It may be difficult for some to understand the impact that a pop icon has on social and political events, but these cultural figures possess enormous psychological sway in the minds of millions. Their actions make a difference. So it can be quite jarring when one of those icons goes against the justified demands of an entire people, especially when they have been oppressed and persecuted for decades.
This May Madonna is set to perform two songs at Eurovision in Tel Aviv. She will reach an estimated 180 million viewers. She has moneyed backing too. Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams has pledged to pay $1 million dollars for her performance at Eurovision. And she will simultaneously flip the bird to millions of Palestinians who languish under a brutal system of colonial oppression, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Madonna is no stranger to this controversy. In 2012 she launched her MDNA tour in Tel Aviv against the urging of BDS activists.
There is a dark legacy of pop icons who play in places where there is rampant oppression or injustice. In the 1980s scores of artists played Sun City, a resort in the Bantustan state of Bophuthatswana. A state with limited autonomy created by the racist regime of apartheid South Africa in order to forcibly displace Black South Africans from their lands. Dolly Parton, Elton John, Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli were among the big headliners there and reportedly received millions for their performances. In 2009, Sting reportedly got £1 million playing for Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the notorious repressive leader of Uzbekistan. He was unrepentant about that gig.
In 2015 Nicki Minaj played for Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the repressive president of Angola who has been widely associated with human rights abuses and corruption. But Minaj wasn’t fazed by criticism. In fact, she laughed it off and inadvertently exposed the real reason these artists play in such venues in the first place. On Instagram she posted a photo of her and the daughter of dos Santos saying “Oh no big deal… she’s just the 8thrichest woman in the world…. GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!!”
And therein lies the answer. Pop artists are products of an industry that is obsessed with wealth accumulation and privilege. In fact, they celebrate it as a virtue and promote the fallacy that wealth equates with liberation movements like feminism, personal success and agency. It is a fallacy that “motivates”them, as Minaj revealed. Indeed, the music industry, especially under late stage capitalism, churns out a banal formula for success, one deeply associated with wealth and power, uninterested in social, environmental or political movements. It shouldn’t be surprising then that most pop stars are consumed with this. They, like so many in the art and movie industry, are captivated by the excesses, bling and thrill of being connected with the powerful. Ethics be damned.
Many pop stars claimed in the aftermath of playing in repressive places that they were ignorant of the human rights, economic or environmental abuses. But Madonna cannot make that claim. In 2016 she paid $20 million dollars for a two story penthouse in Tel Aviv. She undoubtedly sees the headlines on Haaretz. She knows what is happening in that city to African migrants and refugees who are routinely demonized and persecuted by politicians and rightwing fascists. Migrants who are sent to internment camps in the Negev. She has undoubtedly heard about the Nakba and the refugee camps, and knows all too well what is happening now in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. She knows that Israel maintains a US funded army, navy and air force, and the Palestinians do not. She knows Israel has blockaded Gaza since 2007, subjecting nearly 2 million people to intolerable conditions that amount to collective punishment. Indeed, Gaza has been declared “unlivable”in many regards by the UN. She knows scores of unarmed protestors, as well as reporters and medics, have been gunned down in cold blood along the Gaza fence.
She knows about the checkpoints, settlements and the settler violence against Palestinian school children and villagers. She knows about the environmental terrorism of slashed olive trees and poisoned wells. She knows millions of Palestinians are subject to Israeli rule under the occupation without equal representation, the very definition of apartheid. She knows about the wall of separation that limits Palestinian access to their jobs, farmland, medical facilities and schools.
She knows Palestinians homes in the occupied West Bank are routinely demolished. And that scores of children are routinely whisked away in the middle of the night with no warning by the IDF, and taken to undisclosed detention facilities where they are often subjected to threats and violence and placed in solitary confinement, and then subjected to military tribunal unlike their Jewish counterparts who enjoy access to civil courts. She knows that Israel periodically flattens parts of Gaza killing scores of people with block decimating bombs and white phosphorus. And she knows that under the racist Trump regime Israeli crimes against humanity have been given complete impunity.
In addition to this, Madonna knows this is not really about “building bridges of peace and understanding.” She knows that there are millions of Jews around the world and many Israelis who vociferously and courageously oppose the occupation, apartheid and the continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians. People who are horrified at the fascistic lurch Israeli society has taken, especially in recent elections. People from organizations like If Not Now who represents Israeli soldiers who are speaking out about what they have seen and have been asked to do, and Jewish Voice for Peace who have implored her not to artwash or even pinkwash apartheid and to stand on the right side of history. She knows that there has been a call by Palestinian civil society for a non-violent boycott of Israel as long as it continues to commit these ongoing crimes. But she ignored them then, and she will undoubtedly ignore them now.
So for those expecting more out of Madonna they are bound to be disappointed. And this may be a hard pill for some to swallow at first. After all, I remember growing up and coming out to Madonna tunes. Her liberated sexuality and avant-garde style (at least in regard to Hollywood culture) was refreshing for a youth immersed in a society of puritanical repression and rigid social mores. In truth, I still listen to some of her songs on occasion when I wax nostalgic. Those icons represent a torch for many youth looking for a way out from under the boot of reactionary authoritarianism. But somewhere along the line something changes for most people with a conscience. The “icons”are forced to descend from their pedestals and become human, and like any human, they are understood to be subject to the enticements and corruption of coin and privilege. In truth, they cannot be expected to be anything more than a product of an ethics devoid industry and economic order itself.
Millions of people will watch Madonna perform at Eurovision, a European musical contest ironically being held in the Middle-East, Europe’s last enduring colony. She will present Tel Aviv as a bastion of European values in a hostile environment, surrounded by savages. Her message is a new branding for an old orientalism writ large for a new generation. One can only hope that her performance will cause some to dig deeper and see that human rights are either universal or they are nothing. And that there is no justification for playing apartheid. Not in South Africa 40 years ago. Not in Israel and Palestine today.
Kenn Orphan 2019