Addressing U.S. Immigration Policies in M.I.A.’s “Born Free”
“Born Free” was released on April 23rd to promote M.I.A.’s latest album, which will be released on June 29, 2010. Recently, the L.A. Times reported that the video had been banned by YouTube. Although this was untrue, the production did incite strong reactions-so strong, that YouTube ultimately obscured the video in order to appease angry YouTubers and the general public. In response to the potential censorship, M.I.A. tweeted about it and added a direct link to the video on her official website.
The video begins with military sounds and imagery-sirens lazily blare as the sleepy-eyed Los Angeles S.W.A.A.T. team sits in anticipation of their next mission. Bursting out of the van, they proceed to terrorize the unsuspecting tenants. Using their batons and pointing guns at bewildered tenants, they search rooms until they find their intended target-a young man wearing a tracksuit.
What follows is the disturbing part. A bus full of redheaded young males are taken to a deserted area and ordered to run. Upon refusing, a young boy is shot to instill fear, and they take off into the desert. It doesn’t look good for them-there are landmines surrounding them and the S.W.A.A.T. team follows them in a black van. With the music reaching a crescendo, a young man is blown apart as he inadvertently runs onto a landmine. The rest of the redheads are beaten, and these are the images that the video ends with. For most of us that have viewed the video by Romain Gavras, the violence is not anything new. The most striking aspect of this is a genetically-determined feature-red hair. The mystifying cast of detainees has sparked the most reactions from viewers who just want to know, “Why?” “Born Free” is offensive and hard to watch. Fine. It’s meant to stir up feelings.
The discomfort can be understood as a culture shock of sorts, culled from the “antiracist and antisexist cultural tactics in ’70s activist art,” which A.S. Van Dorsten described as a “decentering.” Atlantic writer Aylin Safar referred to it as “flipping the subject.” This is ultimately the success of M.I.A.’s video.
As DeJuan Price suggested in her blog, The Kabosh, the apparent absurdity of gingercide serves to question what we may deem acceptable possibilities-would it make more sense if this were a group of young, brown-skinned men from the Middle East? Perhaps Arizona? Or what about that group that is believed to embody “beastly sexual desire and moral degeneration“? By asking ourselves these questions, it becomes clear that authenticity is not just a point of contention in the entertainment industry-it’s also the logic in matters of race and ethnic group relations. Skin color, hair color, “native” language, gender, economic positions-these all affect a person’s rights.
While some critics may believe that she’s a symbol of global awareness lite, or worse, a sell-out, such remarks tend to come off as authoritative and unfortunately detached. Maya Arulpragasam (better known as M.I.A.) has had personal experience with immigration and surveillance, and has been considered one of the more critical voices in music since her first album, Arular, was released. Some of you might recall the last object of her attention, Lady Gaga, whom she discussed in a recent NME interview (transcribed via the Ohnotheydidnt livejournal). I’d like to point out another portion of that interview, which relates to her more serious concerns:
Only just back in London after being marooned in the US for 18 months; “banned”, she says, from leaving. Maya is seen by the government of her native Sri Lanka as a dissident, publicly accusing them of “genocide” for their part in a 26-year civil war that ended last May. She claims they’ve been “pulling the strings” recently to make life difficult: disappearing visa applications and hacking into her Twitter and email accounts, “wishing all kinds of crazy illness on my baby and stuff like that”. “People used to come and park outside my house in LA,” she says. “I felt so powerless.”
This peek into her life is far from the superfab opulence that you might expect. M.I.A. has money and personal freedom but it’s not without conditions. This seems to be an unimaginable concept to anyone aspiring to be famous since money seems to be the antidote to struggle by most definitions. Yet, even after the success of her first album, M.I.A. was still an outsider to the USCIS.
These experiences tend to characterize her songs. When she has referred to her stylistic influences, among them punk and hip-hop, her early childhood in the London housing projects have played a definitive role in her associations. Growing up, her own identity as a Sri Lankan immigrant was established through identification with yet-to-be-seen allies, which she expressed in an interview about hip-hop and its ability to help her “feel connected to England and the wider world for the first time.” This is comparable to how viewers attempt to make sense of the video-each attempt is rooted in personal experiences. In addition, her second album, Kala, was a strictly non-U.S. product as a result of the denial of a nonimmigrant visa. When asked about her upcoming album, she expressed anger about the interference that immigration policies posed to her transition into motherhood. At present, her mother cannot enter the U.S., according to Rolling Stone’s #13 reason to get excited (or down) about music-“Because M.I.A. Is Mad As Hell on Her Killer New Album.” As a consequence, she was not able to support M.I.A.’s adjustment to motherhood, which was an important period for both of them. M.I.A.. stated that her mother was kept out of the U.S. due to her political views about fighting in her native Sri Lanka, and openly lamented:
She’s wanted me to have a baby since I was 20…and because of what I said, she couldn’t come help me raise my son.
Rather than settle into languid self-promotion, she has addressed these constant interruptions to her freedom.
American-born performance artist Laurie Anderson was inspired by her own sense of isolation from the U.S. politics, too. She has dealt with political themes, such as war, identity, and security throughout her career. In 2008, she completed “Homeland,” a performance about “place” and “the feeling of losing things.” One of her most poignant recollections about the performance involved the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Just as Anderson felt that she lost her country, M.I.A. evokes a loss of freedom as we contemplate “Born Free”‘s aggressive content. The unexpected targets in “Born Free” remind viewers about U.S. immigration policies and the increasing censorship that they provoke. Furthermore, the violent theme and military presence immediately conjure a sense of nationalism and identity. Sometimes, this examination leads to a sense of estrangement. Nevertheless, by inserting a running narrative about how much it affects her life, she actively personalizes the topic of immigration.
It’s vital to remind ourselves that nothing ever went away because we ignored it. Conversely, the most striking civil rights victories require an unflinching examination of their violations. When she (and her soon-to-be-born son) appeared in a 2009 PBS interview with Tavis Smiley, she identified herself as an artist that utilized music for “social change” and spoke “about the people.” By staying loyal to her experiences as a refugee and calling attention to ongoing discrimination at the height of her fame (i.e. visibility), she is literally singing for others’ survival.
Based in San Francisco, Maria J. Guzman teaches Art History & Popular Culture and holds a Masters degree in Art History. You can contact her at HeartlandFeminist@gmail.com or visit her blog, Meep Press.