While in Qatar, gently weep: music and the rancid politics of culture-washing at the World Cup

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The following op/ed comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. (Pre-warning: in the following article, for our US friends, ‘football’ is soccer.)

Expecting the music business to be morally and ethically beyond reproach might be an exercise in towering futility. People and companies in the music business can behave badly, they often act with impunity and their fingerprints are occasionally over things they really shouldn’t be anywhere near. 

But the music business has at least one worthy point in its favour: it is not FIFA, the international governing body of association football (as well as, I just learned, beach football and futsal). 

FIFA is, and let’s not mince our words here, a cesspit. 

In 2018, FIFA brought the World Cup to Russia (how’s that choice looking now?). And this year it has brought it to Qatar. Qatar! Where does that leave it to take it in 2026? North Korea? Hades? 

There has, very rightly, been a huge outrage that acts and events such as Robbie Williams, Arcadia, Enrique Iglesias, Black Eyed Peas, Maroon 5, Post Malone and J Balvin are all prepared to ignore a litany of human rights abuses in Qatar in order to pick up a plump fee to provide musical respite in and around the assorted football games.   

There were always huge ethical problems with musicians doing private gigs for dictators and politically questionable leaders. Lots of acts have done such shows for staggering sums of cash but one (flimsy) defence is that these were “private” events and generally behind closed doors. It’s not much of a justification but it’s certainly very different to being the public face of an event in a country that rides roughshod over basic human rights. 

It’s like willingly being the interlude at a totalitarian Super Bowl halftime show. Or behaving like an obedient and complicit Steven Shorter in a 2022 reimagining of Privilege.

Some acts have publicly attacked the games and music’s involvement in the World Cup in Qatar.

Rod Stewart revealed what sort of money was being offered here, claiming he turned down close to £1 million to perform, saying “it’s not right”. Dua Lipa had to issue a public statement saying that she would not be playing the opening ceremony. And Robert Smith, in an act of black humour, also denied The Cure were going to perform, making pointed reference to bread and circuses and how all this was a diversion strategy. 

Football has, for at least the past three decades, proudly prized profit over purity, so it’s not really a surprise that it happily goes where human rights are a chimera. 

Now, more than ever, the music business (or parts of it) are holding hands with football – in a purely heterosexual way, of course – in a country where being gay is illegal. It’s actually against the law for two people of the same sex to publicly show affection for each other. If they do, they risk being put in prison. Or they could just accept “state-mandated conversion therapy” instead. What a choice. 

The British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly – living proof that nominative determinism does not exist – advised any LGBTQ+ fans who wanted to attend games there (why?) that they should “be respectful of the host nation”. He added, “With a little bit of flex and compromise at both ends, it can be a safe, secure and exciting World Cup.” That makes it all fine. Thanks for clearing that up. Great work. Incredible work. Absolutely fantastic work.

Then there’s the shocking number of construction worker deaths that happened as part of the country’s efforts to get itself ready for the World Cup. 

In early 2021, The Guardian reported that over 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar in the 10 years since the country was awarded the World Cup by FIFA. These are only numbers for workers coming from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The actual number of deaths could be even higher as they do not include workers from other countries including the Philippines and Kenya.

Qatar has been a massive building site since it was named as the 2022 host. “In addition to seven new stadiums, dozens of major projects have been completed or are under way, including a new airport, roads, public transport systems, hotels and a new city,” reported The Guardian last year.

Look again at those numbers. Over six and a half thousand people have died getting the country ready for the World Cup. Building sites are dangerous places but death rates on this scale are horrifying, primarily because it sends out a message that, in Qatar, human life is expendable. Human life is worthless. Only the PR message matters. 

The games in the competition are being played on top of thousands of corpses. 

The performers entertaining the crowds between games are, literally, dancing on unmarked graves. 

How are those chants about “football coming home” and the platitudinous words about “the unifying power of music” tasting in your mouth now?

This is all a bit “physician, heal thyself” with the music industry trying to tell another industry, like football, to act with decorum and rectitude. But to actually join in and ignore human rights abuses that happen on an industrial level is more than a step too far. It is, from every conceivable angle, rancid. 

Being there is not going to have a “transformative impact” on Qatar. It’s not going to “drive change” inside the country. This is all a very dark and one-sided exchange. And music is being exploited here as much as football is. Come up with any argument you wish to justify your involvement here (and even give the money to charity), but it all boils down to taking money from a rotten system seeking to pretend to the world that it’s now a lot less rotten.

The World Cup is part of a cruel and cynical push to use music to paper over a catalogue of abhorrent human rights abuses. The more it happens, the more it will be normalised. 

The timing of the appointment of former AIM CEO Paul Pacifico at the Saudi Music Commission – another country with a disgraceful record of human rights abuses – is also no coincidence. This is all part of a concerted culture-washing drive by countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

2022 is a fork in the road year for music and if it wants to continue to be used by regimes and governments as a way to a) attract tourists and b) distract from what actually happens in these countries. 

Qatar is not using music to pull itself in a more liberal direction: it is using music to make what it does appear acceptable without actually changing a single thing. 

The music business cannot be complicit in this. It absolutely stinks. And the stink – that acrid stench of death – passes over to whoever is aiding their unspeakable marketing efforts.

Enjoy your putrid payday, but remember this: those bales of money can never mop up all the tears or the blood.Music Business Worldwide

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