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Addressing U.S. Immigration Policies in M.I.A.’s “Born Free”

May 13, 2010

“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 or visit her blog, Meep Press.

  1. May 13, 2010 1:20 pm

    i’ll be honest. i don’t think i’ve ever heard any of M.I.A.’s music, but i’m seriously considering buying her album just to show my support. thanks for writing this.

    • Miss New Money permalink
      May 13, 2010 1:57 pm

      Do it! M.I.A. is fab, intelligent and a powerfully strong female. Great article that brings up stored away images and thoughts. I swear, this is my new fav blog!

      • May 13, 2010 4:40 pm

        Hi Miss New Money,

        Yes, M.I.A. appealed to me as well, right from the start! Between her and Dizzie Rascal, the “grime” style was super exciting! When I read an interview about how she felt like an outsider on various levels-as a person who has also experienced this ever-present “outsider” status in unexpected areas, this spoke volumes to me about how these group dynamics exist all over.

        I liked her explanation of her early career, and the economic position that she felt set her apart:

        Speaking of cool, cliquey things going on in London, Maya still finds herself pegged into one certain U.K. underground movement in particular.

        Will: “People still tend to lump you in with the grime scene. How much of your own sound do you feel you owe to grime?”

        Maya: “I don’t really feel like I owe anything. But when I came out, it was the same year as Lady Sov and Shystie, and Dizzee [Rascal] was on my label. And when you think of urban music that’s doing anything in Britain, it’s grime. Five years ago it was garage. Five years before that it was jungle.”

        Will: “One particular difference I notice between M.I.A. and, say, Dizzee or Sovereign is that grime is a very posse-oriented scene. And you tend to keep more to yourself. Arular had no guest vocal spots. Is that something you think you might change for future albums?”

        Maya: “I’m always really up for collaborating, but when I was making my album, I felt there was some weird misunderstanding with me and what was going on in grime. They were like, ‘What is she? What’s she doing?’ But I didn’t want to put it in anyone’s face. I just quietly got on with it. And I couldn’t afford anyone to come on my album. When I was making the album, I had no money. I basically hustled and borrowed studio time, and when I got signed, it was still on a budget.”

        Will: “So you actually wanted vocal collaborations on Arular?”

        Maya: “Yeah, but I found it too hard to convince people of what I was doing. I thought I’d just get on with it. I figured that in time, when they thought [it] was good enough, they’d come to me. But at the time, I didn’t wanna convince anyone it was good. I felt it was much better to prove that I could be an individual. Right now with urban music in England, it’s so much about that posse culture. If you watch every grime video, that’s all it is. But if you teach any of those kids to stand up on their own and do something that comes from nothing, that’s kinda cool. It’s an old school way of doing shit, but it’d be nice for the young kids to get back into that. I think you can find too much comfort in a posse.”

        That said, even when some of us “make it,” we’re not necessarily treated with much more respect or given more support.

        Here’s the link for that Stylus interview, which I enjoyed reading for its comprehensive approach to M.I.A.’s experiences:

        Sorry about the tangent! Thanks for the positive words-this made my day 🙂

    • May 13, 2010 4:20 pm

      Thank you, ImfamousQBert! This post was especially challenging because of the subject matter, and it required a lot of introspection-it’s really great to see reactions that are akin to my own sense of activism through writing 🙂 I would like to ask a question: What part compelled you to consider her album as a show of support, and what are your thoughts on the current immigration politics in the U.S.?

  2. tamie permalink
    May 13, 2010 5:01 pm

    the last paragraph states, “it’s vital to remind ourselves that nothing ever went away because we ignored it.” – i can count on at least two hands the number of people i have encountered that refuse to watch the video, even with the knowledge that it isnt “real.”

    i consider myself informed, i consider my peers informed, but why does it take someone like m.i.a. to get “us” talking? i use the term, “talking” loosely though, as i honestly can say that i have not had one conversation about the real life “born free videos” out there, recently, but you can be damn sure that i’ve said, “holy crap, have you seen m.i.a’s new video?” and that just makes me want to puke all over myself.

  3. May 13, 2010 5:17 pm

    Howdy Tamie,

    I think part of what keeps people from talking about their personal experiences/opinions about more serious topics is perhaps a matter of a feeling of lack of control. It seems to be a daunting task to “make a difference,” and for the most part, we tend to understand it as an economically defined ability (celebrities seem to have taken over philanthropy) even though that’s not true.

    For local causes, it’s easy to speak about it at length and build communities but for more global issues, people feel disconnected from it or think it’s insurmountable. Usually, that can make for a difficult conversation. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are trying to make an impact in the collective understanding of global warming, which some people still think is a myth. The same goes for racism, violence, and so on…

    For the immigration matter, I’ve got to admit that while it’s excellent to hear so many people opposing the AZ. bill here in the U.S., there’s still a lot to be discussed in terms of how it got to that. 2/3 of the AZ. population supported that bill. Whoa.

    • tamie permalink
      May 13, 2010 5:30 pm

      yeah but, like i said, “holy crap, have you seen m.i.a’s new video?”

  4. May 14, 2010 8:24 am

    Another fine post. Your observations on civil rights and immigrations are right on target. I also appreciate your shout-out to the Kabosh 🙂 This morning I was listening to Democracy Now! and they and Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez were interviewing civil rights leader Gene Young on the 1970 Jackson State school shooting. Occurring just 10 days after the more widely covered Kent State school shooting, police similarly fired rounds and students gathered outside a the women’s dormitory. Both the Kent and Jackson State tragedies represent the what can happen to minority voices are subjugated by the “state”. I thought about these shootings in light of M.I.A.’s video and the injustices occurring in Arizona, with the ethnic studies debacle and I am no less than troubled. Do you think a real liberal, mass protest culture will come back to America’s campuses and learning institutions–and really beyond? If so, what do you think will be the consequences? Are these times to uniquely dangerous or are they similar to the dissonance of the 70’s?

    DeJuan Price
    The Kabosh

  5. maria guzman permalink*
    May 14, 2010 11:14 am

    Hi DeJuan,

    Yes, I definitely feel a rising popularity in activist practices. Part of it may stem from the growing DIY trends that are rooted in communities, but in any case, it’s clear that people are not taking anti-immigration tactics lying down. And I see it everywhere now, which is a good way of encouraging its continued practice as well. Case in point: As a pop culture fan, I remember feeling great joy when I discovered large-scale examples of activism success (namely, Adbusters). In addition, by reading about smaller-scale organizing, action seemed more realistic.

    This made me love the city that I love in:

    In discussing the boycott approach, a historically rich practice in civil rights history, Superintendent Campos explained that the nonbinding (more of a model for action than a legally mandated resolution):

    “This is really about sending a very clear message that when a state passes a law that is as egregious as this law is, that people of good conscience in other parts of the country have an obligation, a responsibility to speak up and not remain silent”

    Here’s a great summary of cities that have also adopted this practice as a show of solidarity:

    And while many are calling the soon-to-be-released “Machete” problematic (and possibly exploitative), I think it’s fantastic that Robert Rodriguez is using his craft to express disdain for AZ’s latest anti-diversity measures:

    Finally, I am proud when I read about the many protest marches that have occurred in response to the growing hostility against “illegal aliens.” As the daughter of a very wonderful woman who risked a lot to live in the U.S., I see no reason that she should live in fear as a refugee.

    As for the similarity to the 1970s, we have the potential to make great use of new social media, growing diversity, and great models/lit, which is largely a result of earlier civil rights work. I hope that in 20 years, we speak of this period with more reverence than sadness 🙂


  6. maria guzman permalink*
    May 14, 2010 7:34 pm

    p.s. i thought about the time-lag that immigration policies tend to impose, too. just as it took 3 years for my mother to receive her residency status, many others in more pressing situations are made to wait or sent back to unimaginable conditions. There are countless examples happening and this is why immigration policy has to become a much better articulated priority for the Obama administration and local communities.

    thanks for your thoughts!

  7. John permalink
    May 16, 2010 1:27 pm

    M.I.A. has apparently been caught in the crossfire of her political’ness’. She has had to barter “stable” sovereignty to one state (Sri Lanka) in exchange for wealth and freedom of expression in two others, the UK, and the US, although on shaky terms. Maria has offered us analysis and a reporting of the issues at hand without appearing to have a bias. One thing that is noticeable to me is that M.I.A. is lashing out at Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber… this has two distinct purposes/effects. Yes, they are packaged products, but by making this contrast against herself, she is creating a market for herself, and also giving her fans, current and potential, a chance to express tribalism in making a certain group of followers. Though her political complaints and misfortune are legitimate, she is also using oppression and complaining to carve out a niche for herself in a commercial way – no complaints there on my end, just pointing out her methodology of the moment! She is pandering in the same way other stars are, which is necessary for record sales, but if she wants to be really unconventional and non-exploitative, she’s in the wrong business!

  8. Maria Guzman permalink*
    May 17, 2010 2:15 pm

    Hi John,

    Way to draw out the aspect of celebritydom! Yes, this is an interesting aspect of her recent interview-I had never noticed that she had much to say about other artists (aside from collaborations). Did you know that before she became a well-known singer she was an artist? It’s not that different in terms of the art market (see: “Exit Through the Gift Shop”)-but this leads me to another question: Since art and politics have never been strangers-would this be like agit-prop? Do musicians have less public “permission” to weave politics into their work? Even Laurie Anderson seems unsure, as noted in her interview above.

    Thanks for your insights!



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