Jennifer Lopez is feeling the heat this week for singing “Happy Birthday” to the authoritarian ruler of Turkmenistan. The former Soviet state is considered “one of the world’s most repressive countries”; it once shut down the entire Internet in order to stop a video of its president falling off a horse from disseminating. Lopez’s publicist has said the party was a corporate event put on by China National Petroleum for its executives in oil-rich Turkmenistan — it just happened to fall on the president’s birthday — and Lopez never would have attended “had there been knowledge of human right issues of any kind.”
Naive as it sounds, we’re inclined to believe it. Say what you will about Dennis Rodman schmoozing with Kim Jong-un or Naomi Campbell accepting “dirty-looking stones” from Charles Taylor. Who among us could have picked Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov out of a lineup? Let alone named his human rights abuses?
Nor is J.Lo the first pop star to sing before googling, unwittingly bringing international human rights abuses to the attention of the Us Weekly crowd. From Sting to 50 Cent, the music industry’s free speech beneficiaries are the preferred American and British export of cash-flush dictators everywhere. Rather than pile on this Fourth of July weekend, discover what pop stars can teach you about repressive states the world over.