As he accepted an Oscar for Best Original Song with fellow musician Common last weekend, John Legend made headlines with a powerful speech. "We say that 'Selma' is now because the struggle for justice is now," Legend began, later adding that there were "more black men under correctional control today than were in slavery."
The speech stirred a reaction because it was provocative, succinct, and, sadly, true. Yet fans of Legend's music and political courage were dismayed to discover that just over a week after he appeared at the Oscars, he would be performing in a country with a disastrous human rights record.
Legend is due to perform on Monday at Bahrain's Spring of Culture festival, organized by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities. He is apparently a big draw in the Persian Gulf state, with al-Bawaba reporting that tickets costing as much as $130 sold out in hours.
Whatever you think of situation in the United States, few would argue that Bahrain is any better. Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University and the head of GWU's Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science (plus a self-proclaimed fan of Legend), explained the problems with Legend's appearance in a open letter:
In March 2011, Bahrain carried out an astonishingly brutal crackdown on a peaceful resistance movement. Protestors inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions took to the streets, occupying Manama's Pearl Roundabout and demanding constitutional reforms. As documented in brutal detail by the Bahrain Independent Commision of Inquiry, Bahrain's regime responded with a violent crackdown, including the forceful dispersion of protestors and a sweeping campaign of arrests and torture. You would find the images of citizens facing off against armed police amidst clouds of tear gas very familiar. This repression had a sectarian dimension, with Shi'ite citizens singled out and punished for their religious identity. Over the last year, prominent non-violent activists such as Nabeel Rajab were imprisoned for their dissent. The Human Rights Watch 2015 World Report, released just a few weeks ago, describes Bahrain's situation as "unchecked repression" in which there has been no accountability for those rampant human rights abuses.
Pointing to an article Legend wrote for Billboard last year that spoke about how he felt as post-Ferguson protests spread across the country, Lynch asked Legend to put those thoughts into Bahrain's political context. "Bahraini lives have been taken by the police with impunity as well, and Bahraini lives do matter," Lynch wrote. "I hope that you will think deeply about the implications of performing in a country like today's Bahrain, where the violence of an unaccountable police against peaceful protestors mirrors everything against which you have spoken out at home."
Lynch knows what he is talking about, and his letter -- powerful like Legend's speech -- was soon picked up by ThinkProgress and the New York Times' Nick Kristoff. Legend in turn gave a comment to the Independent, explaining that he would not cancel the concert but was aware of the issues being raised:
Some have recently suggested that, due to documented human rights abuses by the government of Bahrain, I should cancel my upcoming concert there. After consulting with human rights experts, I decided to keep my commitment to perform for the people of Bahrain, many of whom I am proud to call my fans, during their annual festival.
In his statement, Legend explained that he didn't think boycotts were always the solution and said he hopes to engage with Bahrainis, as part of his "mission in life is to spread love and joy to people all over the world."
Western stars performing for authoritarian regimes is nothing new: both Mariah Carey and Beyoncé received large payments for performing for Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, for example (both later apologized and gave money to charity). In 2012, Kim Kardashian flew to Bahrain on a stupidly upbeat and highly promoted publicity tour that sparked a ton of criticism.
— Lucie Morillon (@luciemorillon) December 1, 2012
In contrast, Legend's response to his critics has been pretty measured and responsible -- it's certainly better than the absurd comments from Erykah Badu after criticism of her performance for Swaziland's King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch. Legend does seem to be seriously considering the implications of performing in an authoritarian nation, and his comments about the logic of boycotts are fair.
What happens next is crucial, however. "If he goes, performs and does nothing but this statement, then it's Kardashian-redux," Lynch told WorldViews, adding that such an outcome would be "terrible." On the other hand, Lynch said, "if he goes, meets with Shia fans, says something on stage about human rights, then it could be something good."
Mohamed Hassan, a Bahraini blogger who fled the country last year, published his own open letter to Legend on Friday, saying he was glad Legend would perform.
"I hope that you enjoy your time in Bahrain, but I hope that when you go there that you will visit my birthplace, the highly 'problematic' area of Sitra," Hassan wrote at Global Voices, referring to a tiny island at the center of recent protests. "And just as you performed in Selma, Alabama, I wish you could have the chance to inspire the people of my island to be patient for their dreams to come true." Hassan concludes that there was little chance Legend would get a chance to visit Sitra, however.
The good news is that the controversy over Legend's visit is bringing Bahrain back into the spotlight: There had been some hopeful signs of reform in Bahrain after the protests that rocked the country in 2011, but things soon took a turn for the worse.
"If nothing else, Bahrain's repression is already back in the news for the first time in a while, so that's good," Lynch said, but he added that Legend could still do much, much more.