Erykah Badu is a critically acclaimed hip-hop and soul artist from Texas. She set up her own charity in 2003 and has been involved in a number of other philanthropic ventures. The biography on her Facebook page describes her as a "community activist" and a "conscious spirit."
Meanwhile, King Mswati III of Swaziland is Africa's last absolute monarch. Since his reign began in 1986, he has become notorious for his polygyny (he married his 15th wife last year) and love of luxury (his favorite cars are said to be a $625,000 Rolls Royce, a $500,000 Maybach).
Mswati's lifestyle is at odds with the rest of Swaziland. The United Nations says 63 percent of his country subside on less than $1.25 a day, and allegations of torture and other human rights abuses are widespread.
Badu and Mswati don't seem to have much in common. However, according to the Swazi Observer, Badu attended Mswati's 46th birthday party last week, where she sang "Happy Birthday" for the absolute monarch, dedicating her first song to the "sons of Kings."
Reportedly brought as a guest of jeweler Jacob Arabo, the newspaper described how Badu gave the king a gift of a $100 note and "a special stone which she said would uplift His Majesty’s spirits when he was feeling down."
E-mails to Badu's management have not been answered at the time of writing, and it remains unclear if she was paid for her performance. However, in recent years a number of U.S. pop stars have received criticism for large cash sums they've received when performing for undemocratic leaders: Mariah Carey and Beyoncé received huge payments of money for performing for Muammar Qaddafi, for example, although both later apologized and gave money to charity.
On Twitter, Badu appears to be trying to respond to criticism, tweeting that she has "no political affiliation to anything besides my AFRO" and disputing a tweet from a Swaziland parody account that said she was lobbying other U.S. artists to come to Swaziland.
For some critics, any money exchanged may be irrelevant. In an e-mail to The Washington Post, Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said that it was "highly unfortunate that someone of Erykah Badu's international stature would use her star power for inherently reprehensible reasons – namely, to provide legitimacy, and, in a sense, endorse a brutal dictator who both manages and directs every facet of Africa's last absolute monarchy."
"While Ms. Badu sang 'Happy Birthday' to King Mswati, a human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu sat in prison, merely for questioning the independence of Swaziland’s severely compromised judicial system," Smith continued. "These are but the latest instances in Swaziland of a long-running campaign to suppress the basic right to freedom of expression."
We have reached out to Badu's management for comment and will update if they respond.
UPDATE 4/29/2014: In a later tweet, Badu indicated that she was not paid.