appearance, but she later reversed course again, saying she gave the proceeds to “servants.” Come clean, Ms. Badu. Which version is true?

We made repeated overtures to Badu—who claimed multiple times to love the people of Swaziland—to collaborate to raise awareness about the current plight of two political prisoners in particular, both of whom went on trial in Swaziland just last week. Their crimes? Criticizing the lack of an independent judiciary. While Badu sang to her friend and his assembled royal guests, journalist Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko, a widely respected human rights lawyer, were imprisoned behind bars on trumped-up charges, huddled in a dank prison cell with 35 other inmates.

It is unfortunate that Badu is too busy “twerking” for her new dictator friend to realize and fully understand the true—and now very public—error of her ways.

Update, May 2, 2014: This article has been updated to clarify that Amanda Seales canceled her appearance before being paid and therefore didn’t return any money when she apologized. (Return.)