J. Lo in Turkmenistan: How Celebs End Up Performing for Tyrants

The singer was just the latest star to get in hot water for a ethically questionable appearance

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It’s something of a cliché for a big concert to start off with the performer saying hello to the city in which the concert is taking place. But when the performer is Jennifer Lopez and the location is Avazam, Turkmenistan, things start to get tricky. The singer has received criticism since news broke this weekend that the pop star headlined a birthday party—complete with a rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”—for Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. According to Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan is “one of the world’s most repressive countries.”

(MORETurkmenistan Bans Booze During ‘Happiness Week’)

For those who follow artists-meet-autocrats news, this latest scandal comes with a bit of déjà vu. Lopez is far from the first celebrity to make an ethically questionable appearance at a despot’s private party. For example, in October of 2011 Hilary Swank appeared at the birthday party of Chechen Republic President Ramzan Kadyrov, also a celebration of the opening of new buildings in Grozny City. She apologized soon after. The Gaddafi New Years Eve party was also a hotspot for celebrity missteps. Beyoncé reportedly earned $2 million for welcoming 2010 in St. Barts with the son of Muammar Gaddafi; Mariah Carey appeared at the party the year before. In 2009, Sting performed for the daughter of Uzbekistan’s ruler, Islam Karimov.

It’s obvious why an enormously rich ruler—or, often, his child—would want an international superstar to show up at a private party. But by now it should be clear to those superstars that it’s pretty hard to get away with banking millions for an appearance at a corrupt (or worse) leader’s party. So why do celebs keep doing it?

The most common answer from those who have been caught up in such scandals is to claim ignorance. That’s the tack J. Lo has taken. Her publicist’s statement to the Associated Press yesterday said that the event, which was organized by China National Petroleum Corp., was apolitical and that her team was unaware of any larger problems: “Had there been knowledge of human rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended.” Hilary Swank’s apology took a similar approach, claiming that the actress didn’t know about accusations of human rights violations by Kadyrov—even though Human Rights Watch reps said they sent her a letter about the problem in advance of her appearance. And, Nelly Furtado put her money where her mouth is: the singer performed for the Gaddafis in 2007 and years later, when she found out more about the Libyan leader, announced that she would give the $1 million she earned to charity. (Same for 50 Cent.) It may be tough to believe that a tour promoter wouldn’t check out the country where a gig is scheduled, but Lopez does have evidence that humanitarian concerns have kept her from booking shows in the past: she cancelled a 2010 concert in northern Cyprus when she learned the circumstances of Turkish rule in the area.

(2009: East and West Scramble for Turkmenistan’s Riches)

But ignorance and apologies aren’t the only reasons these situations keep popping up.

Some celebrities, in fact, have said that they booked shows in controversial regions on purpose. Sting, for example, did not apologize for his appearance in Uzbekistan—though he did claim that the trip was organized by Unicef, a statement Unicef denied—and said that he did know about the humanitarian record of the Uzbek president. Although he felt differently during boycotts of apartheid South Africa, he said he thought that depriving people of culture because of their leaders’ actions was not an appropriate form of boycott.

And then there are the celebrities who don’t really seem to care. In 2012, Spanish singer Julio Iglesias performed at an event organized by Teodorin Obiang Nguema Manque, of Equatorial Guinea, who is accused of corruption. Iglesias was asked not to perform by multiple human rights groups—but that didn’t seem to bother him. After all, many other people were at the event, along with the several first ladies from other nations, Iglesias said, and he didn’t see a problem with performing for them: “When I greet them, I don’t ask them if their husbands are corrupt.”