ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Nicki Minaj is one of hip-hop's most provocative artists. So it was surprising that she was invited to perform at a music festival in Saudi Arabia. It's one of the world's most conservative countries, a place where no women were allowed to give public concerts until two years ago. Minaj accepted the invitation and was announced as the headliner last week. Then this afternoon, under heated criticism, Minaj pulled out. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas joins us now to talk this over. Hey there.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: OK. Let's start by just playing a clean version of one of Nicki Minaj's songs and imagine this being performed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANACONDA")
NICKI MINAJ: (Rapping) Bang, bang, bang, I let him hit it 'cause he hang, hang, hang. All in the salad like his name Romaine. And when we done, I make him buy me Balmain...
SHAPIRO: Anastasia, how was this supposed to go over?
TSIOULCAS: That's a really good question and I guess one that we don't have to quite answer (laughter) Ari, now that it's not happening. But it's really hard to imagine an artist like Nicki Minaj to be in a place like Jeddah. You know, there have been other foreign artists who have performed in the kingdom in the last couple of years, people like Mariah Carey and Enrique Iglesias and the Backstreet Boys, but Nicki Minaj, that's something else altogether.
SHAPIRO: Right. And so then this afternoon, she told the Associated Press that she's not going. What happened between the time she accepted and now?
TSIOULCAS: Well, she had been invited to perform at this festival called the Jeddah World Fast. And you're right. She was the headliner, but she was along some other big names, too, like the DJ Steve Aoki and Liam Payne, who used to be in the boy band One Direction. But activists, including the Human Rights Foundation, had been urging her and other artists to cancel given the Saudi leadership's stance on things like human rights and freedom of speech and women's rights. And so just this afternoon, she said, quote, "after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression."
SHAPIRO: This is a country where women are required to cover up in public, where many businesses are segregated by gender, where people who speak critically of the regime, including journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have been killed. So why would they have invited somebody as unapologetically explicit and sexual as Nicki Minaj in the first place?
TSIOULCAS: Well, she is undoubtedly popular across the globe. And only until a couple of years ago, no artists were allowed to perform in the capital city, in Riyadh. And the Saudi leadership at the same time knows that its citizens regularly go abroad to places like the Emirates to hear concerts and see movies and do the things they can't do at home. And about three years ago, the Saudi government announced these plans to diversify its economy away from oil, and building entertainment at home was one of those strategies. But it's still Saudi Arabia, so alcohol and drugs are banned. And any woman attending the concert is, of course, expected to cover themselves wearing a full-length abaya, and many Saudi women choose to veil their faces as well. So it's a real disparity between what could have been happening on stage and what it looked like in the audience.
SHAPIRO: So do you see all of this as an effort by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to wipe away some of the very public criticism of his regime's human rights abuses and change the subject to talk about entertainment instead?
TSIOULCAS: That could definitely be a factor, Ari, especially as you mentioned the killing of Khashoggi, and a music festival could be an attempt to soften the country's outward-facing image. They're planning to broadcast the festival internationally and even make visas more accessible for foreigners who want to go to this music festival. But I think it's also been an attempt to soften the image of the Saudi government for people inside of Saudi Arabia as well.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thank you.
TSIOULCAS: Pleasure to be here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")
MINAJ: (Singing) Boy, you got my heartbeat runnin' away.
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