I was gratified and pleased that John Legend did not ignore the controversy surrounding his performance in Bahrain. He clearly heard and thought about the concerns raised by Bahraini activists, human rights organizations, and (maybe) my open letter. While he did not cancel the appearance, he did make a point of speaking about justice and political freedoms during his signature performance of "Glory" and posting the full text of his remarks via Instagram to make sure that they would be seen and heard by his fans.
Here's what he had to say:
When I spoke at the Oscars last week, I quoted one of my favorite artists, American musician Nina Simone. She said that, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” So I feel that it’s part of my job to express myself freely and passionately about issues I care about. I walk in the footsteps of so many great artists who came before me who did just that.
A just society is one built not on fear or repression or vengeance or exclusion, but one built on love. Love for our families. Love for our neighbors. Love for the least among us. Love for those who look different or worship differently. Love for those we don’t even know.
We continue to fight in America to move toward this just society and we pray the same for the people of Bahrain. And for those who stand for justice, accountability, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom to organize without fear of retribution, please know that I stand with you.
While his comments may have been less direct and forceful than Bahraini activists had hoped, I found them to be a thoughtful and considered response to the situation. Many other artists would have followed the Kim Kardashian playbook and simply ignore the critics. He could have easily delivered the performance and said nothing, but he chose instead to speak to draw explicit connections between the struggle for justice in America and Bahrain. It was a meaningful, thoughtful, and courageous gesture which not many had expected him to make. Legend's comments on stage proved to me that he is no hypocrite on civil rights. At least some Bahrain activists seem pleased that he said something. Hopefully he found the time to meet up with some of them before leaving the country.
At the least, the coverage of his visit has helped to turn a desperately needed spotlight back on to Bahrain's repression, absence of accountability, and political reforms -- many thanks for all the journalists, Bahraini activists, and human rights organizations who worked to drive that public conversation. Hopefully John Legend will continue to think and speak about the international dimension of the struggles for equality, rights and freedom about which he sings -- and some of his legion of fans will continue to think about Bahrain.