Why are black pop stars performing at the behest of dictators?

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“Eccentric.” “Corrupt.” “Evil.” “Murderer.”

There are a lot of words that have been used to describe Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gadhafi and members of his family. Thus far, “Beyoncé fan” hasn’t generally been at the top of that list.

That’s all changing now, thanks to reports that the Gadhafi family has spent major amounts of money — we’re talking six figures — on lush and star-studded New Year’s Eve parties featuring private concerts by American pop stars like Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Usher.

Click here to view a slideshow of music stars who are performing for celebrities

Rumor has it that Muammar’s youngest son Hannibal, who has been involved in a number of violent incidents in recent years, including physically abusing his wife and breaking her nose, paid Beyoncé a cool $2 million for her private performance. One year earlier, Mariah Carey reportedly received a $1 million paycheck for the same gig hosted by Hannibal’s brother Moatessem.

These concerts are just the beginning of a long list of the Gadhafi family’s luxury expenses, many of which are detailed in a 2010 Wikileaks cable.

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Now, the man who Ronald Reagan once famously called the “mad dog of the Middle East” and who is responsible for brutally suppressing and killing peaceful protesters in recent weeks with tanks, helicopters and warplanes has been linked both socially and financially to some of our most beloved black superstar entertainers.

In order to wrap your head around the incredible and absurdly inappropriate nature of these transactions, I invite you to try to imagine this scene: the rich, privileged heirs to billions of dollars in wealth of a corrupt dictator’s oil fortune, sitting back to admire the shimmies and shakes of Beyoncé’s famous dance moves, nodding their heads along with the music, grinning wildly in admiration of her signature sass, and perhaps even losing themselves for a moment in the sheer diva-ness of it all, until finally, realizing they never really had a choice in the matter, leaping to their feet, giving in to the gyrations of their bodies, and waving their waists wildly to the “Bootylicious” beat.

I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly, indeed.

One would think Beyoncé’s earnest and impassioned taunts regarding what one should have done what if one had truly “liked it” (Am I right “Single Ladies”?!) might lose some oomph when delivered to a roomful of power-hungry human rights violators who could doubtlessly afford to put countless rings on it, if they so desired. Alas, it seems the main message of the song still resonated strongly with the Gadhafi brothers.
It’s tempting to poke fun at the tragic irony inherent to the idea of violent, powerful men enjoying cheery, vivacious pop music. But all jokes aside, one has to wonder: what were these performers thinking when they accepted these gigs? Do stars like Usher, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé consider themselves culpable for the crimes of their employers by accepting their cash? And perhaps more to the point, and especially given recent events, should we, as music fans, concerned U.S. citizens, and consumers of media, hold them responsible?

Of course, Beyoncé, Mariah, and Usher aren’t the first performers who have been criticized for performing in countries where human rights abuses have occurred.

Some may remember the famous “Sun City” protests of the 1980s, when a group of artists came together to protest performances at a resort in South Africa that catered to wealthy white tourists in Apartheid South Africa. Many famous entertainers had performed at the resort, despite its racist policy, until “Little Steven” Van Zandt put together a protest music project and invited the contributions of over 50 artists including Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Run-DMC, Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Bono, Melle Mel, Keith Richards, Jackson Browne, and George Clinton. The artists on the record vowed never to perform at Sun City so long as it remained segregated, because to do so would in their minds be tantamount to an acceptance of apartheid.

The project raised over $1 million dollars for anti-Apartheid efforts, but perhaps its most valuable contribution could be found in the act of rallying major recording stars to support an explicitly political cause, thus raising awareness about the power of artists to influence political discourse on highly charged issues.

Today, with stakes that feel even higher, we must continue to hold our artists to a high moral standard. After all, the extravagance and corruption of Gadhafi and his family are well known. And while these performances may have taken place prior to the current uprising, Beyoncé and her cohorts should have known better. Muammar Gadhafi has been implicated in at least two acts of terrorism, including the bombing of a Berlin night club that American soldiers were known to frequent and the infamous Lockerbie bombing that killed nearly 300 people. And Libya has consistently been criticized by human rights groups for its oppressive tactics.

And at a time when Libya’s own deputy Ambassador to the United Nations has called Qadhafi’s actions in the country tantamount to “genocide”, one could argue that his ties to pop stars may seem beside the point. But importantly, in addition to allowing us further scrutiny of our stars’ moral compasses, the Wikileaks cable provides us with an occasion to acknowledge the wide-reaching effects of pop sensations on us regular folks, giving us the opportunity to consider questions about the responsibility of everyone who engages, supports, or does business with the declining dictator, not just pop stars. This includes governments and citizens of countries like Italy and America that trade oil with the nation or have a vested interest in its future.

There’s no doubt that Beyoncé, Mariah, Usher, and others owe it to the people of Libya to step up, acknowledge their ties to the Gadhafi family, and perhaps donate some of the money they made during their private concerts to relief efforts in Libya. But Qadhafi’s recent defiant and deadly attempts at maintaining fading power over a revolting nation should raise serious moral and ethical questions for each of us, as citizens of the United States and people of color, not just those of us with enough star power to woo the Gadhafi heirs with our pop sensibilities.