Despite some activists calling for John Legend to cancel his visit, because of Bahrain's deplorable human rights record, the award-winning American singer performed to a sold-out crowd of 2000 people at a cultural event hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain on Monday night.
Legend addressed critic concerns right before performing his award-winning song Glory from the film Selma. The film is based on the historic 1965 march in Alabama, led by American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Legend said:
A just society is one built not on fear or repression or vengeance or exclusion, but one built on love […] 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 concert at the historic open-air Arad Fort in the capital was “guarded by anti-riot police vehicles outside the entrance”.
Bahrain's “Spring of Culture” events are hosted by the government of Bahrain every year. According to an investigation commission set-up by the King, while the government has been hosting these events it is also responsible for destroying centuries-old cultural monuments in Bahrain.
In the past, artists like the famous Arab composer Marcel Khalifa have boycotted the Spring of Culture in protest of the killing of unarmed civilians in Bahrain.
The small island country of 1.3 million people has been witnessing a brutal crackdown following a popular uprising in 2011. Activists have been tortured, killed or imprisoned. The country's majority Shia population are being systematically repressed.
Two opposition members who participated in conversations with the government were arrested in the last two months. Dozens of Bahraini bloggers, journalists and opposition leaders have had their citizenship stripped.
Before arriving in Bahrain, John Legend published this statement:
Often, the best way to drive progress is to show up and participate in the conversation.
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
Many activists were skeptical whether Legend would even mention Bahrain on stage. Academic researcher and activist Ala'a Shehabi tweeted:
Who wd seriously put money down on @johnlegend speaking out against the violent abuse of his hosts today? Mic + movement tightly controlled
— Ala'a Shehabi (@alaashehabi) March 2, 2015
The press officer at Human Rights Watch Jan Kooy tweeted:
— Jan Kooy (@KooyJan) March 2, 2015
Many critics were surprised by Legend remarks before singing his award winning single “Glory”. Here's the full text of his speech:
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.
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…
After John Legend finished his concert in Bahrain, news of yet another African American shot by the police in Los Angeles started circulating, and in Bahrain another detained woman started a hunger strike. Human rights activist Sayed Yousif tweeted:
— S.Yousif Almuhafdah (@SAIDYOUSIF) March 3, 2015
The detainee Jaleela Alsayed Amin has started a hunger strike in protest to denying her visitation rights