On April 24, style icon and queen of neo-soul, Erykah Badu performed for King Mswati III–the absolute ruler of Swaziland since 1986 when, at 18, he succeeded his father King Sobhuza III–at his birthday party.
When the word got out, Badu was met with criticism from two US-based human rights organisations on the democratic, but often out-of-control, social media platform Twitter.
On April 10, Thor Halvorssen from the Human Rights Foundation (who called out Mariah Carey for performing for the Angolan President last Christmas) accused Badu of having sold her soul. She responded by claiming political ignorance.
On the same day Jeffrey Smith from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights asked if Badu would do it again after learning about the state of democracy about Swaziland. “unfair question”, she replied.
It could have ended here: The Twitterati had been informed and entertained. The human rights activists had taken the superstar to task in addition to successfully addressing Swaziland’s dismal human rights record, including the arrests of journalist Bheki Makubu and lawyer Thulani Maseko for questioning the independence of Swaziland’s judiciary.
Erykah Badu could have rejoiced in having learned something new about Africa (whose children she has visited according to the sketchy website of her non-profit organisation B.L.I.N.D.)
It didn’t though. Maybe because of the lack of manners caused by the lack of eye contact on Twitter. Maybe the pressure to perform for one’s stakeholders and fans also contributed to the escalation of the spat.
While some of Erykah Badu’s fans abused or threatened her critics, others bent over backwards to assure her that everything was fine.* The superstar on her side, alternated between exchanging sweet nothings with her fans and elaborating on her defence.
In a vocabulary of fairy tales, she claimed in an interview that that her performance fee had been given to the king’s “servants” (so that they could eat that day, she added on Twitter). She also waxed lyrical about the “ancient” and “uncontaminated” Swazi culture.
Badu’s answer to Sipho Dube, a Johannesburg-based Swazi, who introduced himself as a victim of King Mswati’s oppression, read: “U on twitter tho, oppressing me”. To Colombian-born activist Pedro Pizano, who suggested that the King’s 28 years in power wasn’t a sign of a healthy democracy, she simply replied: “I think that’s how KINGDOMS twerk.”
Not long after Badu took the discussion to new lows by asking Pizano if he was gay. The reason, she claimed, was to find out if he knew “how it feels to be ostracized for only being YOURSELF.” Pizano and many others however, suspected homophobia.
In hindsight, maybe the professional human rights activists could have cut the professional singer some slack, at least in terms of their tone of tweets at the beginning of their exchange with Badu. Though arrogant and ignorant to the maximum, part of Badu’s aggressive response may well have been triggered by what she, not without reason, perceived as a group of white men talking down to her.
Regardless of whether one thinks that Twitter contributes to democracy or idiocy, we have to admit that we would know less about the true opinions, phobias and prejudice of our heroes without it.
If Twitter hadn’t existed, we wouldn’t know how Helen Zille (the leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s biggest opposition party) feels about white female progressive journalists. We wouldn’t know how Kenyan tweeters feel about South Africa without the enlightening Twitter-campaign #SomeoneTellSouthAfrica (caused by South African Minister for Sports Fikile Mbalula’s offensive comment about Kenyan swimmers). Lastly, had Twitter not existed we would also still be unaware that Erykah Badu’s doesn’t hesitate to flirt with homophobia, and that her love for Africa is as shallow as her knowledge about the continent.
* For the record, it wasn’t just diehard fans on Twitter who temporarily switched off parts of their brains to blindly defend Badu. Clutch Magazine Online (which according to its Facebook page offers “commentary, critique and analysis… through the eyes of forward-thinking black women”) forgot its mandate and published an account of the events which ended “One of these days people are going to stop looking at entertainers as side activists and just listen to their music and keep it moving.”
Equally starstruck it seems, was the website OkayAfrica, described in its Twitter-bio as a “cultural guide to all the latest music/culture/politics coming from Africa and the Diaspora”. In a confusing article it’s admitted that Swaziland is not a democracy and that King Mswati indeed is a dictator. Having acknowledged this, OkayAfrica still accuses Badu’s detractors of opportunism, and somehow comes to the conclusion that it shouldn’t be assumed that artists performing for dictators are endorsing them.
* Image by Ignatius Mokone.