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.

Entertaining Qaddafi

Yesterday we remembered Sting‘s ignominious 2009 performance in Uzbekistan. Today we’re going to look at a few other megarich celebrities who sold out their ethics to the late, unlamented Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi for a mess of pottage.

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Muammar Qaddafi

First, let’s back to 2006, when Lionel Richie flew to Libya to perform for over 1000 officials. The price tag? A cool $5 million. The occasion? The 20th anniversary of U.S. air strikes in which dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s daughter Hana was one of 40 people killed. The event was billed as “Hana Peace Day.” “Hana would be happy tonight!” said Richie during his performance. “This night is a wonderful honor for Hana, whose name is linked to peace.”

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Lionel Richie (left) performing in Libya

Richie’s arrival, according to one account, “was greeted with the rapture befitting a visiting deity. His hands had been washed in rosewater, he’d been accorded the honorific ‘Brother.’” He told a press conference in Tripoli that his presence in Libya was a ‘historic event,’” and that he’d decided to take part in the event “because ‘music unites people.’” At the concert, he introduced his set by telling the audience he was honored to be in Libya, by thanking them for their “unbelievable” hospitality, and by sending out a message to the world that he recommended a visit to “this beautiful world in Libya.”

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Aisha Qaddafi

The Tripoli Post quoted at length from comments made by Qaddafi’s daughter Aisha at the beginning of the concert. After calling for a moment of silence for “our martyrs who were killed at the hands of the enemies of peace,” Aisha recalled that on the day of the U.S. bombing she’d awakened “to the sound of bombs and rockets and the cries of my brothers. My memory [will] never forget, nor history will ever erase it. But today we try to heal our wounds and shake hands with those who are here with us tonight. Yes for peace, no for destruction.”

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José Carreras

The concert, noted the Post, “ended with a group of children dressed as angels standing on a balcony of the house and waving candles as they sang along to a recording of the US humanitarian pop anthem ‘We are the world.’”

Richie wasn’t alone in accepting the Qaddafi regime’s invitation. Appearing on the same stage that night were Spanish opera singers José Carreras and Ofelia Sala.

The next year, the Qaddafis continued to shell out sizable sums for top-drawer showbiz figures. Singer Nelly Furtado got $1 million from the regime for putting on a private 45-minute show at a hotel in Italy; in 2011, after this gig was exposed in the media, she tweeted “I am going to donate the $.”

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Usher

In the same year, Wikileaks cables revealed that several other stars had raked in impressive sums for entertaining the Qaddafi family. Beyonce responded by announcing that she’d be contributing to Haitian earthquake relief the fee she’d earned for a New Year’s Day 2009 bash on St. Bart’s. Mariah Carey, who’d received $1 million to sing four songs for the Qaddafis around the same time, said she’d been “naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for” and pronounced herself “embarrassed to have participated in this mess.” Other names on the infamous list included Usher and 50 Cent – neither of whom publicly expressed remorse or promised to give away their ill-gotten gains.

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.