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Dancing With The Dictators: Kanye West Joins The Club

Kanye West reportedly performed at a wedding last Saturday for the grandson of Kazakhstan's authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Francois Mori

Rapper Kanye West got paid a reported $3 million to perform at the wedding of the grandson of Kazakhstan's autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Video of last Saturday's performance was posted on Instagram — and resulted in a flood of criticism.

"Kazakhstan is a human rights wasteland," Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, said in a statement. "The regime crushes freedom of speech and association; someone like Kanye, who makes a living expressing his views, would find himself in a prison under Nazarbayev's rule."

Nazarbayev has ruled the oil-rich former Soviet Central Asian republic since the fall of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.

West joins a long list of entertainers to perform for controversial world leaders.

Why do they do it? NPR's Zoe Chace and Jacob Ganz reported in 2011 on the reasons. The list included money, the fact you get picked up at your house, that it's a storied part of the business and it's often a private event.

In years past, artists could pocket a big check for a single performance and not attract attention. But those days are largely gone.

Here are some other artists who have been criticized for performing for autocratic leaders:

Jennifer Lopez And Turkmen President

Lopez serenaded Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on his 56th birthday in July.

The U.S. State Department notes that Turkmenistan has "an authoritarian government controlled by the president."

Lopez apologized, saying she wouldn't " have attended" if she had known about the country's abysmal human rights record, though that's one of the first things that leaps to mind when the conversation turns to Turkmenistan.

Actress Hilary Swank, seen here in 2009, said she regretted her appearance in 2011 at the Chechen leader's birthday party.
Carlo Allegri / AP
Actress Hilary Swank, seen here in 2009, said she regretted her appearance in 2011 at the Chechen leader's birthday party.

Hillary Swank And Chechen President

The Oscar winner attended a birthday party in 2011 for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a frequent target of human rights groups.

As Freedom House noted at the time, Swank said she "could feel the spirit of the people, and everyone was so happy."

She later apologized, saying: "Shame on me" and that she'd donate the money she received to charity.

Sting And Uzbek President

Sting is known for his activism — from his work on rain forest preservation to his association with Amnesty International. So it was a surprise to many when he performed at an arts festival in 2010 organized by the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The Guardian noted that he was paid between 1 million and 2 million British pounds. It said:

"To explore Islam Karimov's human rights record in full would take too long: suffice to say he is condemned approximately every 10 minutes by organizations from the U.N. to Amnesty, accused of such delights as boiling his enemies, slaughtering his poverty-stricken people when they protest, and conscripting armies of children for slave labor."

Sting had taken part in the anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s. But when criticized for the Karimov appearance, he said: "I have come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counterproductive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular."

Beyonce, Mariah Carey And The Gadhafis

Beyonce performed for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's son at a private New Year's Eve party on St. Barts in 2009. Following criticism, she donated the $1 million she received for the performance to earthquake relief in Haiti.

Mariah Carey, who performed for the family at a 2008 New Year's Eve party, also donated the money she earned, as did singer Nelly Furtado, who performed in 2007.

In a statement at the time, Carey said she "was naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for."

She added: "Ultimately we as artists are to be held accountable."

Can you think of other examples? And does it matter where artists perform? Let us know in the comments.

(h/t: NPR's Maureen Pao)

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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