The rapper turned down an invitation to play in the kingdom, protesting its oppression of women, LGBT people, and journalists.
On a recent summer day, some 40,000 young partiers danced wildly into the night to the sounds of hip-hop, techno, and R&B. This was not Coachella or a European mega-festival, but Jeddah World Fest, a one-night only festival held on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia.
A music festival of this kind marks an unprecedented opening of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative social restraints, but there was one conspicuous absence: Nicki Minaj. The Trinidadian-American rapper cancelled her planned appearance a week before the show, in protest of the country’s persistent human rights abuses.
I want nothing more than to bring my show to fans in Saudi Arabia, [but] after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.
After heavy pressure from activists and human rights groups, Minaj released a statement, saying, “I want nothing more than to bring my show to fans in Saudi Arabia, [but] after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.” While her Saudi fans lamented their loss, human rights advocates praised her decision.
This tussle is a play in the tug-of-war for Saudi Arabia’s reputation. Under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the kingdom has sought to tailor its public image into one of reform, touting its moves made toward gender equality and social liberties. But progress has come in fine stitches rather than drastic cuts. Rampant repression remains in place, with continued detention of political activists and a series of executions (one involving a crucifixion) designed to curb free expression.
After a long struggle, Saudi women gained the right to drive in June 2018, but many of the activists who pushed this reform are still in detention, more than a year later, and have reportedly been tortured. While public spaces like cafes and universities have become more gender-mixed and women can now attend games in major sports stadiums, gender segregation and inequality persists in profound ways. Women remain legal dependents of their husbands or male relatives under the guardianship system, requiring their permission to work and, up til now under a new law announced August 3, travel. (The new law will lift the restriction for adult women over 21.) Homosexuality can be punished by imprisonment or death.
Political dissent is silenced immediately, often brutally. Saudi Arabia lurched into the spotlight in late 2018, after MbS-linked agents strangled and dismembered the U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had criticized the regime. Some world leaders and rights activists condemned the kingdom, but others, like U.S. President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May, avoided confronting their ally and business partner.
Bread and Circuses
Though wary of giving so much that it compromises their grip on power, Saudi Arabia’s leaders are giving slack in bits and pieces, particularly when it comes to entertainment. A huge international music event like Jeddah World Fest, where men and women can dance freely to hip-hop and R&B would have been unthinkable several years ago, when religious police would have shut down any loud music.
Yet since 2017, a strange smattering of artists has played in the kingdom, including Andrea Bocelli, Yanni, the Black Eyed Peas, and Enrique Iglesias. Nicki Minaj’s mere invitation to Jeddah was surprising, as the rapper’s lyrics are often x-rated, her outfits revealing, and her attitude free-wheeling.
New entertainment options are mostly for the sake of profit, though. Seeking to wean itself off of fossil fuel profits, Saudi Arabia is investing in tourism. While hardly popular with tourists, it is a massive destination for pilgrims: 19 million Muslims visit annually to perform the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.The kingdom’s coffers fatten on Hajj and Umrah dollars (around $12 billion annually), and these numbers are expected to multiply.
Saudi Arabia is also courting non-religious tourism, investing billions in entertainment and Red Sea resorts, hoping to reach 23.3 million tourists annually by 2030. Jeddah World Festival attendees were given tourist visas three minutes after buying their tickets, in a new, incentivizing immigration reform. The entertainment scheme includes trying to attract its citizens — whose buying power is huge — to spend more money locally.
Minaj and the Festival
The Jeddah World Festival, organized by the state-run Jeddah Season, also gave the kingdom a chance to promote its facade of reform.
The Jeddah World Festival, organized by the state-run Jeddah Season, also gave the kingdom a chance to promote its facade of reform. Thousands flocked to Jeddah in mid-July to dance to music from DJ Steve Aoki, rapper Tyga, and pop singer Liam Payne. A post-concert teaser video shows an extravagant stage, hi-tech lighting schemes, and joyous, dancing youth, including many women without veils. A vast Saudi flag glowed on huge, tessellated LED screens behind a jumping Steve Aoki, acting like it’s been there before.
Nicki Minaj would have headlined that concert had she not understood and acknowledged its political implications. Activists such as the Human Rights Foundation had publicly called on her to back out, equating performing for a Saudi paycheck with taking blood money. They pointed out rights abuses against women, LGBT people, and minority communities, as well as the grinding, humanitarian disaster of the Yemen war, funded and perpetrated largely by Saudi Arabia.
After Minaj backed out, the Foundation’s president, Thor Halvorssen, praised her “inspiring and thoughtful decision to reject the Saudi regime’s transparent attempt at using her for a public relations stunt.”
Soon after making her statement, Minaj reached out on Instagram, asking her Saudi fans to teach her about what their lives are like in the kingdom.
Halvorssen stated that Minaj’s “moral stance differs from celebrity performers like J-Lo and Mariah Carey, who in the past have chosen to line their pockets with millions of dollars and stand with dictatorial governments.” (Minaj, however, did play a 2015 concert in Angola, paid for by its oppressive, authoritarian state.)
This question — are artists responsible for the actions or income streams of their patrons? — goes far beyond Saudi Arabia. Jennifer Lopez once sang “Happy Birthday” to the dictator of Turkmenistan and Sting took home $2 million to perform for the authoritarian Uzbek regime. Beyoncé performed at a New Year’s party thrown by Muammar Gadhafi’s son, while Lionel Ritchie and Mariah Carey played for Gadhafi himself. (Though not patronage, the former basketball star Dennis Rodman has become a “good friend” of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, in perhaps the most bizarre bromance in international politics.)
All of these artists were compensated in the millions, and most claimed ignorance of their clients’ crimes, or even ignorance of who was paying the bill. Many reportedly donated their earnings to charity after learning of their indiscretions. Sting, however, defended his choice, claiming cultural boycotts only further isolate such states. After Mariah Carey became the first Western female artist to play in Saudi Arabia this year, she justified it as a symbol for women’s rights.
The argument in Minaj’s case is that accepting the invitation would be akin to working as a paid PR agent for Saudi Arabia, allowing it to paint over its human rights abuses with images of liberal reform.
The argument in Minaj’s case is that accepting the invitation would be akin to working as a paid PR agent for Saudi Arabia, allowing it to paint over its human rights abuses with images of liberal reform. For such a high profile artist, saying no would be a very public protest.
On similar lines, a slew of musicians refused requests to perform at President Trump’s inauguration, declaring their abhorrence of his views and policies.
Shortly before Minaj backed out, political commentator Wajahat Ali insisted on CNN that artists who accept invitations to play in Saudi Arabia ought to speak the names of Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi women tortured for their driving-rights activism (he named Loujain al-Hathloul in particular). The pressure on artists to protest could also apply to businesspeople who profit from chummy relations with the kingdom, but who fly under the radar.
Backing out from the concert shorted Minaj’s Saudi fans, who are generally not responsible for the government’s actions, but it sent a strong message. Nonetheless, after Minaj rejected the offer, she was almost immediately replaced by the singer Janet Jackson and rappers Future and 50 Cent. The latter gleefully posted a picture of himself sitting beneath a huge portrait of Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia.