When pop stars Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Nelly Furtado and 50 Cent recently said they'd renounced millions of dollars they'd received for performing for members of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi's family, they drew attention to a growing and controversial cultural phenomenon: celebrity artists being hired by rich, powerful and sometimes disreputable clients to play at private or semi-private functions.
From flashy hotel openings to wedding receptions, upscale bat mitzvahs and Caribbean bacchanalias, brand-name musicians, Hollywood actors and other celebrities are increasingly renting out their talents, or simply their crowd-drawing presence, for under-the-radar engagements.
Despite the potential ethical breaches, and the risk of tainting their public images, big stars likely will continue to be tempted by fat fees and all-expense-paid trips by private jet to a remote tropical island or luxury resort. Today's free-spending clients include Fortune 500 corporations, Wall Street tycoons and nouveau-riche developing-world businessmen.
Some of these artists may be motivated largely by money and are ignorant of, or indifferent to, political concerns. Others like Sting, who performed at a 2009 concert arranged at the behest of the daughter of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov (known for jailing dissidents and other human rights abuses), see themselves as cultural ambassadors opening new communications channels into closed societies.
Top stars' managers take care to protect their artists' reputations by prescreening clients, "so they know they're not getting a briefcase of cash that wouldn't be clean, wouldn't be legal and would cause them all kinds of problems," said Bob van Ronkel, who runs a Moscow-based business that arranges for actors and musicians to appear at charity events, concerts and other activities, frequently in Russia and Central Asia.
But that can be difficult if the client is using a third-party intermediary or hiding behind a pseudonym, as one of Gadhafi's sons is known to do, Van Ronkel said.
That was the explanation put forward by Carey when she renounced the reported $1 million she earned for giving a private 2008 New Year's Eve concert bankrolled by a member of the Gadhafi family.
"I was naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for," the singer, who has a substantial record of philanthropic activities, said in a statement.
A few days previously, Furtado, the Canadian pop chanteuse, had announced in a Twitter message that she planned to give away the $1 million she made playing a 45-minute show for the Gadhafi clan at an Italian hotel in 2007.
Beyonce said in a statement that she hadn't realized who was picking up the tab for a Gadhafi-sponsored private party. "Once it became known that the third-party promoter was linked to the Gadhafi family, the decision was made to put that payment to a good cause," the statement read. The singer said she already had donated the money she earned to Haitian earthquake-relief efforts.
Then last week rapper 50 Cent said that he, too, would donate to charity the money he'd earned performing several years ago at yet another private event linked to Gadhafi.
Sting, for his part, offered no public mea culpa for playing the Uzbekistan concert, for which the former lead singer of the Police, well-known for his concert work on behalf of human rights and ecological causes, reportedly pocketed as much as 2 million British pounds. Sting later said he was "well aware of the Uzbek president's appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment. I made the decision to play there in spite of that."
"I have come to believe," the rock star declared, "that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counterproductive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular."