The media furore following Akon’s latest performance in Dubai belies the cultural sensitivities that must be considered by Western-style event promoters operating in the GCC region.
A seemingly innocuous onstage incident that would be otherwise ignored elsewhere can prove a major cultural faux pas in the Middle East. Often, the situation is the result of ill-discipline on the part of the artist or incompetency on behalf of the event promoter to alert the artist to the potential consequences of their actions.
In this latest case, Akon and his kilt-wearing DJ removed their t-shirts and threw them in the crowd, contravening a contract between the event promoter, Vibe, and government authority Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), banning on-stage nudity and other risqué behaviour from the performance.
The situation quickly turned shambolic as security guards leapt to the stage and tried to cover the Senegalese-American rapper with blankets, only for him to throw them – the blankets, not the security guards* – into the bemused crowd of mostly late-teen punters.
(*Akon was convicted of throwing a teenage fan off a stage in New York in 2007, hence the clarification).
Given the rapper’s history of albeit relatively minor misdemeanours and the fact he’s performed in Dubai with almost monotonous regularity in recent years, most of the blame for the latest infraction should fall squarely on his shoulders.
A contrite Akon later apologised for causing any offence, a fact that went someway to ensuring Vibe escaped with little more than a warning from the DTCM.
Still, the nature of the incident highlights the hypersensitive cultural environment in which local promoters operate.
As a result, most, if not all, include a comprehensive list of acceptable – and unacceptable behaviour – in the contracts signed with touring artists, ensuring liability rests largely on the shoulders of the touring party.
Still, when things do go wrong, the promoter is often left to deal with authorities, while the artist can happily leave the country – albeit, often never being allowed to return.
One infamous case in the UAE highlights the discrepancies that can often arise. After indulging in some particularly risqué behaviour on stage at a showcase gig in the emirates, a high-profile young male solo artist was taken directly to the airport and flown out of the country at the request of authorities, leaving the local promoter to deal with the fallout.
While this particular artist will never return, it’s highly unlikely he would have incurred any penalty – financial or otherwise – as a result of his actions. In fact, his management team might even perceive the notoriety attached to the situation as credible for business, long-term.
Such situations go a long way to explaining the overriding preference to tour ‘safe’ artists in this region and the perceived lack of risk-taking on the part of promoters. But given the evidence of recent events and the potential risks involved in steering clear of the mainstream, who can blame them?