Millions love her music, look up to her, indeed worship her not only as a musical artist but as an exemplary human being. But on December 15, in return for a hefty payout, Mariah Carey held two performances in Angola that were – as the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF) revealed four days later in a press release – sponsored by a “father-daughter kleptocracy that has amassed billions in ill-gotten wealth while the majority of Angola lives on less than $2 a day.”
One of the two performances was at a gala that was billed as a Red Cross fundraiser; the other, at a stadium concert sponsored by Unitel, a mobile phone company. In fact, as it happens, both the Angolan Red Cross and Unitel are run by Isabel dos Santos, daughter of Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos, “one of Africa’s chief human rights violators and most corrupt tyrants,” according to HRF director Thor Halvorssen. Dos Santos has executed political opponents, journalists, and activists; his daughter – thanks largely, critics say, to his government’s sky-high level of corruption – is their country’s only billionaire and Africa’s richest woman. “In their brutal three-decade rule,” charges HRF, “the dos Santos family has exploited oil and diamond wealth to build total control over all branches of the government, the military, and the courts.”
As I say, the Red Cross event was supposedly a fundraiser. It raised $65,000. The reported price tag for Carey’s performance: $1 million. Some fundraiser! During her visit, Carey posed for pictures with both the dictator and his daughter. “I am happy to be here in this room,” she said, “and I am honoured to share this show with the President of Angola.”
This wasn’t Carey’s first such disgrace. In 2008, she accepted a million bucks for entertaining the family of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. When that gig was exposed three years later, she begged for the public’s forgiveness, maintaining that she’d been unaware who her hosts were and assuring her fans that she’d learned a lesson: “We need to be more aware and take more responsibility….Ultimately, we as artists are to be held accountable.”
This time, however, there was no apology – far from it. In a phone conversation with Halvorssen, Carey’s manager, Jermaine Dupri (who’s also a singer-songwriter) was defiant, arrogantly dismissing HRF’s concerns. Carey has “no interest” in human rights, Dupri asserted. “She’s not involved in human rights matters….She is not sorry.” Later, confronted with these remarks by a New York Post reporter, Dupri denied having made them and accused Halvorssen of “trying to twist my words and make it seem like I don’t give a fuck about nothing.” But when the Post inquired whether Carey was “remorseful for performing for another dictator” after the Qaddafi embarrassment, Dupri “spat back ‘Why should she be?’” And when asked why Carey had accepted the Angolan paycheck after promising not to entertain another dictator, Dupri said: “I wasn’t around when that happened, and I can’t speak on that situation.”
What makes all this especially unsavory is that both Carey and Dupri have lustrous reputations as human-rights heroes. In 2008, the ACLU presented Dupri with its Bill of Rights Award. (The co-winner that year was Magic Johnson; other laureates have included Harry Belafonte and Oliver Stone.) What had Dupri done to deserve this honor? In addition to serving on the board of something called the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, he’d “worked to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, benefit the Hurricane Relief Fund and been a significant voice on the ‘Rap the Vote’ campaign.”
As for Carey, the Post noted that she “has promoted herself as a human rights advocate and has appeared at events for organizations like the UNICEF.” She’s also taken part in benefits for various charities, and donated the proceeds of a couple of recordings to worthy causes. Indeed, as I write this, Carey’s Wikipedia bio identifies her as “an American singer, songwriter, record producer, actress, and philanthropist.”
But given Carey’s big Angolan payday, and Dupri’s brisk dismissal of queries about it, it’s hard to see either of these artists’ supposedly philanthropic activities as anything but image-making – part of a calculated effort to polish their brands and enhance their bottom lines. This, alas, is precisely what some of our most vaunted celebrity “philanthropists” and “human-rights heroes” really are nowadays – people who do good deeds to get good press, and then do bad things to get big checks. HRF has done a fine job of monitoring and exposing these hypocrites, among them Kanye West ($3 million last summer from the president of Kazakhstan), Jennifer Lopez ($1.4 million in June from the president of Turkmenistan), and Hilary Swank ($1.5 million in 2011 from the president of Chechenya).
Why, one might ask, are Third World despots so eager to write such big checks to these stars? Is dos Santos really that desperate to meet Mariah Carey? I doubt it. What he’s buying is her name – and, more to the point, her reputation. What makes a celeb like Carey so valuable to a tyrant like dos Santos is that she has untold millions of fans who not only admire her work but worship her as a human being and follow her every move on social-networking sites like Twitter. This is what these autocrats are buying: the chance to bask in the glow of stars who are products of first-rate PR, in the hope that some measure of those celebrities’ benign images will rub off on them. And Carey has got to know this. She’s got to know that when she auctions herself off to a man like dos Santos, she’s taking money he’s bled from his subjects in exchange for a cut of the good will she’s won from her fans. In doing so, she’s betraying those fans – and spitting on every poor soul that dos Santos has ever exploited, tortured, or murdered.
It won’t wash to argue that someone like Carey is an innocent victim of her own celebrity. Plenty of other famous folk take the time to notice the world around them and use their fame to help others, making ample, and real, gifts of their time and of themselves. (Gary Sinise comes to mind.) No, the showbiz VIPs who end up in moral bubbles do so because they’ve chosen to. Offered the option of leaving the shore of reality far behind, they grasp it, setting sail on an ocean of PR, their images buoyed by waves of flattering promotional copy. Give a benefit concert now and then, and Wikipedia will call you a philanthropist.
“I wasn’t around when that happened, and I can’t speak on that situation”: Dupri’s answer to the Post‘s question about Qaddafi only points up that in these matters, Carey is now, and was then, merely her handlers’ instrument. Whoever was running her career at the time of the Qaddafi debacle decided that a groveling apology was the way to go; Dupri has a different management philosophy. Which is to say that Carey’s heartfelt-sounding Qaddafi mea culpa was pure PR, dictated by some publicist. And now?
One has the impression that she’s sailed so far out on that ocean of PR that she no longer stands for anything – that she has no concept of individual moral responsibility, and doesn’t even feel any compulsion to try to provide an ethical rationale for her actions. At this point, her entire relationship with the outside world is carefully engineered by her “people” – who, presumably, accepted the Angola offer after cynically calculating that the criticism, if any, would evaporate quickly.
And they seem to have calculated correctly. HRF press-released Carey’s Angola jobs on December 19, and you’d think it was months ago: in the last few days Carey has been all over the international news media, and virtually none of the coverage has even mentioned Angola. No, the stories have been about such earthshaking topics as her favorite Christmas songs, her fashion sense, the making of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” how Carey got her wish this year for a white Christmas in Aspen, and how she walked her dog in Aspen the other day while wearing a bikini. And, last but not least, her “biggest career regret.” No, not the concerts for Qaddafi and dos Santos. “[U]nsurprisingly,” reported MTV News, Carey’s “biggest career regret” is “her widely-panned 2001 movie Glitter.”
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