One of Jennifer Lopez‘s hit songs is called “Follow the Leader” but today the singing superstar is trying to un-follow the leader of Turkmenistan after her birthday tribute to him landed the former “American Idol” judge in hot water.
Lopez, 43, performed in the former Soviet bloc country on Saturday night at an event hosted by the China National Petroleum Corp., her publicist told the Associated Press in a statement Sunday.
In attendance at the event was Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, since 2006 the leader of the country Human Rights Watch describes as “among the most repressive in the world.”
Towards the end of the concert Lopez, “graciously obliged,” according to her reps, a request from the concert’s host to sing “Happy Birthday” to Berdimuhamedow.
Her choice to sing directly to Berdimuhamedow caused an uproar, with critics questioning why someone ranked No. 12 on Forbes’s 2013 list of the most powerful celebrities who has also worked on human rights issues would agree to the tribute.
“Lopez obviously has the right to earn a living performing for the dictator of her choice and his circle of cronies, but her actions utterly destroy the carefully-crafted message she has cultivated with her prior involvement with Amnesty International’s programs in Mexico aimed at curbing violence against women,” Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, wrote in a statement. “What is the next stop on her tour, Syria? The dictator of Kazakhstan’s birthday is July 6, maybe she will also pay him a visit?”
A spokesperson for Lopez, a mother of two, says the singer was unaware of the dictator’s history.
“Had there been knowledge of human rights issues [of] any kind, Jennifer would not have attended,” the spokesperson told the Associated Press.
Lopez is not the first celebrity to come under fire for performing for a notorious leader.
Her fellow performers in the music world -Beyonce, Usher, and 50 Cent – and Mariah Carey, a singer who followed her as an “American Idol” judge, have all performed at parties linked to Muammar Gadahfi, the former dictator of Libya. They later donated their fees to charity.
It is not known how much Lopez was paid for her performance in Turkmenistan.
In 2011, Oscar winner Hilary Swank apologized after attending a birthday party for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov by saying she didn’t have a full understanding of the event.