Exploring The Problematic Politics of M.I.A.

It is easy, perhaps frighteningly easy, for our politicians and aspiring presidential candidates to discuss the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis in calculated statistics—and with downright bigotry. The current climate of paranoia has allowed us to overlook the inhumane conditions that migrants are faced with upon their exit, not to mention the incredibly dangerous and fatal obstacles that await them on their journey to a safer home. Some were given their fist palpable taste of these conditions late November, from an unlikely source: A music video called “Borders” from the always enigmatic M.I.A.

M.I.A., born Maya Arulpragasam, considers herself both a musician and visual artist in equal parts, the latter of which was used to devastating effect with “Borders.” Recreating varied aspects of a migrant’s journey, such as scenes with impenetrable barbed wire fences and bustling voyages by boat, the short clip succeeds in providing a stylized glimpse into the horrifying realities of the current refugee crisis. Yet for all of its visual power, the track carries little, if any, reference to the crisis musically or lyrically. It is a song built around the question “What’s up with that?”–a vague remark drawn to everything from being “bae” and “queen” to broad subjects like “politics” or “religion.” Lyrically, it fails to make an incisive statement about anything.

Despite her international success and musical acumen, this is a problem inherent throughout the career of M.I.A.; she presents herself as an ambassador of the third world, but barely scratches the surface of a definite message, and doesn’t address her own position in the world. In all fairness, her intentions are in the right place. Arulpragasam was born in the UK, but moved with her family to their native Sri Lanka at the tender age of 6 months. It was there that she reportedly lived in “big-time poverty” during the country’s civil war, before emigrating back to the UK at age 10.

It was because of this real, lived experience of third world atrocities that M.I.A. had such a massive impact with the release of her first two albums, 2005’s Arular and 2007’s Kala. She presented an aesthetic that was true to life, weaving stoner-rap culture with tales of her experiences in Sri Lanka. For example, “10 Dollar” is a club banger that is about child prostitution. “Mango Pickle Down River” features an actual chorus of Aboriginal boys from Australia.

Being that M.I.A. has proven herself capable of finding harmony between serious subject matter and pleasurable electronic music, makes her ham-fisted failings all the more pronounced. Tracks like “Bucky Done Gun,” “Bamboo Banga,” and the recent title-track “MATANGI” carry a message by reciting names of impoverished countries like a laundry list. Simply rapping “Bali, Mali, Chile, Malawi” makes a great rhyme, but says nothing that the audience couldn’t glean from flipping through an atlas.

The vague sense of activism she proclaims so heavily is frustrating, to say the least. This confusion was infamously captured in her 2010 New York Times cover story, wherein her passionate calls for attention to the genocide in Sri Lanka are only expressed in her art in a song like “Sunshowers” (which pays just as much attention to references of Ringo Starr). With such a divide between potent rhetoric and feel-good, nonsensical music, it began to seem that M.I.A. wasn’t capable of translating her experiences into anything more than an aesthetic.

That said, “Borders” is a fantastic example of what she can do well: Create a music video that can broadly encompass the themes not present in her music. “Borders” has absolutely no substantial merit in its lyrical content, but the video has been rapid-shared across the Internet like wildfire. The reaction is similar to the release of “Born Free,” the highly controversial video from 2010 that depicted red-head genocide, which was devastating in its brutal depiction. Though entirely metaphorical, it showed the reality of an authoritarian government-issued mass killing of young white men, a ploy that ensured maximum impact for a viewing audience that would otherwise be unable to relate.

The only thing that remains clear in M.I.A.’s artistic trajectory is that she thrives on controversy. This is, after all, the woman who flipped off America during a Superbowl halftime show and incensed untold millions of sensitive football fans. Ambiguity with her message may then be an inherent part of her image, one that causes us as an audience to delve deeper on our own to the issues she merely hints at. She is an artist that can be banned from the US due to her rhetoric on government surveillance, while simultaneously eating truffle fries in a life of luxury.

Ulterior motives aside, videos allow M.I.A. to create a platform that makes sense. “Borders” is not perfect, nor does it address the problems of her privileged, bucket-hat wearing persona being the medium to present this issue to the public conscious. What matters most, more than infantile lyrics and more than iffy activism, is that she is addressing these issues in an arena that will be seen by millions. That is something that belongs to M.I.A. alone; not many attempt political discourse though pop music. In which case, is it not better to address these issues with some credibility than to not address them at all?

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