On the face of it, it’s an innocuous charity cocktail party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a launch for a United Nations-supported CD to benefit people with AIDS. The recordings come from a roster of A-list music stars, from Britney Spears to Mary J. Blige, Paul Simon and Judy Collins.
But presiding over tonight’s party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel -- and the Royal Initiative to Combat AIDS benefit CD itself -- is King Mswati III of Swaziland, who is listed in a news release as the charity’s founder and whose rule has been criticized by human rights groups and foreign diplomats.
The king’s desire for a $50-million private jet has angered international aid organizations that are monitoring the desperately poor Hawaii-sized kingdom tucked between Mozambique and South Africa.
His monarchy’s treatment of the press and the judiciary has drawn diplomatic disapproval. And he has brought considerable scrutiny to Africa’s last absolute monarchy since the fall, when an 18-year-old girl was snatched from a schoolyard to make her the king’s 10th wife. This is precisely the kind of patriarchal practice that is blamed by some human rights groups for exacerbating his country’s AIDS crisis.
Artists’ representatives interviewed for this story say they were unaware of the king’s reputation. UN officials say they were aware, and although some would have liked to see a more prestigious figurehead -- Nelson Mandela for example -- associated with the charity, they still think the Swazi initiative is a worthy effort. Representatives of EMI, which is distributing the “Songs for Life” CD, say they just found out -- but still are proud to be associated with the project.
“We believe this project is extremely worthy and necessary,” said Jeanne Meyer, senior vice president of corporate communications for EMI. “We were pleased to play a role in distributing this record because we believe it will be a powerful awareness tool of a huge global problem.”
Human rights groups, however, expressed concern.
“What better way to deflect these allegations of predatory behavior toward young women than to do work on HIV AIDS,” said Adotei Akwei, the Africa advocacy director of Amnesty International. “No one is going to deny the need for HIV AIDS projects in Africa. But the way this seems to have come together should have set off alarm bells in some people’s minds.”
It came together with the help of Paul Marshall of the Marshall Firm in New York. He called the criticism leveled at the king “baseless.”
“It’s nonsense,” he said. “A lot of the [artists] knew about it. It was in the papers, on CNN. We talked about it with some of them.
“I don’t what this has to do with [the AIDS benefit CD],” Marshall said.
Taina Bien-Aime, the executive director of a global women’s rights group, New-York based Equality Now, said she found it disturbing that the king of Swaziland would be “rewarded” with a celebrity CD.
“That is simply outrageous,” she said. “I think it’s really wonderful for artists to contribute their music to causes, but they need to make sure people they are supporting don’t violate the rights of women. I’m sure any artist on that list would be outraged by what the Swazi king is doing to women in that country. The question is, did these artists know?”
In the case of Dick Alen, a William Morris agent for Aretha Franklin, who contributed the recording “Angel” to the CD, the answer is no.
“I don’t know anything about any king,” Alen said. “To me, it was just an AIDS project. The attorney who asked her to do it was quite reputable.”
That attorney was Marshall, whose deep ties to the entertainment industry date from years of legal work in the field. His ties to the king of Swaziland began two years ago, Marshall said, when his photographer wife took the official photos of the Swazi royal family. Marshall said he was retained to perform legal services for Mswati -- something he still does.
He said he and his wife visited the country and were stunned by the depth of the AIDS crisis. “You walk into a village and you see old people and cute little kids and no one in between,” he said. “All the cynicism dissipates.”
Marshall said when the Swazis learned he had been involved with six Special Olympics Christmas albums, the idea of the AIDS compact disc “just came up in a conversation with the king.”
“I said I’d find people to do it.” Marshall said he contacted Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone to help. Marshall also said Denise Rich, a songwriter whose former husband, fugitive financier Mark Rich, was pardoned by Bill Clinton, wrote two songs for the CD, “Children of All Nations” and “Sacred Pledge,” both of which were included. The recordings of 24 artists -- Mary J. Blige, Judy Collins, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears -- also were donated to the CD, he said.
Marshall said legal paperwork for the Royal Initiative to Combat AIDS, or RICA, was filed three years ago. He said the king is not on the board.
But David Miller, an American businessman who is RICA secretary, called it “the king’s charity.” Miller, who said he owns 12 sugar plantations in Africa and spends most of his time there, said he met the 35-year-old king in the 1980s. “Paul Marshall said, ‘You ought to do this for the king,’ ” Miller recalled.
Miller said Marshall was paid for some of the time and expenses he devoted to the CD and donated the rest.
“When I talked to the king about doing the CD, it was important to his majesty that we get the best” artists, Miller said.
“We’re hoping we are the world’s CD for HIV/AIDS.”
Miller said the on-the-ground-coordinator for the charity is George Lys, a self-described “king’s confidant” for 14 years. Lys said he has worked on Canadian and British economic development programs, and will use the Global Fund of the UNAIDS program to help channel charity proceeds to the most worthy AIDS projects in 14 African countries.
“We will be engaged at the delivery end of this initiative,” he said
Desmond Johns, director of the UNAIDS office in New York, said “UNAIDS welcomes leadership of this kind,” especially “for a country like Swaziland,whose [adult] HIV rate is close to 40%, and is in the midst of a drought.”
It was Swaziland’s impoverishment that triggered the outrage of international donors when the Swazi king, who took over the throne in 1986 at age 18, tried to spend two times his national health budget on a personal jet last summer. He backed down from an effort to make his brother a chief of two provinces.
But Swaziland’s worst political crisis since independence from Britain in 1968 occurred in October when agents of the Swazi king allegedly picked up Zena Mahlangu, 18, a student, and took her to the Royal Palace. Her mother sued to reclaim her, but she and her lawyers were not allowed to see the girl, according to Amnesty International.
“Ms. Lindiwe Dlamini is fully entitled to have access to her daughter, who has been held effectively incommunicado since she was secretly removed from her mother’s custody for the purpose of making her the tenth wife of the king,” the report said.
“By their actions the king and his agents have violated the internationally recognized human rights of women and girls,” it said. “These violations are a consequence of the long-standing pattern of discrimination and subordination of women in Swaziland. In a country where one-third of the population is HIV positive, sexual violence also constitutes a threat to life.”
Marshall said Mswati didn’t buy the jet and married the girl.
“These things always pose an issue for the artists involved,” said Elliot Mintz, publicist for Yoko Ono, who contributed two songs -- John Lennon’s “Power to the People” and Ono and Lennon’s “Hard Times Are Over” -- to the CD. Mintz said he too was unaware of the king’s alleged peccadilloes.
“You and I face these questions when we open our mailbox every morning,” he said. “The alternative would be indifference. That’s something people with conscience just can’t do.”