A line of brown men clings precariously to a barbed-wire fence, 20 feet above the ground. They shuffle along carefully, moving from one edge of the video frame towards the other. The shot changes—the men jostle with each other as they clamber up the fence. Another shot—the one that differentiates the video from documentary—their bodies, plastered on the fence, spell out the word “LIFE.” In front of them, the artist M.I.A. dons an outfit of dusty pink: overalls, a blush hat, and rose-tinted aviators. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, linking the scene to fashion-forward, comfortable Western culture as if she had teleported to the region without time to change or camouflage.
M.I.A.’s latest track “Borders” hinges on this superimposition of commercialism onto crisis. It’s an accusatory song from the beginning, opening with the line “Freedom, I-dom, me-dom, where’s your we-dom?” She moves from the intro to a hypnotic verse:
“Borders, what’s up with that?
Politics, what’s up with that?
Police shots, what’s up with that?
Identities, what’s up with that?
Your privilege, what’s up with that?
Broke people, what’s up with that?
Boat people, what’s up with that?”
The second verse follows the same structure—“queen,” “killing it,” “slaying it,” “being bae, what’s up with that?” to contrast the refugee crisis with pop culture pettiness. In doing so, M.I.A. critiques cultural apathy and hypocrisy. She stated in a recent interview with Time that the second verse features the questions that a refugee would have upon entering Europe—what is up with “slaying it?” How could “killing it” be a good thing?
It can seem hard to reach that interpretation when first listening to the song or watching the music video. She’s been criticized for the limited word count and repetitiveness of the lyrics, which some say create a seemingly oversimplified social critique. The images in the “Borders” video seem to anonymize refugees and further compromise a pro-refugee sentiment. Indeed, it is possible to dismiss the song’s pro-refugee impact entirely since it hasn’t reached the tens of millions of people that her previous songs have. But M.I.A.’s background as a refugee and intentions to advocate for the refugee community prevent such a ready dismissal of “Borders.”
Before she was M.I.A., the rapper and pop artist was London-born Maya Arulpragasam. At the age of six, her politically active father, Arular, moved their family to Sri Lanka, where militant Tamil groups like the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military fought a bloody civil war for control over the northeastern portions of the country. Her Tamil father co-founded the political group Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, later affiliated with the militant Tamil Tigers, the year that M.I.A. was born. As an elementary school student, M.I.A. was taught to flee to an English-language school when soldiers started shooting. The war eventually took the lives of 100,000 civilians, and the UN investigated both the LTTE and Sri Lankan military for widespread human rights violations.
Before her 11th birthday, M.I.A.’s mother moved her children back to London, where they received refugee status. She commented on the cultural distance between refugees and Western pop culture in “Banana Skit” on her 2005 debut album Arular—“Refugee education number one … Banana / Ba-na-na / Say it again now.” She said in a subsequent interview, “we’d learn English like we were two years old.”
In essence, M.I.A. does not focus on refugee-centric dialogue in order to maintain political relevance. Instead, recent discourse has focused on a refugee-host country dynamic that she has lived through and commented on for years. Her latest track is topical considering the millions of refugees that entered Europe in 2015, but the lyrics and images that she relies on for the song stretch more broadly to her past, and to other continents and immigration crises. Any analysis of her music needs to move beyond lyrics and style to appreciate the influence of her background. The sounds of warfare are at home amongst the heavy dance beats, as if she pulls violence from her daily lexicon. The “boat people” in her lyrics could refer to Syrian or North African refugees or the post-war influx from Vietnam, and the song’s music video features refugees climbing a fence resembling the U.S.-Mexico and Israeli-Palestinian borders.
Breaking genre borders
Much of the mainstream coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis has been written (op-eds, print and online news, social media) or videotaped (documentary, broadcast journalism). Photojournalism and satirical cartoons have also generated some of the most iconic images of the conflict. But other than “Borders,” little mainstream musical coverage has emerged.
M.I.A. leans heavily on electronic dance music, a genre rarely associated with political statements. Music has frequently been used to shape political discourse, but artists are more likely to rely on genres such as rap, folk, and rock (take Public Enemy, Green Day’s American Idiot, or John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”). “For most mainstream dance or electronic music, you don’t think about it as political content in the way you might think about rap,” Atlantic pop culture writer Spencer Kornhaber told the HPR. “There’s a lot of corporate interest riding on it, which can make it less favorable to take controversial stances.”
Indeed, M.I.A. seems to toe the line between political commentary and irreverence as a result of her genre. Her lyrics aren’t theses on political situations, but instead are vague and vapid. The dance influence makes M.I.A.’s music catchy and emphatic, but it constrains the number of words her message contains. Some of her tracks feature 20 words or fewer.
In “Borders,” M.I.A. raises questions that few prominent artists do, but at the same time she leaves it to the listeners to answer them. The song is political, but in the way that many people from privileged and peaceful nations are political, lacking in specific and granular positions. M.I.A.’s EDM-influenced music is not necessarily a call to action, but instead a continuation of her criticism of political apathy in much of Western society. “I wanted to make a connection between the apathy I was feeling in England and what [my peers] in Sri Lanka go through,” the artist said in a 2008 interview, the year before the Sri Lankan civil war ended.
The Video: Conflict-appropriate or conflict appropriation?
The self-directed “Borders’” music video stretches the mainstream coverage of the refugee crisis into the even less traversed terrain of video fiction. The video features predominantly male refugees assembling into background formations—lines, a boat—while the artist sings along in the foreground.
The tension between M.I.A.’s individuality and the refugees’ homogeneity pervades the video. M.I.A. chose to render the refugee population as almost entirely homogenous: male, young, and brown-skinned. Critics attest that the video reinforces the myth that the majority of refugees entering Europe are young, potentially dangerous Muslim males. Indeed, the extras’ gravely set faces belie little emotion. They do not speak or move with autonomy in the video, counter to other pro-refugee media efforts that feature the peaceful intentions and individuality of incoming refugees.
Yet M.I.A. states that she wishes to directly confront the myth of the scary, dangerous male refugee. She wishes to display an image that shows distance between the perceived all-male influx and reality. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, women and children comprise approximately three-quarters of the Syrian refugee population. “When the media covers [the crisis], it’s like there’s this swarm of men in boats coming to wipe the West out,” she told Apple Music. “If it was just men arriving on the coast like an army, this is what that looks like. Except it’s not that. The real images of what it looks like are actually women and children.”
Perhaps her positioning also serves as autobiography, highlighting her own role in a similar journey and in doing so, defending the individual potential of the refugee surrounding actors. In interviews, M.I.A. discusses the song as a statement on the Syrian crisis, yet she uses refugee actors from south India and released the video on Tamil Remembrance Day, dedicating it to an uncle who had also fled Sri Lanka during her youth.
M.I.A. expects both refugee and Western listeners to engage with the lyrics. “Borders, what’s up with that?” is a question to be asked by both apathetic Europeans and truly befuddled Syrian refugees, a question that ties together the artist’s refugee roots and English identity. The lyrics aren’t necessarily calling for the destruction of national borders, but for a more abstract reduction in the division between “us” and “them.” M.I.A. is the perfect conduit for such a statement, an artist willing to increase mutual understanding, to speak to both refugees and Western populations in a consumer-driven musical market.
Dismissing a uniquely powerful and relevant song because of its lyrical structure and surface-level contradictions: What’s up with that? It may be an imperfect, confusing statement, but M.I.A. has spoken up from a place of personal resonance where few other artists have.
Images source: Wikimedia/Wikimedia