The uproar over M.I.A.

May 13, 2010

What exactly makes the new video for M.I.A. so objectionable that the YouTube Web site took it out of circulation? asks Alexander Billet.

PLENTY OF graphic content can be found on YouTube. From executions by firing squad to clips of Vietnamese children covered in napalm, the blood and gore seem in no short supply. What might be harder to find, however, is the new video from M.I.A.

The British/Sri Lankan artist (whose real name is Mathangi Arulpragasam) is no stranger to controversy. She's also no stranger to choosing sides. It's this that might have the suits up in arms over her video, but it's also what makes her one of the most important artists of our era.

When "Born Free" premiered on April 26, the Google-owned video site swiftly buried it, claiming that the official clip was in violation of rules that "prohibit content like pornography or gratuitous violence." A firestorm of protest swept the Internet in the days that followed. M.I.A. herself lashed out, and countless supporters backed her up.

Though YouTube was quick to point out that "Born Free" was not actually banned, they have also "age-gated" the video, meaning that only 18-and-over viewers can find it. This, combined with a vigorous amount of "flagging" from uptight viewers, has made the vid a challenging find.

A scene from M.I.A.'s video for "Born Free"
A scene from M.I.A.'s video for "Born Free"

Anyone even vaguely familiar with YouTube will attest to what a crock this is. Viewers can already find everything from soft-core porn to outright hate speech on the site, none of which seems to offend Google's "standards." So what is it that makes "Born Free" so objectionable?

The song itself, to be included on her upcoming, as-yet untitled album, is a full-on sonic assault. Listeners only familiar with "Paper Planes" may wonder where the Clash-era hooks went, and why they've been replaced by a thumping, buzzing, chopped-and-screwed techno beat. And while her familiar swagger remains intact, there is no doubt that this is an angrier, more frustrated M.I.A.:

I throw this in your face when I see ya
I got something to say
I throw this shit in your face when I see ya
Cause I got something to say

It's a taunt directed (in this case with appropriate irony) at the forces that have resented her success. She's defiant as ever, but with a more palpable dose of rage. One might wonder whether the experience of seeing her native Sri Lanka torn apart in the recent civil war--and the corresponding genocide against the country's Tamil population--has had any influence on this.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Alexander Billet at Socialism 2010 in Chicago, speaking on ""Music of Liberation/Liberation of Music." Check out the Socialism 2010 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

The video answers with an unmistakable yes. More short film than music video, it's nine minutes long--double the time of the song itself. Like any good film, the music takes a backseat to the action onscreen.

Directed by Romain Gavras (son of legendary French left-wing filmmaker Costa Gavras), it follows a SWAT-like platoon of storm troopers as they raid an apartment complex in an unnamed city. The men, who all display American flags on their upper-right sleeves, are brutal as they prowl from dwelling to dwelling, beating innocent bystanders without mercy, shouting insults and epithets.

Finally, they find who they're looking for, and it's only after this nameless young man is shoved onto the bus that we realize their quarry are all fair-skinned, red-headed men. As the bus drives away, a trio of young redheads with keffiyehs wrapping their faces emerge from behind a corner, throwing rocks and raising their fists.

The shocking parallels continue. The bus reaches its destination, a compound that looks like a mixture of Abu Ghraib and the U.S.-Mexico border. One prisoner, a boy not one day over 12 years old, is shot in the head point-blank before the rest are forced to run across a minefield. The video's climax is a full-frontal shot of one of the redheads literally being blown to bits.

WHAT STARTS as a straightforward satire ends as a graphic statement--and one that's unfortunately applicable worldwide. That repression of any ethnic group--be it Arabs in Gaza or Latinos in Arizona--makes about as much sense as rounding up gingers.

And therein may lie the reason some of the honchos at Google took particular offense. As the Chicago Tribune's Kyra Kyles quipped, "Maybe the mistake M.I.A. made was using violence and brief nudity to make a political statement."

As for M.I.A., a refugee who was forced to flee to the UK because of her father's role in the Tamil liberation struggle, she comes honest by her outspoken views: "I do have a political background. I'm only in England, learning this language and building a life in this society, because of political reasons. Why would I deny that?"

At a time when music is becoming increasingly segregated, her work is truly unclassifiable, pulling on punk, electroclash, grime, hip-hop, dancehall and just about anything else she can use as a vehicle to speak out on sexism, the "war on terror" and poverty in the developing world.

All these elements have combined to make her face one of the most recognized and respected in music. It's also made her an easy scapegoat. The "Born Free" fiasco is only the latest to be visited on M.I.A. by various authorities since the start of her musical career. A brief list would include the following:

2004: MTV bans her video for "Sunshowers," the second single off her debut Arular, after she refuses to remove references to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

2006: M.I.A. is denied entry to the United States, where she was scheduled to work on her second album with producer Timbaland. No reason is given for the denied visa, but rumors swirl that it is connected to her father's political ties.

2009: In the heat of the civil war, M.I.A. accuses the Sri Lankan government of "genocide" against the Tamil minority. Government spokesperson Palitha Kohona shoots back that she is "misinformed," and that she should "stay with what she's good at, which is music, not politics." The New York Times labels her "an apologist for the Tamil Tiger rebels," despite her denunciation of the Tigers' tactics.

2010: More apparent visa troubles. M.I.A. reports that she is "Banned from leaving the U.S., family banned from coming to U.S. to see me, baby..."

IT SEEMS safe to say that few artists of her profile have had to deal with this many headaches. Just as telling as this kind of censorship, however, is the massive popularity she's achieved, despite all the obstacles. Kala, the album she was almost prevented from making after the visa problems, is recognized as one of the best releases of 2007, and has sold over a million copies worldwide.

In 2009, even as the Times and Sri Lankan government were branding her one shade off a terrorist, Time magazine named M.I.A. one of the "World's Most Influential People." In six years, she's gone from a virtual unknown to darling of the indie scene to a musical flashpoint of rebellion in an increasingly globalized culture.

If there's one thing to pull from the minor online shitstorm around "Born Free," it's further proof of the growing contradiction in that same culture. On the one hand, it's clear that those in power will do almost anything to keep these kinds of ideas, this kind of art, from gaining a hearing. On the other, when people hear music that they relate to in a visceral way, there's ultimately little that can be done to stop it.

Anyone who thinks M.I.A.'s implacable momentum can be stopped by burying her video is in for a rude awakening when the album is released this June.

First published at the Society of Cinema and Arts Web site.

Further Reading

From the archives