Erykah Badu has had to defend herself for performing “Happy Birthday” at a party for Swaziland King Mswati III, the leader of what Amnesty International describes as “Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy.” “She owes us all an explanation,” Human Rights Foundation’s director of institutional affairs, Alex Gladstein, said in a statement. “The king is a kleptocrat who lives in the lap of obscene luxury while most of his countrymen toil in abject poverty for less than $2 a day.” According to Billboard, Badu replied in a since-deleted Tweet, “I was not paid by the KING. I had no idea of the political climate.”
Badu, who had been in South Africa working on a record, said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News that she made the trip as a “harmless” last-minute favor for an acquaintance. The party’s organizer, Jacob “The Jeweler” Arabo, had told her that one of the performers had dropped off the bill and he needed a replacement, so she took an hour-long helicopter to sing for a packed stadium. She gave Mswati a gift from Arabo and departed 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,” she said.
“I want to address the people, not a group or a government agency,” she told the Dallas Morning News. “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.”
Amnesty International’s 2013 annual report on the country expressed concern over excessive force used against protesters, reports of torture and inhibited rights to self-expression. The CIA World Factbook claims Swaziland has the world’s highest prevalence of AIDS in adults. The Washington Times reports that, according to the United Nations, 63 percent of the country’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day. And in September, Mswati took his 15th wife, an 18-year-old, according to The Telegraph; three of the King’s wives have fled the country, claiming physical and emotional abuse in recent years.
“All the people were smiling when I sang,” Badu tweeted. “I was smiling. We all felt good in that moment.”
Via Twitter, the singer contested the idea that it was mandatory for the country’s citizens to attend the party. She said that her appearance was a “surprise for the King and the people.” She battled with tweeters, telling one to “go to human rights class” and telling another, who claimed to be Swazi and “directly affected by Mswati’s oppression,” “U on Twitter tho, oppressing me.” She even said she would perform in North Korea. “The people aren’t the government,” she wrote.
“Every time I respond to cruel accusations from my African freedom fighting brothers, I know I’m giving them a platform to further their agenda,” she wrote Thursday. “If one watched closely, we would appear as if we were a team. Good cop, bad cop. . . using my platform to give legs to their brothers in jail. In actuality. They see me as a naive, sensitive whose platform can be used and fluffed at the artist’s expense. Unnecessary Roughness.”
But Tuesday, she wrote, “I love Twitter. Sometimes it can really give us a voice. Sometimes it makes [us] see our errors. . . Right now. . . I wish the world was better.”