American singer/songwriter John Legend is set to play a gig in Bahrain on Monday, March 2. Bahrain is a country that has faced ongoing instability and unrest fueled by protests for reform for over four years now. Legend says he knows about human-rights issues in the kingdom but that because part of his "mission in life is to spread love and joy to people," he intends to play in Bahrain "regardless of my disagreements with some of their governments' policies and actions."
As Legend mulls the best way to spread the love during his time in Bahrain, he might want to consider a few things:
- The repressive government there will try to spin his appearance as evidence of a return to "normality" after the 2011 protests. But the truth is that the protests and the repression have never gone away. Medics who were famously tortured and jailed in 2011 on trumped-up charges are still in prison there, along with peaceful opposition leaders and countless other people convicted for exercising their right to peaceful expression.
- John Legend said, "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." This would be great. He should know that there are human-rights activists and families of those in jail who would be eager to meet him so that he can tell them directly that he stands with them. One is Nabeel Rajab, the president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Nabeel says he's happy to host Legend for coffee -- assuming, that is, that Nabeel isn't in custody again by Tuesday after receiving a summons yesterday to appear at a police station.
- The U.S. civil-rights movement is an inspiration to many Bahraini human-rights figures, among them Zainab Al Khawaja, an expert on peaceful resistance who has studied the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in some depth. She is waiting to start another jail sentence after a series of peaceful protests. As Dr. King wrote, "We will have to repent ... not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people." Leading activists in Bahrain assume that Legend is too smart to allow his gig to be used by the dictatorship as a cheap PR stunt and expect him to speak out publicly and clearly against the regime's abuses. Zainab tells me she's happy to meet Legend and brief him on how she sees parallels between the Bahraini human-rights movement and the U.S. civil-rights experience.
- Criticizing the king in public remarks typically lands people in jail. It might be interesting to see how the government reacts if Legend tries it for himself while he's in Bahrain.
- Many leading foreign journalists and staff of international human-rights organizations (including me) have not been allowed into Bahrain for some years. I hope that Legend will take the rare opportunity he has been given to have access to the country to speak out for human-rights and highlight the lack of access for others.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misquoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The post has been updated accordingly.
Update: March 2, 2015
While on stage in Bahrain, Legend took a moment to speak about the American civil rights movement, and to express solidarity for those in Bahrain who are working for reform and fighting for their rights. Here is an excerpt from his statement:
When you look at me, you may see the international superstar John Legend, but I am also the descendant of slaves. My grandparents and even my parents were born in a country where many of our schools were legally segregated, where many people who looked like me couldn't vote and couldn't expect to have the opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that were supposed to be the promise of America.
But we fought for change. I wrote this song "Glory" for a film called Selma. That film depicts the epic struggle for civil rights, justice and equality led by Dr. Martin Luther King 50 years ago. We haven't achieved all of the goals that Dr. King fought for. We still have a long way to go. But we continue to have hope and we continue to march forward. We believe that change is possible because we have seen it happen before. Dr. King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
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.
The struggle may not be easy. Some have already paid the ultimate sacrifice to make this vision a reality. But I believe there is a brighter future ahead. And, one day when the glory comes, it will be ours...