John Legend Responds to Criticism Over Bahrain Gig Amid Human Rights Concerns

March 2, 2015

By Jamie Merrill via Independent

John Legend today responded to accusations of hypocrisy from human right campaigners over his decision to perform at a state-backed event in Bahrain next week, by saying his “mission in life is to spread love and joy to people all over the world.”

The Grammy Award-winning singer, who won an Oscar on Sunday for Best Original Song for “Glory” from the film Selma, is set to perform on Monday at the country’s Spring of Culture festival in Arad Fort, which is organised and part funded by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, the country’s ministry of culture.

However, campaigners in the country have attacked the singer for agreeing to perform at a government-backed event in a country where the Sunni-dominated regime has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including the use of excessive force against protesters, extra judicial killings, arbitrary detention and torture.

Mr Legend’s performance – tickets have already sold out – comes after he spoke out for human rights at the most politically charged Academy Awards in recent memory on Sunday night.

Accepting his award for his contribution to Selma, which depicts Dr Martin Luther King’s momentous battle to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Mr Legend quoted Nina Simone, saying that “it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”

His speech also touched on several social justice issues, including the United States’ high incarceration rates, sparking fierce political debate. However the outspoken musician now faces charges of hypocrisy after Bahraini campaigners said he was being used to “burnish” the “bloodied reputation” of the regime.

Dr Ala’a al-Shehabi, a prominent human rights activist from Bahrain Watch, said: “Bahrainis have been enduring a civil rights struggle for decades. Having John Legend sing in Bahrain should be in honour of the people who have lost life and limb in this struggle. Not in honour of the regime that wants to use him to burnish its bloodied reputation.”

She added: “Bahrain is facing a human rights calamity given its small size and small population…  Scores of ageing and peaceful political leaders are behind bars. If Martin Luther King was Bahraini today, he’d be serving a long prison sentence, for all of the island’s leaders are in prison, on trial or in exile.

This call for Mr Legend to reconsider the performance was echoed by Sayed Yousif Almuhafdah, the vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. He said: “I’d like to tell John Legend that my people, the people of Bahrain, are fighting the same injustice and discrimination African Americans suffered in the United States. They’re living under a dictatorship that has stripped them from their most basic human rights, democracy, justice, and freedom of speech. Bahrainis democracy campaigners are being attacked on daily basis, arrested, tortured, and unjustly detained. The people of Bahrain are paying their lives as a price for their freedom.”

Regarding the Bahrain performance, Mr Legend argued today that “the solution to every human rights concern is not always to boycott.”

He went on to tell The Independent that his decision came after he consulted with human rights experts.

“Often, the best way to drive progress is to show up and participate in the conversation.

“Part of my mission in life is to spread love and joy to people all over the world. I intend to do just that in Bahrain, regardless of my disagreements with some of their governments’ policies and actions,” he said.

Mr Legend’s performance will also embarrass Amnesty International after he lent his name to a high-profile freedom of expression campaign by the charity in November.

At the time the singer said he was “proud” to support the “Write for Rights” campaign which seeks to empower people “to write, tweet and speak out on human rights abuses.”

His performance in Bahrain on Monday will be doubly embarrassing for Amnesty International after it issued a damming report this week on human rights violations in the country. The report found that Sunni-dominated government “continued to stifle and punish dissent” in the wake of political unrest in the country in 2011 when troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia help the it smash protestors who were calling to end the domination of the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty, which has controlled the country for more than 200 years.

This isn’t the first time that campaigners in the country have complained of Hollywood hypocrisy though; in 2012 they condemned a visit to the country by Kim Kardashian for creating “positive publicity” for a regime that carried out an “unspeakably brutal crackdown”. The country also faced what Amnesty International called a “human rights crisis” in 2012 when protestors targeted the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Since the Arab Spring tensions remain high in the country, where a sectarian divide is growing and there is a growing gap between the Sunni minority government and the Island’s Shia majority. Recently Shia protestors have also been accused of violence, and according to the Associated Press, the largely Shia areas outside the capital regularly see young activist attack police with rocks and gasoline bombs.

This week’s Amnesty International report also found the government continued to “curtail freedoms of expression, association and assembly” and that security forces in the country used “excessive force to disperse protests” killing at least two people.

It said: “Opposition activists sentenced after unfair trials in previous years continued to be held, including prisoners of conscience. Torture of detainees continued and a climate of impunity prevailed.”

Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs Allan Hogarth said that there was “no question that Bahrain has an awful human rights record” but that body doesn’t call for “boycotts of countries” and doesn’t “tell artists which countries they should or shouldn’t visit”.

He added: “John Legend has been a strong advocate for human rights, but where he plays concerts is, at the end of the day, a matter for him.”

The controversy over the concert came as Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, had new charges brought against him by the Bahraini government, on what protesters say are politically motivated charges of insulting government ministries.

He told The Independent: “You cannot criticise the government here without being tried for insulting this or that ministry, or insulting the King. Bahrain is not a country which supports free expression, and nothing they do can hide that fact.”

John Legend’s statement in full:

“Some have recently suggested that, due to documented human rights abuses by the government of Bahrain, I should cancel my upcoming concert there.  After consulting with human rights experts, I decided to keep my commitment to perform for the people of Bahrain, many of whom I am proud to call my fans, during their annual festival.

“I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about human rights, civil rights and other issues of justice, both in the United States and abroad. The solution to every human rights concern is not always to boycott.  Most of the time I will choose to engage with the people of the country rather than ignore or abandon my commitments to perform for them. 

“Often, the best way to drive progress is to show up and participate in the conversation. As we move this work forward, I hope to meet the many people who are peacefully struggling for freedom, justice and accountability, regardless of what country they live in, and tell them directly that I stand with them. Part of my mission in life is to spread love and joy to people all over the world.  I intend to do just that in Bahrain, regardless of my disagreements with some of their governments’ policies and actions.”

Photo: Judy Glova