BY MIN CHEN
In M.I.A.’s 2016 video for “Borders,” streams of South Asian men run across a flat, dry shrubland. They scale a wire fence; they fill multi-colored boats—sitting, standing, and lying down to occupy every inch of space. In one of those vessels sits the British rapper, surrounded by her cast. “Guns blow doors to the system / Yeah, fuck ‘em when we say we’re not with them,” she sings. “We’re solid and we don’t need to kick them / This is north, south, east, and western.”
The visuals make clear what those lines don’t quite: this was M.I.A.’s missive on the migrant crisis that was then roiling Europe. In the two years from 2015, more than a million refugees, fleeing wars in the Middle East and Asia, were touching down in lands from Greece to Italy, most of them having endured a perilous journey by sea. Governments rushed to tackle the crisis, as age-old fears about the swelling migrant population arose. The rapper herself was a refugee—having escaped with her mother to England from a civil war-torn Sri Lanka when she was nine—and certainly, understood the pain and politics of displacement. “If you’re coming from the war zone, you definitely got an issue. You have to adapt to a new place, you have to start new schools—every kid is going to go through all the things I went through,” she said in 2016. “It’s my experience I had in England, this weird fabric of communities I experienced, that are all part of my sound in the end.”
Indeed, by the time she released her sixth and purportedly last album AIM, on which “Borders” is collected, M.I.A. had behind her a vibrant oeuvre, a sonic patchwork assembled with elements of rap, worldbeat, dance, and traditional South Asian music, then given a subversive, political charge. Her thrilling breakout hit “Paper Planes,” for one, borrowed from The Clash as much as Chuck D, and is scattered throughout with references to guns, murder, weed, and bombs. Its sound and text reflected her culture-spanning roots and alluded to her immigrant background (“If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name”). As she explained, it was about “stereotypes attached to, like, immigrants and stuff like that. It’s like they come and take the jobs, and take the money.”
Then, there were the parts about guns and bombs. At this point in her career, the rapper was also ruffling feathers and rousing headlines for her evident support of the Tamil Tigers cause (her father was a Tamil rebel). “I don’t see anything wrong in sticking up for 300,000 dying people,” she told Time. It was a stance that saw her labeled a terrorist sympathizer, though it seems M.I.A.’s political convictions ran as deep as blanketing her album artwork with images of tigers, guns, and militants. Diplo, her collaborator and one-time paramour, simply recalled her early aesthetic as “the whole terrorism gimmick.”
All of which encapsulates the contradictions and conflicts that run through M.I.A.’s attempt to bunch art-pop and politics. Certainly, while her intentions are often naive or misguided, they might well be sincere too. Except, set within a commercial pop context and over the years, measured against the rapper’s growing successes, those gestures come off superficial and cursory, mere flirtation and contrivance. (Lynn Hirschberg brilliantly if savagely captured this conflict in 2010, when she reported the artist’s disruptive rhetoric—“I kind of want to be an outsider”—against a backdrop of a truffle fries-filled lunch at the Beverly Wilshire.) And otherwise, they simply brew controversy—a thing M.I.A. has grown accustomed to, thrived on, and in some cases, depending on how you view it, courted.
Some of those greatest hits: her 2010 video for “Born Free,” directed by Romain Gavras, was banned on YouTube for its outrageous portrayal of redhead discrimination; and the 2015 film for “Platforms” was purported pulled by her record company for reasons of “cultural appropriation.” In contrast, “Borders,” directed by M.I.A. herself, was an understated affair—not overtly inviting “Born Free” levels of shock, at least—and yet, it turned out to be a minefield. Never mind that it was a valiant enough effort at humanizing the refugee crisis; the video was pilloried for variously depicting brown-skinned immigrants as an indistinct mass, for its male-only cast, for employing them as props, and finally, for being released with an Apple imprint, particularly as it rails against “the system.”
M.I.A., as is her wont, waded in to address these assorted controversies, notably declaring: “I didn’t want to go to the easiest source of empathy, which is to show a child dying on the shore, because that’s really what it took in Europe at the time to get a rise out of people, for them to actually pay attention.” And definitely, “Borders” strikes no such sentimental note. Instead, her portrait of the immigrant crisis pointedly underscores the crisis part of it, which emerges in part from notions of refugees as exactly an amorphous body of men, arriving en masse to take jobs and take money. Consequently, the video is a challenging one, spotlighting as opposed to shattering stereotypes (or what she called the “weird fantasy”) of immigrants. “If you thought this is what it is, this is what that actually looks like,” she dared. “But luckily, it’s not.”
If that sounds like an inflammatory approach to a considerable humanitarian crisis, that’s because it is. This is M.I.A., after all, and as much as she has used her platform to amplify political and social causes, as a provocateur or self-proclaimed outsider, she has also filtered and framed them through her own indelicate, inconsistent, often maddeningly chaotic lens. And ultimately, the video for “Borders” is just that: an artifact shaped by a particular artist’s perspective and personality. It doesn’t purport to be an authentic, slice-of-life document or a public service announcement (“I hate preachy shit,” she once told Jim DeRogatis); it’s a music video, a commercial outing (hence, the Apple logo) even as it smuggles in its message. But to expect M.I.A. to deliver a video pure and articulate in intent is to mistake the kind of artist she is and the industry she functions in.
Taken as a piece of art, the film for “Borders” is stunning in its exploration of what it means to seek shelter, in touches such as the thronged boats, the desperate dash toward the fence, and the space blankets that coat refugees at the end of their journeys. In this, the video fares better than the actual song itself, which runs down a scattershot list of liberal causes and internet jargon from “borders” and “police shots” to “bein’ bae” and “bein’ real,” interspersed with the bland yet catchy refrain, “What’s up with that?” What, indeed. It’s almost futile to further interrogate the track, when its creator seems content with name-dropping hashtags and giving the lyrical equivalent of a shrug emoji. That it comes accompanied by a solid, thought-provoking video is its one grace note.
Therein, again, lies the tension at the heart of M.I.A.’s practice, caught as she is between the commercial and the political, between relevance-chasing and rigorous thought. “I didn’t really question a lot of these things at the time,” she said about Apple’s involvement in “Borders,” “because I just wanted to do it as fast as possible.” And in another telling episode in Hirschberg’s profile, the journalist trailed the rapper to the London studio of Hermione de Paula, a design team tasked with assembling pieces for her wardrobe. M.I.A. requested of the team a jumpsuit crafted out of material printed with a heavily redacted, official-seeming document she’d found. In short, she said, “I’d like to turn censorship into fashion.”
While shining a light on social issues, M.I.A has constantly run the risk of making light of them, propping them up just as they serve as her props. Quite possibly pop is not the best forum for politics; but her agitation between her two masters is worthy for the conversations and questions it inflames. After all: “There are some opinions that aren’t black and white,” as she once said. “Things are confusing and complex.” Her video for “Borders” and her other such works, being un-complex pop objects, are merely jumping-off points for tougher discussions. They offer a slick platform, but no easy answers, posing instead that frustrating query, “What’s up with that?”