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R&B singer Erykah Badu has called off her planned performance for Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh at the 11th edition of the International Roots Festival. This comes after an intense online campaign by Gambian and foreign right groups against her decision to perform for African dictators.
According to Gambia’s pro-government Daily Observer newspaper, the national organising committee of Roots Festival in a press release said two Jamaican acts, Scratchylus and Empress Reggae, will replace Badu, adding that she could not make it due to “unforeseen circumstances”.
What’s On Gambia confirmed that Badu’s manager Paul J. Levanto disclosed to them in a short email that the artist is no longer performing in Gambia. The site also reported that Gambian rapper Gibou Bala Gaye alias Gee, wrote on his Facebook page that political activists are wasting their time trying to convince international artists to cancel their plans to perform at Gambia’s Independence Stadium.
“Going through my tweets and this BS about Erykah Badu not to come to Gambia is pissing me off. Only people saying issh are either on exile or did something here and can’t come back.” He added that: “People like me been waiting my whole life time for this, to actually watch Erykah Badu perform live because I’ve been a fan forever. Plus, it’s her work freaking respect that!”
The Grammy Award-winner was scheduled to perform at the week-long Gambian music festival that kicked off last Friday (9 May). According to the Washington Blade, Badu’s trip to Gambia was scheduled to take place less than a month after she sang at a lavish birthday party for Swazi King Msawti III. The Swazi Observer reported Badu gave Mswati a $100 bill with a “special stone that she said would uplift His Majesty’s spirits when he was feeling down” during the 24 April event at one of the monarch’s numerous palaces, continued the Blade article.
“Erykah Badu has the basic human right to speak and to sing wherever she wants, unfortunately that is not a right that ordinary Swazis or Gambians have,” Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights told the Blade. “Freedom of expression, assembly, association, and freedom of the press are severely restricted in both of these countries.”
Badu is not the only musician who has faced criticism over plans to perform for leaders with questionable human rights records. According to observers, the Gambian dictatorship organises events like the Roots Festival, with the pretext of celebrating African heritage, but there is more to it than celebration. President Jammeh has in recent years invited scores of internationally renowned artists like Jamaine Jackson, Ousman Diallo alias Ouza, Thione Seck and Kumba Gawlo Seck, enticing them with millions of tax payers’ money to repair his tarnished image.
A recent Time article by Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein of Human Rights Foundation states that: “If Badu bristles under criticism for entertaining King Mswati, she’ll really be frustrated by the world’s reaction when she performs at a concert this May sponsored by the dictator of The Gambia. After seizing power in 1994 military coup, Yahya Jammeh is best known for spending millions of dollars on private parties, for promising to inflict “the ultimate penalty” on homosexuals, for warning the UN that gays are “a threat to human existence”, for claiming that he can cure AIDS in three days, and for executing and disappearing hundreds of his critics. After her Swazi quagmire, perhaps Badu will reconsider her scheduled performance in The Gambia, where she would provide cover for yet another despot, this one a lot more murderous than King Mswati.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists (DUGA) has written an open letter to Jamaican reggae star Matabaruka, calling on him to disassociate himself from the festival organised by the Gambian leader. The human rights body says because of the revolutionary stance Jamaican have taken on issues affecting African people worldwide, it is necessary to inform Matabaruka of the repressive conditions in Gambia since Jammeh’s lift on to the “saddles of power”.
“During the struggle against apartheid, you, like the ‘stepping razor’, Peter Tosh and others took a principled stance without wavering. We believe that, once you become aware of the repressive conditions your Gambians brothers and sisters are subjected to, you will take the same stance as you did against apartheid. Our fight against tyranny in the Gambia must get the same attention as was given to ‘South Africa’ – Azania. The days of fighting in isolation are over; the struggle for African Liberation is one struggle. Touch one! Touch all!,” states the letter.
The campaign for media freedom in Gambia has lobbied the United Nations to take measures to address media freedom in the West African state. This comes amid a lingering struggle for freedom of expression and press freedom in the country, where over 110 journalists have gone into exile for fear of persecution.
Speaking at an event, journalist Omar Bah, author of the Africa Health on Earth, told delegates that journalism is the most dangerous profession in Gambia, adding there is the need for more awareness in the Gambian public to ensure divergent views for better democratic governance.
Bah, a survivor of torture who was presenting a paper on human rights, corruption, injustice and freedom of press, said: “We are way behind in terms of awareness due to censorship. If you write on a critical issue against the regime you are seen as inciting the people against the government.”
The Gambian writer said that in July 2013, the government directed the Public Utility Regulatory Authority to ban the use of free internet phone services using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Bah called this action a violation of press freedom. He added that the government said anyone using VoIP phone service was depriving the country of revenue from international and national calls and was therefore committing an economic crime. It subsequently stepped back from the ban but imposed stiff charges on internet cafes for use of VoIP.
He said the government pushed through legislation to impose sanctions on government officials and other individuals who give stories to Gambian online news outlets outside the country, with a penalty of a 15 year jail term or a fine of more than £47,000 for miscreants.
“I cannot imagine 110 journalists going into exile in small a country like Gambia, this shows how serious it is,” he stated. The figure is based on research conducted by the DOHA Centre for Media Freedom through the Dakar based inter-African Network for Women, Media, Gender Equality and Development, in collaboration with the International Federation of Journalists and the Gambian Press Union.
Bah also gave a vivid recollection of the 1999 media commission bill, the media amendment bill in 2004, the killings of Deyda Hydara, former co-proprietor and managing editor of the Point Newspaper, and Omar Barrow, former Sud FM Banjul reporter and Red Cross Volunteer, as well as the disappearance of former daily reporter Chief Ebrima Manneh, and torture of Musa Saidykhan.
“Media freedom has become worse in the Gambia, where there is too much arbitrary arrest, torture, killing and interference in the work of journalists, therefore, there is a need for a more global awareness on the issue to ensure that we have a free and vibrant media,” he concluded.
The campaign against Senegalese artists and celebrities who are often paid thousands of pounds for praise singing Gambia’s authoritarian government, has in recent months intensified.
Awarding winning singer and music producer Youssou N’Dour in late March signed a controversial deal with the Gambia Social Security and Housing Finance Cooperation worth 3 million dalasi (£45118.82) to stage a three day concert in the capital Banjul beginning on 18 April. In response, the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists (DUGA) has written an open letter to N’Dour and the artists he produces, imploring them to be sensitive to “the plight and suffering of Gambians, especially journalists” in their dealings with the regime of President Yahya Jammeh.
N’Dour responded to the letter by saying he did not want to deprive his Gambian brothers and sisters of the cultural exchanges. However, DUGA pointed out that in 2003, the singer boycotted the United States in protest of the invasion of Iraq, depriving his music from his brothers and sisters living in the USA. “In your own words you said ‘I believe that coming to America at this time would be perceived in many parts of the world rightly or wrongly as support of this policy’,” the group quoted N’Dour as saying in the open letter posted on Facebook.
DUGA said the artist’s work with Human Rights Now, Amnesty International, Band Aid and numerous other causes has made him a giant on the world stage in the fight against injustice and poverty around the globe, adding that the entire world listened to his inspirational song in support of Nelson Mandela.
The activists urged the singer not to forget Gambians in his humanitarian activities: “In 2012 your principle fight against a third term of the former president of Senegal, you did not hesitate to say No!, and demanded that democracy must be the rule of the continent. On numerous occasions, you have persistently denounced what is seen as flagrant violation of the fundamental human rights. Mr N’Dour’s song New Africa has been a source of inspiration and strength for many Gambians in the struggle to free our country from one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world today.”
DUGA pointed out that while “Gambia may not have declared war on another nation and the streets may not be littered with bodies”, Gambians are not living in peace. They cited human rights violations against journalists, opposition politicians and regular people, including judicial harassment, torture, violence and extended detention without trial, and also mentioned the many Gambians forced into exile out of fear for their lives.
The letter added that “not participating in shows initiated for or by Jammeh will be a show of support for numerous Gambians in their fight against tyranny, while equally paying homage to Senegalese who have died under inhumane conditions in the Gambia, notably, Tabara Samb, Gibril Ba, Ousmane Sembene; and the countless and nameless others in Cassamance who have died as a direct consequence of the rebellion perpetuated by President Jammeh.”
Ibou N’Dour, Youssou N’Dour’s brother, told Jollofnews in response to the DUGA letter that they are not politicians, and will play for any politician provided that they sign a contract. “We will play a paid concert for Yahya Jammeh, you cannot wait for musicians to solve political problems”, he stressed.
In February the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists and Senegal’s “Fed Up” (Y’en a Marre) movement launched a campaign in Dakar targeting musicians including Ousman Diallo alias Ouza, Kumba Gawlo Seck, Thione Seck and Assan Ndiaye, and Senegalese wrestler Oumar Saho alias Bala Gaye, for praise singing and carrying out promotional activities for Jammeh.
Ouza Diallo, a Senegalese artist seen as a revolutionary due to the significant role he played in effecting democratic change in Senegal during the 2000 and 2012 presidential elections, has denied being a praise singer for the regime in Banjul. He has accused the rights activist of being manipulated by the west, and recently described the Gambian dictator as a true Pan-African.
But while some support the campaign against Senegalese artists, an observer who wished to remain anonymous denounced it, adding that musicians have a right sing for anyone that can pay them money. She said that the activists should support the Gambian people by implementing projects to create employment and empower them rather than “abusing the rights of musicians, who are only doing their job as entertainers”.