On Kanye And Kazakhstan: Why Do Celebrities Perform For Dictators?

In early September, Kanye West showed up in Kazakhstan, of all places, for a concert gig. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble imagining who in Kazakhstan is a Kanye fan and, even more confusing, who was able to afford concert tickets. This was by no means a stadium concert with thousands of people singing along with every word. In this case, it was Kanye performing his biggest hits in front of an intimate crowd of people celebrating the wedding of the grandson of the Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan. Videos of the Grammy winning hip-hop star’s private performance at the wedding of Aysultan Nazarbayev to the daughter of a top executive at Kazakh state energy firm were soon uploaded to YouTube and Instagram.

In addition to this being a highly questionable decision that provides people with yet another reason to dislike him, Kanye’ decision to show up and entertain President Nazarbayev legitimizes a ruthless regime, according to many human rights organizations and NGOs. The Human Rights Foundation specifically criticized Kanye for performing in a “human rights wasteland”, a place where he would most likely be targeted and imprisoned for expressing his views (something that Kanye is known for). During President Nazarbayev’s 23 years in office, he has overseen a “harsh and unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression and political plurality” by “imprisoning outspoken opposition and civil society activists.” One such incident occurred in 2011, when he was criticized for cracking down harshly against striking oil workers in the city of Zhanaozen, which killed over a dozen people.

The outrage directed at Mr. West did not convince him to cancel his performance, which is not entirely unprecedented. Kanye was not the first artist to perform at the personal request of an autocrat and, unfortunately, will probably not be the last to do so. Kanye is part of a famous, or infamous, list of stars that have shown up performed for a leader of questionable in exchange for a large enough paycheck. In Kanye’s case, this amount was reportedly $3 million.

Jennifer Lopez Performing for the President of Turkmenistan

Others on this list include Beyonce who performed for Muammar Gadhafi’s sons at a private ceremony in St. Bart’s in return for a reported $1 million. Usher and Mariah Carey also performed for the Gadhafi family in the same location in 2008. In the Summer of 2013, Jennifer Lopez appeared and at a party for the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, and sang “Happy Birthday” to him for a reported $1.5 million. Turkmenistan is often ranked as one of the least free countries in the world and President Berdymukhamedov has a terrible human rights record. This caused a fair amount of backlash and prompted J-Lo’s representatives to issue a statement  saying “had there been knowledge of human rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended.” In 2011, Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank apologized and fired her manager after toasting Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov at a birthday event in honor. Kadyrov is an authoritarian Islamist leader and has been accused of torture and killings.

Hillary Swank Extolling the Virtues of the Chechen Leader

Considering that most performers tend to donate their money to charity after receiving a barrage of criticism, it is kind of difficult to understand why entertainers keep agreeing to make these decisions. Perhaps they need to hire better representation that take into account the ramification of their actions, or at least have some understanding of international affairs.

 

About Daniel Hart

Daniel Hart is a graduate of McGill University and double majored in Political Science and History. During his undergraduate years, he was involved with organizing McGill’s Model UN (McMun) and the Students’ Society on NATO Issues (SSNI). His areas of interest include American and Canadian foreign policy, the Middle East, and the impact of international organizations.