The wisdom of 50 Cent

Prince Charles and rapper 50 Cent offer us valuable insights, while confused audiences spurn Sweeney

A notable controversy has emerged this week after BAFTA pulled out of a screening of a documentary about disability, financed and directed by disabled British filmmaker Richard Butchins. The film was due to be shown at BAFTA’s Piccadilly headquarters as part of a joint event with X’08, Europe’s largest disability festival. Mr Butchins shot the documentary one-handed and the film features disabled people touring the US as a carnival or burlesque. The director of X’08, Peter Kincaid, said that the film “illustrates how disabled artists are claiming their identity in a more assertive way that can be uncomfortable for some people in the nondisabled world.” BAFTA’s Head of Events, Corinna Downing, is said to have told Mr Butchins that the film was “too demanding” for audiences and “created too many questions.” As an alternative, BAFTA is said to have suggested a screening of Hollywood comedy Lars and the Real Girl, a film with an able-bodied cast about a delusional man who falls in love with a blow-up doll.

Woolworths has withdrawn its “Lolita” bed range for girls, which had been on sale through its website. The decision comes after parents expressed concern about the appropriateness of a children’s bed named after the 20th century’s most famous sexually precocious heroine. The Lolita bed was aimed at girls around 6 years old. A spokesman from Woolworths said: “What seems to have happened is the staff who run the website had never heard of Lolita, and to be honest no one else here had either. We had to look it up on Wikipedia. But we certainly know who she is now.”

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd debuted at Number 1 on its opening weekend in UK box offices, a surprising and exciting result for a musical. But how many of the punters stayed to watch the whole thing? There have been widespread reports of audience members walking out of screenings, having bought their tickets not realising that the film was, in fact, a musical.

Nearly 25 years after his famous “carbuncle” speech, Prince Charles has again decried modern skyscrapers – but this time to less seismic effect. “The general public has become far more design-savvy, which means people are better placed to judge what he is saying”, said Sundand Prasad, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. “I don't think he will get the same reflexive obedience this time." The more muted reaction this time around might also be a measure of the changing status of the Royal Family, and changing tastes in architecture.

From cityscapes to soundscapes: Uncut magazine have produced a musical “map” of Britain, using music sales figures to work out who is listening to what, and where. A pdf of the map is available here. According to the study, music gets faster the further north you go; and while jazz dominates in the West Country, heavy metal rules in the North East. There were also some eclectic regional mixtures: in the South Coast, Eurodisco and world pop are combined through the influence of the area’s international residents and visitors. In Northern Ireland, in contrast, country music and handbag house are combined: no explanation was given for this.

With all these shifting cultural markers and areas of contention, it is good to know that guidance is at hand. The platinum-selling rapper Kanye West has authored a self-help book and released a preview of it on his blog. Kanye recently overtook hiphop star 50 Cent in a highly-publicised rivalry. Extracts from Kanye’s book, entitled Thank You and You’re Welcome!, include aphorisms such as: “When you’re so focussed on what you don’t have …You won’t have!” and “Get use to getting used … To use is necessary. And if you can’t be used, you’re useless.” One can only look forward to 50’s response.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood