Another grubby payday for Nicki Minaj?

Nicki Minaj

UPDATE: Not long after we posted this story, the New York Times reported that Minaj had cancelled her Saudi Arabia gig.

We last wrote about at length about Trinidad-born songstress Nicki Minaj in 2015, when she was paid $2 million for a single concert in the dictatorship of Angola. As we noted at the time, half of the people of Angola earn so little money that they’d have to work two million days – about 5500 years, which would take you back to the Bronze Age, the very beginning of writing systems, and the introduction of the wheel beyond Mesopotamia and environs – to bank $2 million. Although the Angolan government rakes in a great deal of money from selling oil, munch of that money ends up in the pockets of the ruling family and its cronies; meanwhile, one of the country’s dubious claims to fame is that it has the world’s highest mortality rate for children under the age of five.

Mariah Carey

To be sure, these grim facts didn’t keep Mariah Carey, who’s notorious for taking this kind of dirty money, for accepting a million-dollar fee in 2014 from Angolan strongman Jose Eduardo dos Santos. And although Carey got such bad press for that ethically tinged payday that she ended up apologizing profusely, it didn’t keep Minaj, two years later, from taking an even better deal. Even when human-rights groups challenged her beforehand about having agreed to do the concert in Angola, she went Biblical: “Every tongue that rises up against me in judgment,” Minaj tweeted, “shall be condemned.”

In fact she doubled down: after she reached Angola, she took an Instagram photo with the president’s daughter, Isabel, who, like other relatives of other dictators, has accumulated a fortune by, well, doing not much of anything except being related to the guy at the top. The illicit source of Isabella’s wealth was either lost on Nicki or a matter of indifference to her, because her take on the subject, as expressed in her distinctive manner on Instagram, was as follows: “she’s just the 8th richest woman in the world….GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!!”

Jose Eduardo dos Santos

Motivates her to do what? Become a head of state and fleece her subjects? This is, let it be noted, a woman who, given her sales figures – she’s had seven singles simultaneously on Billboard’s US Hot 100 – must be swimming in so much dough that $2 million can’t possibly be anything more to her than pocket change. Yet, for all the criticism, and despite her efforts to burnish her image by identifying with AIDS and children’ charities, Minaj took dos Santos’s cash.

Mohammed bin Salman

Afterwards, the criticism continued. But the raunchy rapper didn’t learn her lesson. A few weeks ago it was announced that Minaj, at the invitation of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, planned to perform on July 18 at the Jeddah World Fest alongside Steve Aoki, an American DJ, and Liam Payne, a former member of the British boyband One Direction. In a five-page open letter written in response to this news, the New York-based Human Rights Foundation explained to Minaj in some detail the human-rights violations committed by the Saudi regime and urged her to withdraw from the event as an act of solidarity with the Saudi people.

Will Minaj listen this time? Stay tuned.

Marcelo’s way

The Odebrecht Group is one of those conglomerates whose international reach and level of diversification make one’s head spin. It’s the largest construction outfit in Latin America; Braskem, one of its innumerable subsidiaries, is Latin America’s biggest petrochemical producer.

“They are more than a company,” a Brasilia-based consultant, Thiago de Aragão, told the Wall Street Journal recently; “they are a symbol of modern Brazil.”

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American Airlines Arena

Indeed. It’s Odebrecht that is responsible for Miami’s $213-million American Airlines Arena, where the Miami Heat play. It’s Odebrecht that is Angola’s top private employer, with over 24,000 employees in that country alone. At this moment, among many other projects, Odebrecht is building a highway in Ghana that will connect the capital, Accra, to remote eastern regions of the country; it’s expanding and adding bridges to a highway that links Guatemala’s main ports with the Mexican border; it’s upgrading a major airport in Mozambique; it’s constructing an elaborate hydroelectric facility in Portugal; it’s installing “the world’s deepest and most complex sewage pump station” in Abu Dhabi. In 2014 the group celebrated its seventh decade in business.

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Marcelo Odebrecht

On March 8, the firm marked another milestone. That was the day on which its CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, the grandson of the company’s founder, was sentenced to 19 years in prison after being convicted of paying $30 million in exchange for contracts and influence at Petrobras, the state-owned Brazilian oil firm that is at the center of the massive corruption probe known as Operation Car Wash. According to prosecutors, Marcelo’s firms “used Swiss bank accounts to launder nearly $270 million in bribes” between 2006 and 2014.

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Judge Sergio Moro

The presiding judge, Sergio Moro, said Marcelo Odebrecht was “directly involved” with this systematic bribery and money-laundering and “guided the work of others.” This intimate involvement was demonstrated by (among other things) incriminating messages stored on eight cellphones found at Marcelo’s home. While other construction executives nabbed in the probe have bought themselves shorter sentences by turning state’s evidence, Odebrecht refused to spill the beans, saying that he would punish his own kids more harshly for tattling than for cheating.

Marcelo Odebrecht in happier times, with Dilma Rousseff and Raúl Castro

Given the conglomerate’s dimensions and its importance to the Brazilian economy, the arrest and conviction of Marcelo – who took over the reins of the family firm in 2008, at age 40, and whose nickname is “Prince of the Contractors” – is of obvious significance. According to the Journal, Marcelo’s arrest in June of last year caused an economic earthquake, contributing to the onset of Brazil’s current recession. But what makes these developments even more momentousness is Marcelo’s intimate relationship with the Rousseff administration. When the president met with business leaders, Marcelo was invariably present. “Some of the other executives,” one São Paulo businessmen told the Journal, “were jealous that he always got invited and they had to fight for a seat at the table.”

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Lula

Marcelo is close not only to Dilma Rousseff but to her predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is himself being investigated for allegedly accepting illegal funds from Odebrecht.

One thing about having global reach is that when you get in trouble, the investigations, too, will have a global reach. Swiss and Portuguese authorities are now looking into charges of wrongdoing by Marcelo, and several other countries are considering similar probes.

Sting’s Uzbekistan sellout

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.

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Sting

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.  

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Sting with Gulnara Karimova

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! 

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Islam Karimov

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.

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Karimov with Putin

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. 

Musician Sting performs on the opening night of his Symphonicity Tour, which features the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio, in Vancouver, British Columbia June 2, 2010. REUTERS/Andy Clark (CANADA - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS

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.  

Comptes de Minaj

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Beautiful downtown Luanda

Angola. It’s the country that, as we saw yesterday, made Trinidadian-turned-American hip-hop superstar and fragrance mogul Nicki Minaj $2 million richer, thanks to a single late December concert performed under the exceedingly shady auspices of Angolan strongman José Eduardo dos Santos.

What are some of the important things to know about Angola?

First of all, Freedom House considers it unfree. Dos Santos, who’s been the country’s head of state since 1979, has spent his three-plus decades in power denying his subjects basic rights – and looking with indifference upon their grinding poverty – while accumulating a staggering personal fortune at their expense.

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Another glimpse of lovely Luanda

Yes, in recent years the country has undergone an impressive oil boom, which, as Michael Specter explained in the New Yorker last June, “has transformed a failed state into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.” Most of Angola’s population, however, has yet to experience the slightest improvement in quality of life as a result of this metamorphosis. Half of the country’s people make less than two dollars a day; the life expectancy is 52; only four out of ten Angolans have reliable electricity; corruption is ubiquitous, infecting every aspect, large and small, of Angolan life; critics of the regime risk being thrown into one of dos Santos’s nightmarishly violent, unsanitary, and overcrowded prisons; and – most shameful of all – the mortality rate for children under five is the world’s highest. 

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Mariah Carey with the first family of Angola, 2013

All of which is why Minaj’s announcement of her Angola concert brought quick responses from human-rights organizations. They weren’t happy.

For example, Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights group accused Minaj of “callously taking money from a dictator who’s been in power for nearly four decades and who has effectively and ruthlessly choked free expression, setting a horrible precedent not only for Angola, but for the entire region.” Smith observed that Mariah Carey had accepted a million-dollar fee from the same tyrant in December 2013 – an act that also drew such harsh criticism that Carey fell all over herself apologizing.

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Minaj’s panties selfie

In the days leading up to Minaj’s Angolan concert, the human-rights activists urged her to cancel. In open letters to the star, they gave her a crash course in Angolan perfidy. In particular, they drew her attention to the arrest, last June, of Angolan hiphop star Luaty Beirão and 16 of his countrymen. Their crime? Attending a meeting at which they discussed From Dictatorship to Democracy, a book about nonviolent resistance. Beirão has yet to be set free. Did Minaj, the human-rights community wondered aloud, really want to perform for – and cash a check from – people who’d put a fellow rapper behind bars for reading a book?

The activists made a strong case. But was Minaj fazed? Not in the slightest, apparently. On Twitter, without mentioning any of her critics by name, she warned: “Every tongue that rises up against me in judgment shall be condemned.” On Instagram, dropping the Biblical tone, she posted a photo of herself in a pair of too-tight panties she’d been given by her boyfriend and fellow hip-hop artist Meek Mill, commenting that she obviously needed a bigger size.

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Minaj on Instagram, December 20: “Oh hai, Angola. Ready for the show?”

And so our heroine jetted off to Luanda, where, as the New York Post reported, she again took to Instagram, posting several provocative “photos of her bejeweled behind” – her point, in the Post‘s not unreasonable view, apparently being “to rub it in” to the human-rights busybodies who’d tried to talk her out of increasing her fortune by yet another $2 million. The pictures went online not long before her performance in Luanda. “Oh hai [sic], Angola,” she wrote. “Ready for the show?” 

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With Isabella dos Santos

There were other Instagram photos, including one of Minaj with Isabella dos Santos, the president’s daughter, which the clueless chanteuse captioned as follows: “Oh no big deal…she’s just the 8th richest woman in the world. (At least that’s what I was told by someone b4 we took this photo) Lol. Yikes!!!!! GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!! S/O [shout-out] to any woman on a paper chase. Get your own!!!! Success is yours for the taking!!!!!” In short, even after the nature of the Angolan kleptocracy had been patiently explained to Minaj by human-rights organizations desperate to keep her from implicitly endorsing the dos Santos regime (as the Buzzfeed website noted afterward, Isabella’s name appears on Transparency International’s list of 11 symbolic cases worldwide of what it calls “grand corruption”), the hip-hop queen seemed not to grasp that this isn’t about “GIRL POWER” but about a dictator whose family steals blindly from his exploited, destitute subjects. 

So much, apparently, as far as Nicki Minaj is concerned, for human rights in Angola.

Nicki Minaj’s dirty payday

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Swank onstage in Chechnya

We’ve spent some time on this site pondering celebrities who’ve taken money to perform for – and thus help whitewash the images of – authoritarian tyrants. In 2001, for instance, Hilary Swank, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Seal took a six-figure fee to entertain Putin’s puppet leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. When Swank’s involvement in this disgraceful episode was exposed, she tried to shift responsibility to her PR firm, which promptly dropped her. She also promised to donate her paycheck to charity – but later refused to say exactly which charity, if any, she’d given it to.

Then there’s the night in 2010 when Vladimir Putin hosted Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, Mickey Rourke – and, last but not least, Sharon Stone, who according to the Independent is a regular at events promoting Putin, showing up each time for a fee somewhere in the ballpark of a quarter-million dollars. 

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Nicki Minaj

The latest example of this kind of shameless showbiz sellout: hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and raised in the South Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, the 33-year-old Minaj was the first female solo performer to have seven singles appear simultaneously on Billboard‘s Hot 100 in the United States; no female rapper has broken into the Hot 100 more times than she has. Her latest album, The Pinkprint, released in December 2014, went triple platinum. A fixture on the record charts and at the awards shows for the last five years or so, in 2015 she climbed to bigger heights than ever: at the American Music Awards she was named Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist; she walked away from the BET Awards with the trophy for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist; at the MTV Awards she won Best Hip-Hop Video, and at the MTV Europe Awards she took Best Hip-Hop.

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Minaj Barbie

In addition to the millions she’s raked in from her music, moreover, she’s pursued a highly lucrative career in merchandising and endorsement deals: there’s a Nicki Minaj Barbie doll, a Nicki Minaj brand of lipstick and lip gloss, a Nicki Minaj line of clothing, accessories, and housewares for K-mart, and several Nicki Minaj fragrances. She’s also been the face of Pepsi, Adidas, and a range of other products.

In short, this is a woman who, unless she is really bad with money, almost certainly has no cash-flow problems.

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Dos Santos with Fidel Castro, 2007

This is also a woman who has striven to polish her image, associating herself with AIDS charities, education projects, and arts funding. It’s all the more odd, then, that Minaj agreed to perform in Luanda, Angola, on December 19, in exchange for a reported $2 million fee. She announced her plans in an Instagram post only a few days before the engagement, explaining that she would be performing at a Christmas gala hosted by Unitel. And what’s Unitel? It’s a phone company controlled by none other than José Eduardo dos Santos, the autocrat who has run the country singlehandedly since 1979, and by his daughter Isabel. Dos Santos and his family, as it happens, have their fingers in a great many businesses in Angola, and are worth (as Carl Sagan might have put it) billions and billions – in a country where  half the people live on $2 a day.

It’s called corruption.

Human-rights activists were quick to blast Minaj for accepting the Angolan gig. And how did Minaj react? Tune in tomorrow.