Following objections from human rights activists and other people who understand how dictatorships work, Nicki Minaj went through with her headlining performance on Saturday for a concert hosted by a company controlled by Angola’s corrupt president, José Eduardo dos Santos.
She now joins a shady list of celebrities who have performed for dictators around the world: Mariah Carey was called out in December 2013 for also playing in Angola, Beyoncé performed for Moammar Gadhafi in 2009, and Jennifer Lopez has a history of accepting million-dollar checks to perform for corrupt leaders.
Our occasional projections to the contrary, there’s not much about being a celebrity that requires elevated political awareness. I have to believe that Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj probably were not abreast on President José Eduardo dos Santos’ long history of human rights violations when they both agreed to perform.
This isn’t to dismiss their actions or suggest that either woman isn’t smart, but most people aren’t well-informed, so why would pop stars be? But Nicki Minaj obviously has a team of people who should and probably did bring this to her attention. And even if they didn’t inform her of dos Santos’ corruption, others certainly did.
What makes Minaj’s performance stand out as particularly unsavory is her utter shamelessness about taking dos Santos’ dirty money—$2 million of it, reportedly, in a country where half of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
One day after The Hollywood Reporter ran an exclusive about the performance and other outlets began picking up the story, she tweeted out a Bible verse easily viewed as a thinly-veiled response to the backlash:
Nicki Minaj is known and celebrated for her general shamelessness and bravado. They’re attitudes that are often discouraged in women, which have clearly helped her reach success. But the value of shamelessness always depends on context, and in this case, her posturing seems to have obstructed her good sense. Not only did she go through with the show, but she proceeded to gleefully document every step of the trip:
She also posed for a friendly photo with a woman who appears to be Isabel dos Santos—daughter of President dos Santos and the richest woman in Africa.
A 2012 Forbes profile details how Isabel dos Santos acquired her $3 billion fortune through government kickbacks and outright corruption facilitated by her father:
As best as we can trace, every major Angolan investment held by Dos Santos stems either from taking a chunk of a company that wants to do business in the country or from a stroke of the president’s pen that cut her into the action. Her story is a rare window into the same, tragic kleptocratic narrative that grips resource-rich countries around the world.
It’s hard to see all this as anything other than Nicki rubbing her decision in the faces of those who have “rise[n] up against [her] in judgement.”
This year, Nicki Minaj has said a lot of smart things about sexism, racism, the challenges faced specifically by black women in the music industry. She sets a wonderful example in some respects, and a clueless example in this one.
Accumulating wealth is important to Nicki Minaj. She raps about it, she poses with money, and she often encourages women to go out and earn for themselves so as not to depend on a man for their financial needs. Her hustle, which includes a line of Moscato and a fragrance and a clothing collection at Kmart, has worked out well: she has an estimated net worth of $70 million and is the only woman ever to make Forbes’ Hip-Hop Cash Kings list.
The value she places on women getting money is normally angled at fighting the gendered inequality in her industry; in this case, her cash grab reinforces and supports one of the most unequal societies in the world. And it’s easy to imagine how she could justify this decision in the spirit of: I’m going to get mine.
Nicki Minaj knows how to get hers. On her second studio album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, she took a clear stylistic turn. Half of the album shifted away from the assertive rapper we were first introduced to, and invited us to meet Nicki Minaj The Pop Star. She was forced to strike back against accusations that she had “sold out” with dance-pop hits like “Starships.” However we may have felt about her strategy, it worked.
Now, she’s a bona fide pop star. On that second album, she did what she had to do to grow her audience, and she’s enjoying the spoils of that decision. Nicki knew what was she was doing just as she ultimately must have known how her performance in Angola would be perceived. In both cases, it seems, the money was worth the headache.
“Bossing up” is an important concept to Nicki. In her now famous and oft-cited “pickle juice” speech, she talks about demanding respect and being assertive with her power.
It is a streak of stubbornness that serves her well when she’s refusing to accept pickle juice or walking out of a condescending New York Times interview.
But in this case, it is that same strong will that is now harming her reputation. She went ahead with the performance defiantly just to prove that she could, despite the moral reasoning against it being clear. She got her money and made her own self-centered point.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Image via Craig Barritt/Getty.