FEATURE: Musicians Without Borders: Is It Wrong for Artists to Boycott Gigs for Political and Social Reasons?




Musicians Without Borders


IN THIS PHOTO: Mariah Carey has been criticised by some for agreeing to play in Saudi Arabia (a nation with a poor record when it comes to women’s rights)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Is It Wrong for Artists to Boycott Gigs for Political and Social Reasons?


OVER the past few years...

n (1).jpg

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

I have seen examples where artists have performed gigs in nations where there is turmoil. Maybe there is a reputation regarding human rights violations or, if an artist played in a nation like Israel, they are seen to be supporting a certain political ideology. I have written on this subject before but, with each year, a big artist defies barriers and plays a gig because they want to bring their music to the people of the world. Mariah Carey is the latest big name who has divided opinion regarding her choice of nation/gig. I will raise an issue when it comes to comparing the U.K. and U.S. to nations in the Middle East and other parts of the globe but Carey’s agreement to play in Saudi Arabia has been met with condemnation. The Guardian , in this news piece, explains the situation in more detail:

The singer Mariah Carey has been criticised by women’s rights campaigners, who have accused her of helping to airbrush Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record by agreeing to perform there.

Carey appeared with DJ Tiesto, Sean Paul and the Yemen-born singer Balqees Fathi on Thursday in what she has claimed was an opportunity to work towards gender desegregation in the kingdom.

Activists, however, have rejected that. “The Saudi government is using entertainment to distract the people from human rights abuses because it can sense the anger among the public,” said Omaima al-Najjar, a Saudi woman who sought political refuge abroad and co-founded Women for Rights in Saudi Arabia (WARSA).


Carey’s publicists told the Associated Press that, when “presented with the offer to perform for an international and mixed gender audience in Saudi Arabia, Mariah accepted the opportunity as a positive step towards the dissolution of gender segregation”.

They added: “As the first female international artist to perform in Saudi Arabia, Mariah recognises the cultural significance of this event and will continue to support global efforts towards equality for all.” The statement said that Carey “looks forward to bringing inspiration and encouragement to all audiences”.

There is that divided argument that states that, on the one hand, Carey is breaking barriers and highlighting women and, on the other, is she aiding and abetting the plight of human rights in Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabia has been judged regarding their human rights violations and their really shocking record. Some think Mariah Carey is whitewasing the issues and ignoring the violence and atrocity. I feel one should define what constitutes ‘supporting’ a regime and being ignorant. Mariah Carey is not coming to the country and ignoring the plight of women and how imbalanced society is. She is not supporting anyone who puts women down. She is, like many artists who have drawn criticism, playing her music and just playing in another country. There is a lot to be said for the argument that claims Mariah Carey is creating something rare. How many popular musicians have played in Saudi Arabia? She might have to make concessions regarding her attire and content but I hope that does not create any issues. For those who criticise Mariah Carey and feel she is making the human rights situation worse in Saudi Arabia, I wonder what artists are meant to do?


 IN THIS PHOTO: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia/PHOTO CREDIT: @stijntestrake

If they talk about it in their lyrics then that seems a lot more confrontational than playing in a country and not addressing the subject. Is it better to document issues like poor human rights rather than playing a concert in a country with a poor reputation? Can Mariah Carey play a gig in Saudi Arabia and highlight how women are treated there? It is a sticky issue but one cannot say any artist that plays in a nation like Saudi Arabia is backing the government or blind to the problems there. If they boycotted and nobody plays then that, to me, seems more ignorant and destruction. Unless you explicitly say something through music, artists are not taking a political stance by merely performing at a gig. I feel Mariah Carey is actually pretty brave and doing something that will inspire other artists. This is not the first time a big artist has faced conflicts when playing in a country making news for the wrong reasons. Last year, Lorde cancelled gigs in Israel because of the controversy and political ramifications. This, as this report shows caused problems of its own:

Two New Zealand women who were ordered to pay damages by an Israeli court for their role in Lorde cancelling a Tel Aviv concert have raised the sum through donations – but plan to give the money to the Gaza Mental Health Foundation instead.



Last week an Israeli court ruled Justine Sachs and Nadia Abu-Shanab of New Zealand must pay damages to Israeli teenagers Shoshana Steinbach, Ayelet Wertzel and Ahuva Frogel totalling more than NZ$18,000 ($11,700) for writing a letter urging Lorde to cancel her gig, which she did.

The court found the two New Zealand women damaged the “artistic welfare” of the three Israeli teenagers, and perpetrated “damage to their good name as Israelis and Jews”.

In the case of Lorde, she was put between a rock and a hard place and decided to cancel her gigs. The situation in Israel is a little more complex than that in Saudi Arabia but I wonder whether she bowed too easily to social media pressure and ill-advised voices. I will look at a band who actually did play in Israel – and cause some issues – but I wonder whether Lorde was put in an impossible situation. Again, like Mariah Carey, she is not backing a political party or religion by performing a gig there. Music is a beautiful platform that is not meant to divide: it brings people together and creates this rare harmony. I do wonder what would have happened if Lorde played Israeli gigs and brought her music to the masses. Maybe there would have been some angry people but that rage is completely unjustified and needless. Is Lorde bringing together divided factions and making the political situation worse? If she was to talk about the politics and divisions in Israel then it might be a bit too far but that was never going to be the case – she was simply going to bring her hits to her fans.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Whilst artists boycotting nations might placate the radical, enflamed and easily offended, I think it is the fans who suffer the most. How hard is it for music fans in nations like Israel and Saudi Arabia to see big artists they love? Many might not be able to travel to the U.S. and U.K. to see gigs so artists coming their way is a rare treat. Having that pleasure denied seems much crueller and ignorant than the alternative. It seems like there are double standards and people are making far too much of things. Lorde was forced to cancel gigs in Israel last year but, back in 2017, Radiohead made no such decision. Here, as is reported, the iconic band felt it natural to go to Israel and play their songs:

Radiohead have performed their much-anticipated gig in Israel, after calls from protesters to cancel the show.

The sold-out concert went ahead as planned at Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, despite urgings from activists and campaigners who have said the show is an insult to Palestinian people facing oppression in the country.

According to Richard Ferrer, editor of the London-based Jewish News newspaper, the audience of thousands represented a “melting pot” of fans.

It comes a week after Yorke defended the band’s decision to play in the country, following criticism by award-winning British filmmaker, Ken Loach.

Loach wrote to the singer on Twitter that “Radiohead need to decide if they stand with the oppressed or the oppressor. The choice is simple.”

Yorke responded in a statement: “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government”.

That last line from Thom Yorke makes a good point: artists are not making a stand and being offensive when they play: simply, they are doing their jobs and not taking sides. One wonders how many other artists have turned down performing in the Middle East and Africa because of possible dissent and protest! I think it is unfair to deny a nation’s music fans because there are social rights issues and political divides. Artists like Radiohead and Mariah Carey are not concerned with spreading hate but, when there is a lot of backlash on social media and the possible protest, I can understand why some are reticent. How can we say there is any difference between artists playing in nations abroad suffering political clashes and artists playing here and the U.S.?! When it comes to civil rights, racism and turmoil; are Britain and America any better than Israel? We might not have the same level of violence and religious clash but our leaders are responsible for fuelling division and tension. What if an artist were to come from Europe and play here – knowing we are leaving the E.U.?! That would not be sniffed at and, instead, be seen as a positive and natural step. Would it be wrong for a band/act who was against racism and division to play in America...a nation ruled by Trump and going in the wrong direction? I think there would not be the same strife and anger regarding artists from here and the U.S. (and New Zealand) doing a similar thing.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Tel Aviv-Yafo/PHOTO CREDIT: @adamjang

I know the debate is more complex than I have suggested but we are not talking about commentators, comedians or anyone who is likely to address the issues happening in nations like Saudi Arabia. I think, if a comedian did a set about human rights, it could cause a divide but isn’t that what they are supposed to do?! Music, for the most part, is politically-neutral and not concerned (in a bad way) with what is happening in that nation. They want to entertain and unite people and, by facing pressure and scorn, that is being taken away – it seems almost ironic. I don’t think it is right for musicians to be panned and judged if they want to play a gig, regardless of the nation involved. I am impressed Mariah Carey has taken a stand but I fear this will not be the end of things. I wonder whether more artists this year will be subject to scrutiny if they gig in the Middle East or parts of the world where there is a tense and complex political landscape. If an artist takes a stand and pulls out of a gig for personal reason then that is down to them. I think too many are being backed into an impossible situation. Music is a wonderful and for-the-masses-and-not-for-the-few arena that should not be subject to restriction. In a time when there is so much hatred and needless division, we should not be urging artists to boycott; instead, we need music to act as a powerful and unifying...

FORCE for good.