[above] Kanye West backstage in Kazakhstan
Who knew central Asian dictators were "Yeezus" fans? Earlier this week, Kanye West was the surprise guest performer at the wedding of Aisultan Nazarbayev, son of notorious Kazakh tyrant Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been widely criticised for human rights abuses and rigging elections. Raking in a reported $3 million for the gig, the rapper’s now come under fire for his willingness to cash in on the fortunes of an oil-rich oligarch.
Unfortunately, Yeezy’s not the only musician to play a tune for a bloodthirsty tyrant or two – from Beyoncé to Mariah Carey, there’s a long and illustrious history of pop stars warbling for dictators, all in the name of making a quick million-dollar buck.
Wikileaks isn’t just responsible for disclosing government secrets: in 2010, it also revealed that Beyoncé had pocketed between between one and two million dollars to perform at a New Year’s party hosted by Hannibal Gaddafi, son of Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Bad timing, Bey – a few weeks later, reports emerged that Hannibal’s father had personally ordered the jetliner bombing that killed hundreds over Lockerbie, Scotland, and Hannibal himself landed in the news for allegedly assaulting his wife at Claridge’s in London. Beyoncé apparently donated her fee to humanitarian efforts in Haiti once she heard that Gaddafi was behind the party.
After he was acquitted of child molestation charges in 2005, Michael Jackson found a friend in Bahrain: namely, Prince Abdullah Hamad al-Khalifa, whose dad is better known for crushing intermittent protests in his island kingdom with tear gas, live ammo and rubber bullets. Jackson didn’t just sing for al-Khalifa – he even got the prince to foot $2.2 million of his legal bills and promised to record two albums with him. At one point, Abdullah even flew out Jackson’s personal hairdresser to Bahrain. The special relationship didn’t last long: less than a year later, Abdullah sued Jackson in a London high court for $7 million, claiming that Jackson hadn’t delivered on their two-LP deal.
Jenny from the block slipped into traditional Turkmen clothing to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to the president of Turkmenistan, who rules over a state considered by Human Rights Watch to be “one of the world’s most repressive countries”. The news broke after her choreographer foolishly tweeted: “The Turkmenistan breeze feels amazing all night Kidz! I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!” According to Lopez’s publicist, the party was a corporate event put on by China National Petroleum for its executives in Turkmenistan – the event just happened to coincide with the authoritarian ruler’s birthday.
In 2009, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, another son of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (he’s got seven), paid Carey $1 million to sing four songs at another New Year’s party in St. Bart’s. Carey claims she had no idea that she’d been booked for an event thrown by the sons of a dictator. “I feel horrible and embarrassed to have participated in this mess,” she wrote in a statement on her website. “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.”
Manic Street Preachers
In 2011, the pro-Castro band performed an hour-long set at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, including a rendition of their song "Baby Elian", dedicated to Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. Performing on a stage draped with the Cuban flag, the band even took some time before the gig to chat to their surprise guest of honour: President Fidel Castro, who stands accused of various human rights abuses including the executions of up to 33,000 political prisoners. "It was momentous," Nicky Wire said afterwards. "Other groups get to meet Tony Blair, we meet Fidel Castro." To make things better (or worse), the Manic Street Preachers probably didn’t even make that much money off the gig – fans paid the equivalent of 17 pence for concert tickets.
The Gaddafi clan don’t just appreciate bubblegum R&B – they’re also fans of old-school soul. In 2006, Lionel Richie was paid $5 million to perform at a “peace concert” hosted by Colonel Gaddafi to mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. bombing his military compound. Performing in front of the ruined façade of the dictator’s ex-headquarters, the entire gig climaxed with a rousing sing-along of 40 children dressed as angels, chorusing “We Are The World”. Colonel Gaddafi was so pleased that he asked Richie for an autograph afterwards.
Back in 1980, Robert Mugabe was a hero to many Africans for successfully leading the liberation movement against Zimbabwe’s colonial rulers, so it’s perhaps understandable that Bob Marley was up for singing “Zimbabwe” at Mugabe’s swearing-in ceremony. Thirty years on, Mugabe is now considered one of Africa’s worst rulers, clinging onto power through a mix of political intimidation, thuggery and violence. Even sadder for Marley? He wasn’t even Mugabe’s first choice – he landed the gig after Cliff Richards allegedly turned the African dictator down.
After the revelations about Beyoncé singing for Gaddafi came out, Nelly Furtado went public with the news that she too had been hired by the Gaddafi clan to sing a 45-minute set at a hotel in Italy in 2007. Coming over all contrite, the “I’m Like A Bird” singer tweeted that she received $1 million from the Gaddafis for her private performance and pledged to donate the fee to charity – albeit an unspecified one.
Mobutu Sese Seko was a cruel, fanatical dictator who ruled the Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire, for over 30 years. How cruel was he? Put it this way: he once had an enemy’s eyes gouged out, his genitals ripped off and his limbs amputated one by one. Which is why it comes as a surprise that James Brown, along with other soul superstars like B.B. King and Bill Withers, accepted an invite to Kinshasa to perform at Zaire 74, a concert held as part of the “authenticity campaign” to legitimize Mobutu’s rule.
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing