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Singing for Dictators: When is a Private Performance Unethical?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

In 2007, singer Nelly Furtado collected a cool $1 million for crooning at a private function for family members of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Last week, with the lunatic Gaddafi making daily headlines for brutally repressing his own people and with Obama finally condemning him, Furtado no doubt felt it best to publicly distance herself from the Libyan megalomaniac, and she donated the whopping fee to charity.


In the immediate wake of Furtado’s self-imposed penance, megastar Beyoncé announced that she too has washed her hands of the $1 million she earned while strutting her bootylicious stuff for the Gaddafis at a 2009 party in St. Barts. Her publicist claims that the singer quietly donated the money over a year ago for earthquake relief in Haiti, after learning of the Gaddafis’ involvement. I take her at her word, but considering the timing of the announcement, it’s tempting to wonder if Beyoncé isn’t simply hastily covering her tracks to avoid embarrassment.

In any case, Mariah Carey, Usher, Lionel Richie and apparently more artists also performed for Gaddafi and/or his sons in recent years, but have not yet offered to divest themselves of the massive fees they received (although Carey now has announced that she “feels horrible and embarrassed” and plans to donate royalties from an upcoming song). Some in the entertainment biz are saying they shouldn’t even have to; Randy Phillips, the CEO of AEG Live, says giving up the tainted megabucks from the Gaddafi gigs sends the wrong message: it would be “as if they were admitting to doing something wrong.”

Except that they were doing something wrong. It is quite simply willful blindness to claim that there is no moral dimension in the choice to perform privately for a monster like Gaddafi, and in being paid exorbitantly from funds no doubt stolen from his own people, or misappropriated from foreign aid or dirty deals. What sends the wrong message, to paraphrase Phillips, is when obscenely wealthy superstars like Lionel Richie, who certainly don’t need the money, don’t take a public and moral stand against the enemies of America.


Dennis Arfa, president of Artists Group International, might acknowledge that point but still reaches for excuses. Referring to criticism of past private performances, he says, “You can't use today's current events to say what you should or shouldn't have done six months ago. That's not a fair rule.”

Today’s current events? Six months ago? It’s not as if Gaddafi became reprehensible only yesterday. “The mad dog of the Middle East,” as Ronald Reagan once called him, has been in power since 1969, and there has never been any doubt that Gaddafi has spent those decades funding, facilitating, instigating, and personally directing international terrorism – including, according to a recent claim from the Libyan Justice Minister, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. It’s hard to believe that any American performer who has ever accepted a check from Gaddafi or his family can plead ignorance of his monstrous evil.

In all fairness however, megastars often live in warm and fuzzy cocoons of political ignorance, tended by handlers who have a vested interest in keeping them clueless and the money flowing. Which is why Furtado, Beyoncé and Carey, claiming ignorance and subsequently donating the ill-gotten gains, have earned a measure of redemption.


Randy Phillips claims that if artists were asked to perform for Gaddafi and crew today, “the answer would obviously be a resounding 'No way!'” Unfortunately, too many prominent figures in the biz would say “No way!” not because it’s unconscionable, but because such a performance would simply be bad press.

And who’s to say what constitutes monstrous evil anyway? Many stars like directors Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, and actors Sean Penn and Danny Glover, count anti-American dictators among their close friends, and progressives went apoplectic when Elton John “betrayed” them by performing recently at the wedding of the satanic Rush Limbaugh. So “Which private shows are unethical?” the industry rag The Hollywood Reporter recently wondered. Where to draw the line?

Well, to lay it out for those in the entertainment biz whose value system has been sucked dry of moral clarity, or who never had any in the first place: no artist should perform for enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic, and supporters of worldwide terrorism (whether you agree or disagree with Rush, he isn’t stoking international terrorism or trying to bring down Western civilization). Should artists have the right to accept private gigs from unsavory figures, even openly hostile anti-Americans? Of course. It should be their choice – and the price for accepting those gigs should be to face public denunciation and shame.


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