Pharrell Williams, a ten-time Grammy Award winner, has canceled his 21 July performance in Tel Aviv amid conflicting explanations.
Over the last year, the “Happy” pop star has faced sustained pressure from the Palestine solidarity movement. Last year, amid rumors that he would be scheduling a Tel Aviv performance, campaigners urged him not to go.
In an open letter, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said that by performing in Tel Aviv, Williams would show himself “indifferent to the suffering of Palestinian children.”
The cancellation also comes as other big names, including Carlos Santana, are being urged by fans not to “entertain apartheid” by performing at Israeli venues.
Israeli media have provided conflicting explanations for Pharrell’s Tel Aviv no-show.
BDS South Africa has made Williams a focus of its campaigning over his endorsement of the retail chain Woolworths, because of its sales of Israeli goods.
Last September, an effort to limit the size of a Palestine solidarity protest outside the Cape Town venue where Williams was perfoming was thrown out by a South African judge.
Williams has been publicly unresponsive to appeals for him to use his platform to support – or at least not be complicit in the violation of – Palestinian human rights.
But recently he made a modest gesture in response to a call for solidarity with activists, bloggers and journalists jailed and abused in a crackdown by Azerbaijan’s dictatorial regime.
Williams was one of several international stars who performed as part of the Formula 1 racing event in the capital Baku last month.
Azerbaijan is a close military and intelligence ally of Israel. According to The Jerusalem Post, Azerbaijan buys billions in weapons from Israel, making it the second biggest market in Asia, after India, for Israeli arms.
Sports for Rights, a coalition of international human rights groups, did not call on Formula 1 or international artists to boycott Azerbaijan, but asked for public condemnations of abuses and pressure for them to stop.
“Chris Brown and Enrique Iglesias completely ignored our calls,” Rebecca Vincent, coordinator of Sports for Rights, told the publication Eurasianet of two other singers who performed in Baku during the Formula 1 event.
“We received no response from their managers or publicists, and they have performed without uttering a single word about the situation in the country – [a] real shame, as they have become part of the Azerbaijani regime’s propaganda machine,” Vincent added.
But Pharrell received credit for speaking out – however obliquely – in apparent response to the campaign’s call.
“Make some noise for the youth of Azerbaijan!” he said at his performance. “Those beautiful children: they are the future! When they grow up they will change things not only here, but around the world and no one can stop them.”
He then dedicated his song “Freedom” to them.
While Williams has yet to make even such a timid public gesture in support of the rights of Palestinians, campaigners will be pleased that his performance in Tel Aviv is off – no matter the publicly stated reasons.