By Pooja Pande
Finally, someone is posing the rhetoric the way it’s meant to – M.I.A. in her latest song, Borders, the first offering proper off her forthcoming studio album, Matahdatah, which tackles the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe head-on, looks straight at the camera, into our eyes, and asks us, “What’s up with that?”
The drive behind the album is a call to universality, the seeking of the ephemeral that is “broader than a border”. In a tweet a few days prior to the release of Borders, M.I.A. urged us to “evolve dictated by a modern understanding of what the human is. NORTH SOUTH EAST and Western. Beyond politics/religion.”
She’s been working on short videos to this end – what she’s termed ‘Scrolls’ and the first of those, Scroll 01 – which blends Warriors from Matangi (2013) and the all-new song Swords that features Indian sword-wielding women. Girls, really, who are followed around by the camera, as they prep, warm-up and do their thing, all to the hypnotic sound of the swords that clang in tandem with temple bells. M.I.A. plans to present 10 more countries and more such performance art forms, with the agenda being an appeal to a humanity that seems endangered, if not extinct, at a time when ‘Breaking the Internet’ appears to be all that matters.
With Borders, the focus is clearly on the chaos of the refugee crisis – a world that is confused, grappling with the meaning of civilization, torn asunder with the ISIS threat on the one hand, and its aftermath of one of history’s biggest exoduses, on the other.
It’s a thought she pushes, layered on her infectious hooks, in the song in a self-directed video that sees the mega-talented artiste travel on boats, climb over barbed wires, often amidst a sea of Arab faces. She pulls us right into the core of what the refugees are facing, as they flee their homes and old lives, trading the familiar for the unknown. In stunning shot after shot, M.I.A. seems to hold the moment: crowds climbing over fences, over-crowded boats on the verge of toppling over; the poignancy only heightened by those around her, minds, bodies and souls obsessed with that very basic human impulse – to survive.
In one classic moment, she even sports a tee with the legend ‘Fly Pirates’ – a reference to the Fly Emirates tagline, made obvious by pasting a P on the ‘Em’ – even as she mock-wonders, “Borders. What’s up with that?”, “Identities. What’s up with that?”
It’s an issue she understands only too well. Having spent a large chunk of her childhood in troubled Sri Lanka of the late 70s and 80s, she fled to the UK with her mother, and they found themselves housed as refugees in their initial years. Her mother worked as a seamstress and her father, a wanted “activist” back home, stayed largely absent from their lives. M.I.A. (or Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam – her real name) grew up believing that the man who came to visit suddenly, mysteriously, and briefly, was an “uncle”.
She picked up the English language at the age of 11, and her teenage years were spent amidst mixed races, exploring multiple creative fields including film and art, before she finally found her place in the world in that ultimate refuge of music, as an international hip hop act.
Her music has been political plenty of times before – she named her 2010 album Vicki Leekx after Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, even if that was only lip service and we all only remember Bad Girls off it (understandably so – what a song, what a badass video!). But with Paper Planes, her break-out hit, which also featured on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack (minus its inherent irony, unfortunately), she donned the take-no-prisoners attitude she’s carefully crafted ever since. The track was a cheeky (and supremely catchy) take on the perception of immigrants, with M.I.A. ridiculing the mainstream as she sang, “All I wanna do is… (gunshot sounds), and take your money (cash register sounds).”
But with Borders, M.I.A. has truly stepped it up, she’s challenging the government and those in power, and putting it as bluntly as possible – “Yeah fuck ‘em when we say we’re not with them,” she says about the stands that several leaders of states have taken on the Syrian refugee crisis. And about the indifference we exhibit every day – how we’ve already forgotten that gut-wrenching image of a washed-up shoe that once belonged to a toddler as just another casualty of the crisis.
M.I.A. also elevates the argument, making sure that Borders does not remain in the very vicious cycle that it is criticising. There is genuine rhetoric too – “Beliefs. What’s up with that?”, she asks. And again and again – “Values. What’s up with that?”, “Your families. What’s up with that?”
It’s like John Lennon’s Imagine but for this century – because let’s face it, if he were alive today Lennon too would have been abusing the corporates while signing contracts with them. But M.I.A. is bang-on right when she reminds us that our world “needs a brand new rhythm”.
Borders was released on November 27, 2015. The video was taken off YouTube a few days ago, allegedly on copyright claims by Universal Music Group. This is not new to M.I.A., of course – her controversial video Born Free (2010) that portrayed graphic violence and the US Army in an unfavourable light, was also taken off. The artiste is a pro at this – We can all watch it on her official website here – http://miauniverse.tumblr.com/
Pooja Pande is a writer and editor by profession. You can look her up here – PorterFolio. And send in your hollers here – firstname.lastname@example.org.