The singer John Legend is an outspoken advocate for justice — which is why some have called on him to cancel an upcoming show backed by the government in Bahrain, where autocratic rulers have for years violently snubbed out dissent.
Legend delivered a riveting performance and an impassioned acceptance speech for a song he created along with the hip-hop artist and actor Common for the film Selma at the Academy Awards on Sunday.
“Nina Simone said that it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now,” Legend said.
In an op-ed for Billboard, the award-winning singer called on Americans to “wake up, stand up and demand change” for a criminal justice system that bears down unfairly on African Americans “and disproportionately takes the lives of our unarmed youth because of the simple fact that our skin, our blackness, conjures the myth of a hyper-violent negro.”
Citing the singer’s appeals to protest, Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, wrote an open letter to John Legend calling on him to recognize “a very similar set of problems abroad” in the Gulf state of Bahrain.
“I hope that you will think deeply about the implications of performing in a country like today’s Bahrain, where the violence of an unaccountable police against peaceful protestors mirrors everything against which you have spoken out at home,” he wrote on Wednesday. “If you do decide to perform, perhaps you could speak out about the situation there as you have so gracefully done here in America.”
On Thursday, the day after Lynch published his letter, three Shia Muslim men were sentenced to death and seven to life imprisonment for killing three policemen as a part of what advocacy groups believe to be an overly harsh, sectarian crack-down on dissent by the country’s Sunni king. Earlier this month, a new television channel was pulled from the air a day after it launched, apparently because it featured an opposition leader who criticized the government.
In its 2014 assessment of Bahrain, Amnesty International said, “The government continued to stifle and punish dissent and to curtail freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Security forces used excessive force to disperse protests, killing at least two people. Opposition activists sentenced after unfair trials in previous years continued to be held, including prisoners of conscience. Torture of detainees continued and a climate of impunity prevailed.”
The harsh response to protest began with the government’s use of excessive force to crack down on demonstrators engaged in peaceful demonstration in 2011 that followed similar ones in Egypt and Tunisia.
In a sweeping 513-page report from the end of that year, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry found that, “[P]olice units used force against civilians in a manner that was both unnecessary and disproportionate,” in Bahrain’s “Arab Spring.” At least seven people were killed because of excessive force by Bahraini security forces, and that five died after being tortured by Bahraini intelligence officers, it noted.
“A police officer in Bahrain who kills a protester in cold blood or beats a detainee to death might face a sentence of six months or maybe two years, while peacefully calling for the country to become a republic will get you life in prison,” Joe Stock of Human Rights Watch said in light of the report. “Bahrain’s problem is not a dysfunctional justice system, but rather a highly functional injustice system.”
Lynch, the George Washington political science professor, pointed out many of these abuses in his appeal to John Legend to reconsider a show in Bahrain slated for March 2.
“Bahrain became notorious over the last few years for its especially egregious human rights abuses while putting down a massive, peaceful protest movement,” he told ThinkProgress in an email.
When asked why he thinks it’s especially important that Legend take this stand, he said, “John Legend isn’t just any performer. He has emerged as one our most principled and outspoken artists on issues of social justice and police abuse.”
“I hope that he will see that the same issues of freedom and equality, and especially of police abuse and impunity, are at stake in Bahrain,” Lynch said. “I hope that he will live up to his principles and draw global attention to the ongoing problems with Bahrain, and show Bahraini activists that the world hasn’t forgotten them and show the regime that it pays costs for its abuses.”
John Legend addressed concerns about his upcoming show in a statement but said he still plans to perform in Bahrain in March. “After consulting with human rights experts, I decided to keep my commitment to perform for the people of Bahrain, many of whom I am proud to call my fans, during their annual festival,” he said. “I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about human rights, civil rights and other issues of justice, both in the United States and abroad. The solution to every human rights concern is not always to boycott. Most of the time I will choose to engage with the people of the country rather than ignore or abandon my commitments to perform for them.”