M.I.A "Borders"

M.I.A is an artist known for her controversial songs that address critiques of first world perspectives on the outside world. Most known for her 2007 mega hit “Paper Planes”, she recently put out a new song that focuses on the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis that is wracking the world. While primarily concentrating on the Middle East, M.I.A’s song also points out similarities and ironies that incorporate other refugee crises including but not limited to the US-Mexico Border and the African migration to southern Europe. M.I.A, born Mathangi Arulpragasam, is a British-born, Sri Lankan raised cultural activist. Her father, a prominent activist moved his family to northern Sri Lankan in order to organize protestors aligned with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil, a secessionist militant group focused on creating a new country in for the Tamil people. Her early childhood was disrupted by the Sri Lankan Civil War, a 26 year war in which the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil-lead faction after an estimated 100,000 deaths. M.I.A and her family fled the conflict, first to India before finally settling down in London where she spent the rest of her childhood and attended university. She began her career in 2000 and later achieved worldwide fame in 2007 with her album Kala.

Known for pointing out the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, M.I.A’s newest song, “Borders”, directs its lens of scrutiny towards the sufferings and struggles of immigrants fleeing oppression and brutality. Her signature hooks that are simplistic by design in order to mimic Top 40 radio hits feature heavily in this song.

Her visuals for her music video are brilliant and intense. The first scene features two lines of people running towards a tall fence, with some struggling to get over the manmade border. Barbed wire line the perimeter and surveillance cameras are obtusely positioned capturing every move. Next comes an extremely powerful visual: a boat similar to the ones used by African and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. Only this boat is made of actual people. Obvious allusions can be made towards the treacherous trek modern day immigrants take towards a better life, but it also draws connections to the Triangular Triangle slave ships traveled to the New World. That powerful imagery is prevalent throughout the entire video.

The most interesting thing I note during the almost five minute music video is that young, single males are heavily featured. In the news surrounding the Syrian Refugee Crisis, much of the focus has been towards families with young children and has highlighted the innocence of young people. More and more states and news anchors target the single male as the immigrant most likely to be a terrorist. In showing boats full of men, M.I.A makes a statement, saying that these people also deserve a respite from the atrocities they have experienced. These boats are insanely packed too with most only having enough room to sit up.

However in this instance, her lyrics are often too simple and do not even attempt to describe the situation of the feelings of refugees. It’s almost like she was given a list of buzzwords that would resonate with people aware of the crisis and was told to make a catchy pop song that contained all of them. With verses like:


What's up with that?


What's up with that?

Police shots

What's up with that?


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 realness

What's up with that?

The new world

What's up with that?

I'm gonna keep up on all that”

While she touches on things relevant with the ongoing situation, there is no follow through. She provides questions about borders, politics, and privilege but has no answers. The same questions could have been proposed by anyone that has read a CNN article in the last month. Given her unique perspective on being part of the Western world as well as living through (and escaping) a humanitarian crisis, M.I.A is a great voice to hear during these times. Her eyes have seen things that most people could not imagine and her experiences could lend a hand in putting the Syrian refugees in a context that normal people can comprehend. Instead of educating Americans (and the world) that immigrants are people escaping the horrors that their home countries are enduring, her song falls flat and does nothing but repeat the same questioning and ignorance that is hastening our society into a state of complacence and finger-pointing.

#mia #refugee #popmusic #immigration


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