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Celebrities and Dictators: Akon, Nicki Minaj and Others Performed for Dictators

Teen Vogue logo Teen Vogue 11/29/2021 Casey Michel
© Gilbert Carrasquillo

In June 2018, a group of American singers and rappers serenaded dozens of onlookers in a luxurious club in the small Central African country of Equatorial Guinea. Performers including Ludacris, Akon, Jeezy, and Sean Kingston took the stage. “Greatly appreciate the invite,” Ludacris announced in one video taken at the event. “We gonna set this thing on fire!” There, in a white dress shirt and dark tie, Ludacris continued: “As a matter of fact, everybody that’s born in Africa, make some noise if you born in Africa.” The rapper paused, with the crowd shrieking in return. “Oh, hell yeah,” he responded.

It was, all things considered, a party that screamed wealth, celebrity, and conspicuous consumption — perhaps the reason Kingston opted to attend wearing a Scrooge McDuck shirt. Strobe lights bounced off the wall, while women in carnaval headdresses danced beneath dangling chandeliers. At one point, according to footage later deleted from Instagram, the staff put out a cake shaped like a Rolex (though it’s unclear if any of the singers got a slice).

The party wasn’t in honor of any charity or any record label. Instead, it was the birthday party for Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue— a man accused of massive corruption by governments around the world and a man whose father just so happens to be the four-decades-long dictator of Equatorial Guinea.

Obiang is widely viewed as one of the key figures in the rise of so-called “kleptocracy,” in which dictators and their families and friends are accused of stealing from government coffers, while keeping the population in poverty, and then spending that dirty money on all kinds of luxuries. Helping his father rule Equatorial Guinea with an iron fist, Obiang and his family were subject to significant U.S. Senate investigations over the past 20 years, which accused them of allegedly laundering money — much of it reportedly gained from bribes and outright theft — through everything from American shell companies to American real estate. Obiang used his ill-gotten wealth to purchase a massive mansion in California, a private jet, and one of the world’s biggest collections of Michael Jackson memorabilia.

The U.S. seized many of Obiang's assets in 2014, saying that through “relentless embezzlement and extortion… Obiang shamelessly looted his government and shook down businesses in his country to support his lavish lifestyle, while many of his fellow citizens lived in extreme poverty.” (As the U.S. asserted in a September announcement detailing how some of the seized funds will be used, Obiang “used his position and influence to amass more than $300 million worth of assets through corruption and money laundering.”) Other countries have also accused Obiang of gargantuan corruption. The U.K. recently sanctioned Obiang directly for reportedly soliciting bribes and corrupt contracting arrangements. And France and Switzerland have moved to seize his assets purchased via corruption.

All of this has taken place while Obiang, now vice president, and his dictatorial father oversee a regime that arguably rivals North Korea in terms of brutality. Not only is the government accused of wide-scale prisoner torture and repression (with state-run media referring to the dictator as a “god”), but more than half the residents have no access to things like clean water and nearly 80% of the country lives in poverty. And that reality is reflected in things like maternal mortality rates and gender inequality (where Equatorial Guinea scores worse than places like Cambodia or Tajikistan, according to the U.N.).

To be fair to Ludacris, Kingston, and the others, it’s unclear how much they knew about the regime before they agreed to perform at Obiang’s birthday party. (It’s also unclear how much they were paid to attend. None of their representatives responded to my questions.) But their willingness to perform for one of the world’s worst kleptocrats is symptomatic of a bigger trend we’ve seen blossom over the past decade: American celebrities agreeing to take money to perform for dictators and their families — for regimes that stand against the progressive policies many of these celebrities claim to support.

In just the past decade, for instance, we’ve seen Nicki Minaj travel to Angola to schmooze with Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former dictator, and a woman recently accused of large-scale money laundering linked to her father’s brutal, 38-year reign. (Minaj posted a photo of herself with dos Santos on Instagram, writing, “GIRL POWER!!!!! This motivates me soooooooooo much!!!!") Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez performed at a private birthday party for the longstanding dictator in Turkmenistan, with Lopez singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” for him. Kanye West even got in on the action, performing for the wildly corrupt family of Kazakhstan’s dictator.

Some dictatorships tend to gravitate toward American celebrities more than others. The family of former Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi, for instance, shelled out millions to celebrities like Mariah Carey, Usher, and Nelly Furtado. Even Beyoncé took some of the Gaddafi family’s riches, reportedly making upwards of $2 million to perform for the dictator’s family at New Year’s 2009. (Beyoncé’s publicist said in 2011 that the singer later donated the proceeds, while Furtado, Carey, and Usher either returned the proceeds, made separate donations to human rights causes, or promised to do so in the future. Lopez apologized, though there’s no indication she returned any proceeds, while neither Minaj nor West addressed their performances or returned any funds.)

One question hangs over all of these shows: Why do wealthy American singers and celebrities keep taking dirty money from some of the worst politicians on the planet? Why do they keep agreeing to perform for despots and their families and for figures who run regimes dedicated to pillaging their populations and remaining in power for as long as possible?

While the motives may be mixed, there is one reality that makes these performances very easy to set up — and to profit from: In the U.S., there are currently no anti-money-laundering regulations for celebrity agents. That is, the agents representing American celebrities — the ones who are helping organize events abroad and who typically take a slice of the profits along the way — can work with any regime or with any dictator they’d like. There are no laws preventing them from using their clients to make as much money as possible from these governments, regardless of how much of the money is dirty. (While the celebrities often profit from these performances, they are not the ones that initially book the appearance, which is why anti-money laundering advocates focus on the agents themselves.)

This is true for all kinds of American industries, from the real estate developers who sell American mansions to dictators, to the American hedge fund managers who invest kleptocrats’ money. But for celebrities and their agents, agreeing to take dictators' dollars is especially embarrassing, given how these governments are often dedicated to silencing journalists, or repressing gender rights campaigners, or killing environmental activists. They might throw a good party, but the money for those parties came from overseeing some of the most anti-democratic regimes on the planet and from persecuting all those democratic, gender rights, and environmental activists who oppose them.

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