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To perform or not to perform: A musician’s Hamletian dilemma

A cancelled concert can rattle a nation. Musicians now and in the past have made socio-political statements by shunning a country or a state — Kiwi singer Lorde is the latest. Do they really mean it?

music Updated: Jan 04, 2018 16:27 IST
Samarth Goyal
Samarth Goyal
Hindustan Times
Lorde,Shmuley Boteach,Vladimir Putin
Kiwi singer Lorde was labelled a “bigot” in a full-page newspaper ad after she called off her concert in Israel over its conflict with Palestine.(AFP)

Music, as the Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman once told us, has often been used to talk about the socially and politically relevant topics that grip the world. Kiwi singer Lorde is the most recent name to make such a statement — as part of BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), Lorde cancelled her concert in Tel Aviv, Israel, scheduled for June 2018.

What Lorde did was a gesture of censure for the alleged atrocities committed by Israel in its decades-long conflict with Palestine. Israel has retaliated by taking out a full-page newspaper ad that describes Lorde as a “bigot”, calls her out for joining “an anti-Semitic boycott”, and points out that she hadn’t cancelled her tour of Russia, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who has been blamed for a genocide in Syria. The 21-year-old musician issued a statement saying it was the “right decision at this time is to cancel the show”. Lorde’s decision came reportedly after “an overwhelming number of messages and letters [from fans] and [after] a lot of discussions”. The Israeli advert countered: “Lorde and New Zealand ignore Syria to attack Israel.”

On December 29, 2017, celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach had appealed on Twitter to promote an ad slamming Lorde for her stance. He tweeted: “Help publish our ad against #LordeBDS in America’s leading outlets. Need your help now.” On January 2, the full-page ad appeared in the American daily Washington Post.

The debate on ‘to perform or not to perform’ in Israel has been going for a while now — before Lorde, musicians such as Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, Sonic Youth, and Lana Del Rey have cancelled their concerts in Israel.

English musician Roger Waters advocates a concert boycott of Israel to support BDS.

Roger Waters, former member of the iconic rock band Pink Floyd, has been the torchbearer for BDS, urging artists to not perform in Israel. BDS is a global campaign that aims to increase pressure on the Israeli government to end its attacks on Palestine and what the campaign calls violation of International Law. In 2017, Waters was involved in a heated debate with English band Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke, after the latter refused to cancel his Israel concert. Yorke accused Waters of throwing “s*** at us in public” and of being “deeply disrespectful to assume that we’re either being misinformed or that we’re so retarded we can’t make these decisions ourselves”.

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke refused to join the BDS movement against Israel.

Performing in Israel is not the only issue where musicians face a dilemma. In April 2016, Canadian rocker Bryan Adams announced that he was cancelling his concert in Mississippi, US, after the state passed a Religious Liberty Bill, allowing businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples. Adams was heavily criticised for performing just a month before that in Egypt, a country where 95 per cent of the people — as per a 2013 survey — believed that homosexuality shouldn’t be accepted by society.

Canadian singer-songwriter Bryan Adams was slammed for cancelling his concert in Mississippi, US.

Also in April 2016, Bruce Springsteen refused to perform in North Carolina, US, after a bill was passed — nicknamed the ‘bathroom law’ — enforcing that people use washrooms according to the gender specified on their birth certificate. This law was seen by many as being discriminatory towards transgenders. But The Boss was called out “for his bully tactics” and slammed for cancelling the event.

Singer Bruce Springsteen cancelled his performance in North Carolina, US, over the ‘bathroom law’, seen as being discriminatory towards transgender people. (REUTERS)

Musicians Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas, too, cancelled their performances in North Carolina because of the ‘bathroom law’. In the statement posted on Twitter, they said: “One of our goals for the tour has always been to create an atmosphere where every single attendee feels equal, included, and accepted for who they are.” Among other heavyweight artists who boycotted North Carolina were singer Beyoncé and the band Pearl Jam.

The fan reaction varied — while some appreciated the artists’ decision to cancel their shows, others questioned why these same artists performed in countries that had even stricter laws against the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. It was also suggested that the artists were punishing the public for a law that was passed by the government, and that boycotting a country or cancelling concerts wouldn’t have any effect on government policies or laws.

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First Published: Jan 04, 2018 16:25 IST