J Lo joins Beyonce and Maria Carey in lineup of dictator divas

They've all sung to some of the world's most unpleasant dictators.

A report by the Human Rights Foundation has estimated that Jennifer Lopez has earned £6.6 m singing for some of the world's most unpleasant dictators and crooked industrialists — including at Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's birthday party (try saying that after a couple of toasts in his honour) last month. 

J Lo's publicist later said that she would have never performed had she realised there were "human rights issues of any kind" — which strikes me as rather unlikely. Even if the star herself was too busy shopping for her latest diamante leotard, surely someone in her famously sizeable entourage would have time to flick through Human Rights Watch's reporting on Turkmenistan which describes it.

She's not the only pop diva happy to play for thugs, dictators and criminals for cash, however. Beyonce famously earned $1 m playing for Gaddafi's son Mutassim (which she later said she donated to Haiti). Mariah Carey also accepted money from Libya's ruling family as did, moving on to pop stars more generally, Usher, Nelly Furtardo, Lionel Ritchie and 50 Cent.

I don't buy the often used argument that music stars didn't realise that their presidential patrons abused human rights. Nor do I think that donating these earnings to charity after a public backlash makes everything OK again.

Sting's defiant response to his £1- £2m pay cheque from the Uzbek president's daughter Gulnara Karimova — he argued that he didn't believe in cultural boycotts as they only make closed regimes more insular — was self-serving and arrogant. The people who benefited from Sting's generous cultural exchange were the elite guests of the presidents daughter. Does he imagine they will be so inspired by 'Fields of Gold' that they will spontaneously lift controls on homegrown artists and journalists? 

Given these pop star payrolls, stunts like biting the head off a bat don't seem so bad after all — except that Black Sabbath (including bat-eating Ozzy Osbourne) performed for South Africa's apartheid regime, too.

This piece first appeared on Spears Magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.