“I went into a situation not completely knowing the political climate of the kingdom. I can’t be held responsible for the situation in the kingdom because I signed up as an artist, not as a political activist.” — Erykah Badu (2014)
In late April, news of Erykah Badu’s birthday performance for Swaziland’s King Mswati III, the ruling dictator of Africa’s last absolute monarchy, became public. It was followed, almost immediately, by criticism from human rights groups, supported by a series of devastating statistics: that over 60 percent of Swaziland’s citizens live far below the poverty line; that the average life expectancy of a person living in Swaziland is 49; that Mswati himself lives a lavish lifestyle.
Given the country’s history of arresting journalists and torturing political dissenters, Erykah Badu had, understandably, found herself in the middle of a public relations disaster. The Washington Post cited an email from Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, lambasting Badu for using “her star power for inherently reprehensible reasons — namely, to provide legitimacy and, in a sense, endorse a brutal dictator.” The article nodded to other prominent musicians, notably Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, who had previously received large payments after playing for the Gaddafi family.
As it stands, Erykah Badu is but one on a long list of celebrities to have wished “happy birthday” to a political leader of questionable moral standing. Hilary Swank did it in Chechnya in 2011, 50 Cent played for Gaddafi in 2005 and Jennifer Lopez sang in Turkmenistan just last year. While there are no set rules dictating which celebrities receive the fiercest backlash in these situations, a high percentage of those publicly chastised hail from the music community.
In the coming months, many popular musicians are slated to play in one of the most controversial political arenas. Tel Aviv amphitheaters will serve as premiere battlegrounds for musicians on both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate.
The Palestine-sympathetic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s supporters have been quick to mobilize across social media platforms, creating Facebook campaigns urging singers and bands to reconsider performing in Israel (see the 1,000+ likes on “Beyoncé: Don’t Put a Ring on Apartheid”). The New Republic‘s BDS primer describes the kinder elements of the movement as “a response to the occupation that originated in Palestinian civil society” and “physically nonviolent.” On the other end of the spectrum are elements within the movement who wish to see the state of Israel completely abolished.
For decades, the issue of whether or not to play the country has hinged on musicians’ feelings, or lack thereof, regarding Israel and Palestine. However, these personal feelings must now be balanced against the calls for boycott in a hyper-connected world, as well as hesitations from fellow bandmates. But a third and equally pressing concern has emerged within the past five years that further complicates the situation: the rampant racism in Tel Aviv toward blacks brought on by an influx of African asylum seekers.
“I think entertainers should entertain. They should go wherever — there shouldn’t be any restrictions. I don’t see why anyone would mix up the two things — entertainment and politics.” — Tom Jones (2013)
From certain angles, Tom Jones is right. In theory, musicians should travel wherever they want; they should also know what they’re getting into. In Israel, that means going to a country that erected an anti-immigrant border fence at a cost of $416 million to deter African asylum seekers from entering.
Once inside Israeli borders — assuming refugees have successfully navigated the known haven for human traffickers that is the Sinai desert — migrants transform from asylum seeker to “infiltrator,” a term previously reserved for Palestinians. Of more than 50,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, the majority of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan, none were granted refugee status until media coverage resulted in harsh public criticism earlier this year and raised that number to two. To date, not a single Sudanese asylum seeker has been granted refugee status in Israel. By contrast, global refugee recognition rates are over 80 percent for Eritreans and 62 percent for Sudanese.
This absence of documentation guarantees peril. Without it, African migrants cannot legally work to support themselves. It leaves them susceptible to ambush while seeking medical attention. Frequently, migrants are separated from their families, rounded up and placed indefinitely in “open detention centers” — without trial — with no possible out other than self-deportation; medical attention is virtually nonexistent. Life for those outside these prisons is also fraught with peril. Hundreds of rabbis signed an edict forbidding landlords from renting apartments to non-Jews. Certain cities, concerned with Israel’s growing African population, have threatened to close. On Hanukkah, prominent government officials organized “banish the darkness” anti-migrant rallies; on Purim, high-schoolers have dressed up as Ku Klux Klansmen. Asylum seekers lucky enough to own businesses have had those establishments torched, their houses firebombed. An infant was stabbed while in her African mother’s arms at Tel Aviv’s central bus station.
Nor is this violence exclusive to new migrants; Ethiopian Jews are subjected to parallel discrimination. A recent survey revealed 79 percent of Israelis believed “Ethiopians suffered from racism.” Local Ethiopians have also suffered from the forced administration of birth control shots without consent or knowledge (the injections were said to be inoculations).
Unable to send Africans back to their countries of origin (or neighboring countries) without violating its 1951 Refugee Convention obligations, Israel has offered a one-way ticket and $3,500 to any asylum seeker willing to fly back to their home of their own accord. For the Sudanese and Eritreans, this is all but impossible. Many of them left in order to avoid either their home country’s requirements of indefinite mandatory military service, or general political instability under repressive regimes. As an alternative, Israel has offered other countries, such as Uganda and Rwanda, a discount on military arms, should either be willing to take the refugees off Israel’s hands.
Barring that, at $3,500 a head to 50,000 refugees, Israel would have to spend $175 million to rid itself of what Miri Regev, a government official in the ruling Likud party, has called “a cancer.” She later repented and apologized to cancer patients for comparing them to Africans. The Israeli government is prepared to invest over half a billion dollars (i.e., the amount proposed by Obama to train and arm Syrian rebels, and the quantity of humanitarian aid pledged by Saudi Arabia to Iraq) to deal with 0.6 percent of its population, a percentage Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated “threaten[s] the identity of a Jewish state.”
The short answer as to why these events have taken place lies almost entirely in the above quote. Miss Israel can be Ethiopian, and women from the Philippines can win Israeli singing competitions (though they can’t use their talents to earn money), but further incorporation is seen to threaten the identity of Israel as a Jewish state. To quote former Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari: “Our country is a Jewish state. A Jewish and democratic state. It’s a very delicate balance. In some cases, the two contradict each other. If you bring in a million Africans, it will no longer be Jewish. We are waging war against the phenomenon of assimilation.”
“I don’t agree with this comparison of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa. [Israel] has universal suffrage and equality of rights for all its citizens both Jewish and Arab. In apartheid-era South Africa, artists could only play to segregated audiences; in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert.” — Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boys (2013)
For whatever reason, American coverage of racism against African asylum seekers in Israel has been scarce. While Donald Sterling’s racist remarks sparked outrage earlier this year, his comments on blacks being treated like dogs in Israel remained largely ignored.
While American and British musicians may not understand the occupation of Palestine, they have a general understanding of what it means for a group to be viewed and treated as subhuman due to the dark color of their skin.
When an artist such as Alicia Keys states she looks forward to her first trip to Israel, that “music is a universal language…meant to unify audiences in peace and love,” I believe she means it. I also believe she knows nothing of the extent to which life has been made a living hell for some of those for whom she plays. Which is not to say the treatment of blacks in Israel should solely be the concern of visiting performers of color; racism is everyone’s problem, regardless of their direct experience.
“I was naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for. I feel horrible and embarrassed to have participated in this mess. Ultimately we as artists are to be held accountable. 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.” — Mariah Carey (2008)
Despite all this, the question remains: Should musicians boycott Israel? I say no, though clearly not for the same reasons as Roger Cohen. Artists can be condemned for performing in the country or applauded for refusing, but for many a stop in Tel Aviv starts and ends as it does in most places: as an opportunity to entertain. That musicians’ global performances generate more conversation about atrocities than the atrocities themselves says as much about what catches the public eye as it does about how the world is portrayed and obscured from them. Our outrage should be directed squarely at the why.
I’ve thought often about the consequences if Beyoncé had played Tel Aviv, as (recently dispelled) rumors suggested. “If Madonna exemplified white female sexuality and independence coming into its own, Beyoncé shows her fans what it means for a black woman to put on the performance of a lifetime,” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah wrote for NPR. I’ve tried picturing how a Beyoncé performance in Israel could be anything but political. I’ve imagined her looking out at an ocean of faces that is virtually absent of blacks, knowing only a fraction of the injustices above, and shrugging.
With Israel closed off, the last hope for many African asylum seekers involves braving the treacherous Mediterranean crossing from Africa to Europe on crowded, unseaworthy vessels. Their outlook is grim, though blame can’t be placed on any on party. Similarly border-locked residents of Gaza are unlikely to fare better.
“There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act.” — Elvis Costello (2010)
It is difficult to parse under what circumstances, and for whom, presence indicates endorsement. There is no unified field theory for celebrity onus — at least not yet. In many ways, the digital era feels like one of misplaced signifiers, thrust upon a populace encouraged to view celebrities (and their sponsors) as extensions of themselves. Which of the famous gets a pass for ignorance, and which gets branded a dictator-endorsing monster? The United States is not without its own shameful border policies, detention centers, and perennial racism. Stevie Wonder’s refusal to perform in Florida after the delivery of the Trayvon Martin verdict — but willingness to visit the state — is a bona fide political act. The unanswered question is why isn’t the opposite? Or when?
Of late, there has been a notable backlash, particularly from the hip-hop community, due to the conflict in Gaza. Talib Kweli has bowed out of the Boom Box Festival in Hadera featuring Wyclef Jean. Both Waka Flocka Flame and French Montana have expressed sympathy for Palestinians on Twitter. Massive Attack has used recent headlining spots to broadcast support for Palestine. Rihanna tweeted and then immediately deleted “#freepalestine,” perhaps remembering her “super-duper special” Tel Aviv performance last year. Neil Young was forced to cancel his July 17 performance due to safety concerns, as were the Backstreet Boys, though both intend to reschedule their dates. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 indefinitely detained African asylum seekers are on a hunger strike. Whether Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey and Cee Lo Green will stick to their upcoming dates remains to be seen. If they are looking for a way to bow out without offending either side, however, now may be the time.