American singer Pharrell Williams became the only visiting celebrity to call for freedom in Azerbaijan during Baku's June 16-19 Formula One race, an event criticized for “sports-washing” the country’s authoritarian ways. Activists say it has been a struggle to coax world celebrities performing in Baku on its rich government’s tab to put human rights first.
The Sport for Rights coalition of international rights groups said most singers, who visited Baku to provide musical acts for the European Grand Prix, snubbed calls to push for change in the repressive ex-Soviet republic. “It has historically been very difficult to engage celebrities on human rights issues in Azerbaijan,” Rebecca Vincent, the coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Chris Brown and Enrique Iglesias completely ignored our calls,” Vincent said of two other star singers who performed in Baku during Formula One. “We received no response from their managers or publicists, and they have performed without uttering a single word about the situation in the country – [a] real shame, as they have become part of the Azerbaijani regime’s propaganda machine.”
F1 managers did not prove cooperative, either. Williams, who capped the entertainment program, was the only exception. “Make some noise for the youth of Azerbaijan!” he said at his June 19 performance. “Those beautiful children: they are the future! When they grow up they will change things not only here, but around the world and no one can stop them.”
To some, Williams hardly went out of his way to make any poignant message, but the advocates for a free Azerbaijan very much appreciated his gesture.
The hall of fame for celebrities who have done the same is small.
Swedish pop star Loreen did not just win the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the first in the binge of splashy entertainment events in Azerbaijan, but also spoke out against human-rights violations and visited local rights defenders. Last year, U2 frontman Bono stood up for political prisoners in Azerbaijan at a concert in Montreal, just as the European Games opened in Baku.
Ahead of the F1 race, the country’s best known journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who was recently released from what is widely seen as politically motivated imprisonment, called on showbiz stars visiting Baku not to assist “promote the ruling Aliyev family’s projection of my country as a happy, normal nation.”*
In her opinion piece for The Washington Post, Ismayilova said that Azerbaijan’s establishment runs on corruption and repression of freedoms. “Maybe those whose freedom is at risk cannot question this regime, but Iglesias, Brown and Williams can -- if only so they don’t have to participate in the lie.”
*Khadija Ismayilova formerly worked as a reporter for EurasiaNet.org.