Dear John Legend,
Like millions of Americans, I was profoundly moved by your Oscar performance of "Glory" with Common and by your principled speech which followed. For years, I have been a great fan of your work, and of your willingness and ability to take strong and informed political stands. That's why I was astonished and dismayed to learn today that you were planning to play a show in Bahrain on March 2. I write in the hope that you will apply your strong political convictions at home to a very similar set of problems abroad, and reconsider this performance, or speak out about what you see.
In March 2011, Bahrain carried out an astonishingly brutal crackdown on a peaceful resistance movement. Protestors inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions took to the streets, occupying Manama's Pearl Roundabout and demanding constitutional reforms. As documented in brutal detail by the Bahrain Independent Commision of Inquiry, Bahrain's regime responded with a violent crackdown, including the forceful dispersion of protestors and a sweeping campaign of arrests and torture. You would find the images of citizens facing off against armed police amidst clouds of tear gas very familiar. This repression had a sectarian dimension, with Shi'ite citizens singled out and punished for their religious identity. Over the last year, prominent non-violent activists such as Nabeel Rajab were imprisoned for their dissent. The Human Rights Watch 2015 World Report, released just a few weeks ago, describes Bahrain's situation as "unchecked repression" in which there has been no accountability for those rampant human rights abuses. Amnesty International describes Bahrain in 2014/15 as a country in which the government works
"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."
Can you tell which scene of protestors facing tear gas below is from Ferguson and which from the streets of Bahrain?
Source: E Online; Getty Images
You have emerged as a voice of conscience in today's America. In your writing, performances and speeches you have proven yourself to be a principled champion of equality who is unafraid to speak out for what is right. Last year, you wrote that
"As I watched the final version of Selma, I did so with the backdrop of the streets of many of our major cities filled with protesters, crying out for justice after yet another unarmed black person's life was taken by the police with impunity."
Bahraini lives have been taken by the police with impunity as well, and Bahraini lives do matter. 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. If you do decide to perform, perhaps you could speak out about the situation there as you have so gracefully done here in America.
UPDATE: John Legend responds:
"Some have recently suggested that, due to documented human rights abuses by the government of Bahrain, I should cancel my upcoming concert there. 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.
"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.
"Often, the best way to drive progress is to show up and participate in the conversation. As we move this work forward, I hope to meet the many people who are peacefully struggling for freedom, justice and accountability, regardless of what country they live in, and tell them directly that I stand with them. Part of my mission in life is to spread love and joy to people all over the world. I intend to do just that in Bahrain, regardless of my disagreements with some of their governments' policies and actions."
I hope that he follows through on the promise of this response. If, as Nick Kristof suggests, he goes out and meets with a wide range of Bahrainis, including those who have suffered under the regime's repression, and speaks out from the stage about human rights, then he could make a powerful statement. If he doesn't, then it's Kardashian-Redux, and a profound disappointment. But I think that he will deliver.
UPDATE 2: A number of stories have now been written about this, which I collect below and will update when possible. Thanks to all of the authors for the attention to Bahrain:
- Powerful Open Letter to John Legend Urges Him to Cancel Upcoming Concert -- Beenish Ahmed, Think Progress (2/26)
- John Legend responds to criticism over Bahrain gig among human rights concerns -- Jamie Merrill, The Independent (2/26)
- Bahrainis are upset with John Legend. Here's why. - Milana Knezevic, Index on Censorship (2/26)
- John Legend took a strong, moral stand at the Oscars. Now he's performing in Bahrain -- Adam Taylor, Washington Post (2/27)
- John Legend Got Called Out For Performing in a Country With Massive Human Rights Abuses (but had one of the classiest responses ever) -- Hayes Brown, Buzzfeed (2/27)
- John Legend says Bahrain show will go on -- Jillian Kessler-D'Amours, Toronto Star (2/27)
- John Legend rejects calls to cancel show over rights abuses -- Robert Mackey, New York Times (2/28)