On Thursday Erykah Badu made a quick trip to Swaziland to sing “Happy Birthday” to King Mswati III, ruler of the tiny southern African country and the man considered the continent’s “last absolute monarch.” At the time, Badu says now, she thought nothing of it. It was a last-second favor done for an acquaintance. It wasn’t like she had to go that far out of her way: The singer-songwriter from Dallas happens to be in South Africa at this very moment recording her sixth studio album.
“It was harmless,” she says by phone from Africa.
But not to the Human Rights Foundation and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. In an email to The Washington Post on Monday, the RFK Center’s Jeffrey Smith said it’s “highly unfortunate that someone of Erykah Badu’s international stature would use her star power for inherently reprehensible reasons — namely, to provide legitimacy, and, in a sense, endorse a brutal dictator who both manages and directs every facet of Africa’s last absolute monarchy.” And in a lengthy post on its website today, HRF International Council member George Ayittey says that “despite a carefully crafted image of American civil rights activism, Badu praises Africa’s last absolute monarch, a strongman who imprisons dissidents.”
Badu with King Mswati III, center, and Jacob Arabo(Human Rights Foundation)
Badu hinted at the outcry yesterday, when she retweeted a defender who said she “owes NOBODY an explanation of why she performed in Swaziland. She’s a professional artist, not some phony rights defender.” But until now, she has not directly addressed it.
Badu says in an interview with The Dallas Morning News that last week she received a call from Jacob “The Jeweler” Arabo, who was throwing the party for the king and needed a last-second replacement for a performer who’d suddenly dropped out. Badu hopped a helicopter for the hour-long ride, sang the song at a packed-house stadium, handed Mswati a gift from Arabo, then went to stay at a friend’s house.
“And all the money that I got from the trip I gave to all the servants in the house,” says the Arts Magnet graduate born and raised in South Dallas.
She says she knew nothing about the fact that Mswati’s royal palace is “a 20-minute drive from the Mbabane Police Station, where journalist Bkheki Makhubu is imprisoned, along with Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer scheduled to speak at the 2014 Oslo Freedom Forum,” according to the HRF. She also says she wasn’t well-versed on the subjects of Swaziland’s poverty or its high AIDS rate. Badu says she’s been to Swaziland before, attending a festival in 2001 at a friend’s invite. But back then she went to “experience the culture — the dance, the dress, the makeup, the chanting, the spirituality.” Not, she notes, the politics.
“I am being educated with the nation,” says Badu. “I don’t keep up with current events [in Swaziland]. I’m touring eight months out of the year. I wish I was more educated — and I am also not so quick to judge before I find out any information. I was in attendance with half of the citizens of Swaziland, who cheered him on, and shared a stage with 20 performers, and all of them were Swazi.”
The HRF’s release calls the king a “corrupt tyrant,” and joins the RFK Center in insisting Badu should have gone there to demand the release of Makhubu and Maseko. HRF’s director of institutional affairs Alex Gladstein takes Badu to task for feting a “kleptocrat” living in “the lap of obscene luxury while most of his countrymen toil in abject poverty for less than $2 a day.” Gladstein goes on to say that Badu “owes us all an explanation” for the performance. Badu disagrees.
“I want to address the people, not a group or a government agency,” she says. “The people know I was not endorsing the king or helping to further his political agenda. I have no agenda. I went into a situation not completely knowing the political climate of the kingdom. I can’t be held responsible for the situation in the kingdom because I signed up as an artist, not as a political activist. I don’t belong to anyone or to anything. Anything I do is because I am a human being, and I am for the people.
“This is an opportunity for groups claiming they are for the rights of humans to shine a spotlight on this situation using me as a tool. The people that I’ve walked with for the past 15 years know who I am and how I move and need no explanation. The people who don’t know won’t understand anyway, so why explain?”
Badu, who’s scheduled to return home to Dallas on Mother’s Day, says this reminds her of the dust-up over the “Window Seat” video in the spring of 2010, when everyone was briefly outraged over her shedding clothes during a stroll through Dealey Plaza. For a couple of days she was the all over the news; then, nothing. Badu says stories and press releases about her singing “Happy Birthday” to the king of Swaziland are distractions at best, PR stunts at worst.
“Because of my status, it’s a media opportunity for the human rights groups to further their agenda,” says Badu. “If I did have a relationship with the king of Swaziland, why wouldn’t they take an opportunity to speak with me to see how I could help solve whatever issues they are having rather than attack me? But they did not. It’s very unfair to say my performance is an endorsement. There is no place on this planet that I would not visit. I will always take an opportunity, if invited, to go to the people wherever they are in whatever condition they are in.
“In the end, I love everyone, and I see freedom ahead for those enslaved and the slave masters. Guess I’m guilty — again.”