Our recent coverage of Nicki Minaj‘s nauseating performance for Angola’s thug-in-chief reminded us that there are other celebrities who belong to the same club but to whom we hadn’t yet accorded the attention we gave to Minaj.
Take Sting, aka Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner CBE. The British musician and songwriter, formerly of The Police, has won 16 Grammys, a Golden Globe, an Emmy, three Oscar nominations for Best Song, and is said to be worth several hundred million dollars. For many years, moreover, he’s presented himself as a world-class champion of humanitarian causes, associated himself with groups like Amnesty International, and made himself the face of such high-profile environmental causes as saving the Brazilian rain forests.
Nonetheless, in October 2009 he decided he couldn’t do without an additional million or two dollars. That’s the sum he accepted to perform in a show arranged by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Islam Karimov, the monster who runs Uzbekistan. If you don’t know about Karimov, here’s a fun fact, courtesy of Fox News: Karimov “burst upon the international scene in 2005 when his troops opened fire on protesters in the city of Andijan,” killing up to 5000 people, largely women and children.
Sting managed to keep his Uzbek deal from blowing up in the British media – but only for a few months. When Marina Hyde reported on it in the Guardian the following February – noting that Karimov had been accused of “boiling his enemies, slaughtering his poverty-stricken people when they protest, and conscripting armies of children for slave labour” – Sting felt obliged to issue a statement. Acknowledging that he’d given the concert, he added that “I believe [it was] sponsored by Unicef.” The Guardian checked out this claim; Unicef, it turned out, had had no connection whatsoever with the event.
Sting went on to say that, while “well aware of the Uzbek president’s appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment,” he’d chosen to accept Karimova’s invitation because “I have come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counter-productive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.” Ka-ching!
The Guardian had a good answer to Sting’s apologia: “Even if you accept Sting’s live performances as ‘ideas and art,’ you can’t really help but question this notion of ‘open commerce,’ considering the tickets for his concert cost more than 45 times the average monthly salary in Uzbekistan.” Craig Murray, former U.K. Ambassador to Uzbekistan, called Sting’s response “transparent bollocks,” adding:
He did not take a guitar and jam around the parks of Tashkent. He got paid over a million pounds to play an event specifically designed to glorify a barbarous regime. Is the man completely mad?…I agree with him that cultural isolation does not help. I am often asked about the morality of going to Uzbekistan, and I always answer – go, mix with ordinary people, tell them about other ways of life, avoid state owned establishments and official tours. What Sting did was the opposite. To invoke Unicef as a cover, s[i]t next to a woman who has made hundreds of millions from state forced child labour in the cotton fields, is pretty sick.
Writing in the New Yorker, Amy Davidson asked: “Does Sting really think that the President of Uzbekistan doesn’t care what or who his daughter spends two million dollars on?” Karimova, Davidson pointed out, is “not just some apolitical fashionista but is also a member of the government” and her father’s presumed successor, and thus “deeply, deeply implicated” in his evildoing.
In Mother Jones, Adam Weinstein weighed in: “I’m not going to pretend pop-music fame is easy, but here’s a handy maxim for future crooners to keep in mind: Don’t do private concerts for tyrannical rulers who reportedly boil people alive. Just sayin’.” Weinstein also pointed out that, Karimov’s brutality aside, Gulnara Karimova is “a piece of work in her own right,” who “reportedly runs several state-owned business concerns cobbled together from Western assets seized in Uzbekistan, which are occasionally backed by shadowy military contractors who might be involved in assassinations. She’s also listed as one of the 10 richest women in Switzerland. Let that sink in for a minute.”
Does it even take a minute? Clearly, Sting knew exactly what he was getting into – and didn’t care, not for a second.