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Johannesburg - Pop icon Madonna has caused a furore after she posted altered photos of Nelson Mandela, civil rights leader Martin Luther King jr, Bob Marley, John Lennon and Jesus to promote her new album, named Rebel Heart.

The pictures feature images of the civil rights trio tied up in black string, in the same pose that Madonna makes on her album cover and the social media backlash has forced her into an apology.

The images all feature taglines that allude to the name of the album which will be out in March.

In Madiba’s case it says: “This #rebelheart fought for freedom”, while King’s photo was also hashtagged: “This #rebelheart”.

“Disgusting!” That’s how Afro-jazz musician Sibongile Khumalo summed it. “What Madonna has done is completely distasteful. She’s doing this at a time when so much has been done to denigrate our heroes. Her desperate attempt to be relevant is disgusting. She cannot be in the same league as the icons whose legacies she’s trying to appropriate. She’s flopped big time,” said Khumalo.

KZN Film Commission’s chairman Welcome Msomi, who was part of the organising committee for Madiba’s inauguration in 1994, was also unimpressed.

“We should not use his name for purposes of self-enrichment. His legacy stood for helping children and poor people. I do not know why she is using his name. Maybe it is for marketing her album or to position herself to certain people. She should have consulted the foundation for permission to use his name.

“This needs to be frowned upon to discourage others with similar intentions,” said Msomi.

Danielle Melville, the director for communications and outreach of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said the organisation was not formally consulted with regards to the use of Madiba’s image.

She said: “The foundation will consult with Madonna’s team and investigate the facts further surrounding the use of the image. The trademark guidelines with regards to the use of Madiba’s image do not allow the commercialisation or unauthorised use of his image.”

While some fans backed Madonna, many commentators on Twitter lashed out at her.

“What makes Madonna think that she can be compared to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King jr and Bob Marley?” said one.

“Wow, @madonna quite literally brands Martin Luther King jr & Nelson Mandela to promote her new album. New low; epitome of white privilege,” said another.

Madonna posted the picture of Mandela on Friday and received major flak for the images.

Maryanne Venneri posted “Only Madonna would be disillusioned enough to compare herself to Mandela, MLK, Jesus Christ, Bob Marley and John Lennon. All dead, mind you, so that they can’t issue this wacko a cease and desist order.”

Sosa McHardy Nastcher also commented: “Martin L King and Mandela were Not Rebels. Stupid b**** and she is nowhere near their league. These people are heroes. She’s 60 years old and still has not learned the value of life. Sit your irrelevant a**e down, your album is not going to sell.”

However, there were some who sided with the star, claiming that she was a hero just like Mandela.

Shaleen Jacobs posted: “Mandela was a freedom fighter that fought against apartheid. I know because I am from South Africa. Madonna has done her research, she’s a very intelligent woman and I admire her for acknowledging our president Nelson Mandela.”

Martha Tékova also said she doesn’t know why people are annoyed as she bet “no one cared about Mandela until he died”. Shaun Naidu posted on The Sunday Independent’s sister paper, the Sunday Tribune page, saying the picture was not at all disrespectful.

“It’s actually positive that US artists are aspiring to be like Nelson Mandela in their own way and industry. She also made reference to Martin Luther King. Judging from the current state of affairs in South Africa’s Parliament, I think more politicians and people should aspire to be like Nelson Mandela so that they see corruption as an enemy to our nation as a whole,” said Naidu.

Some agreed with her fans. Sandile Memela, spokesman for the Department of Arts and Culture, said: “Some will have serious reservations with Madonna portraying herself to be in the same league (as Mandela). She will unavoidably be condemned for commercialisation of these legends for self-gain.”

However, he believed that the “memorialisation of what these icons stood for and the popularisation of their struggle will always be something to welcome”.

“The world needs inspirational figures. And these faces remind us of what we need here and now. The world has come to accept Madonna as the queen of melodrama but we can also choose to listen to what she has to say. These legends are world heritage now and artists will unavoidably use them to promote them and their message. All the figures including Madonna are gagged and censored. This is the global status quo as we all live in a patriarchal, capitalist and exploitative system,” said Memela.

This is not the first controversy surrounding the Rebel Heart album for the 56-year-old star. Songs from the album leaked onto the internet months ahead of the album’s release late last year, which Madonna likened to “terrorism” and “rape”. In her response, Madonna said: “I’m sorry, I’m not comparing myself to anyone. I’m admiring and acknowledging their Rebel Hearts. This is neither a crime (nor) an insult or racist!”

Sunday Independent