She’s an internationally-renowned artist who is not afraid of pushing the boundaries in her music as well as on stage. Real name Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, M.I.A, she is a rapper, singer, director, producer, designer and photographer, and is the only artist in history who has been nominated for an Academy Award, Grammy Award, Brit Award, Mercury Prize and Alternative Turner Prize.
It more than just music, M.I.A’s songs, videos and aesthetic exemplifies her 360 creative persona that bleeds across all the mediums she occupies. She successfully transitioned from underground and indie darling, to pop sensation without having to alter her brand in any way, something that is very difficult for especially women in the music industry. Just look at Taylor Swift and track her evolution from young country artist to mega pop sensation.
Her track ‘Paper Planes’ from 2007 became a staple of many pop charts and pop radio stations around the world and thrust her into the mainstream spotlight. When it was used in the Oscar-winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, it elevated the song and M.I.A into a whole other stratosphere. The 2012 song ‘Bad Girls’ showed her signature style of mixing controversy and juxtaposition with catchy phrases and melodies. The video portrayed women in the Middle East in defiance of the male-dominated culture.
Let’s not forget the 2012 Superbowl half-time performance where she joined headline act Madonna on stage and pissed off the American audiences by flipping the middle finger live on air. The NFL stated her gesture on camera was a “flagrant disregard for the values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand and the Super Bowl.” Yeah, they must’ve conveniently forgot about the way they like to protect abusers in their ranks when touting their “values” in this instance.
Her response to the whole fiasco was spot on, in our opinion. She said it was “completely ridiculous” and that “they’re scapegoating me into figuring out the goalposts on what is offensive in America…[It is] a massive waste of time, a massive waste of money, it’s a massive display of powerful corporation dick-shaking. They want me on my knees and say[ing] sorry so they can slap me on my wrist,” she said, also explaining how blatantly hypocritical it is of a culture to OK the sexual objectification of women on TV on a daily basis, but not a woman displaying her own power in the form of a middle finger.
She was understandably dropped from the headline act spot in London’s Afropunk festival after going after the likes of Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar because of their activism for the Black Lives Matter movement. M.I.A wanted to know whether “Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters?” in the wider landscape of pop music. What she may not realize is that it is her voice advocating for the people she sees marginalized and excluded from mainstream conversation.
Her incredible video ‘Borders’, which she directed, pointed directly to the global refugee crisis and how the media and politics has managed to put millions of people into a few select silos based on fear. M.I.A has just released a new album called AIM and Pitchfork’s Kevin Lozano, although not completely sold on this album compared to others, says she is an important artist because of what she is not afraid to do.
“There has never been a more crucial time for pop music that wrestles with globalization, transnational suffering, and the plight of immigrants. While she may never have been the most articulate and thoughtful messenger, in AIM, M.I.A. demonstrates her legacy as an artist eager to tackle issues that are volatile and antagonistic,” he writes.
M.I.A spoke to FBi Radio’s Tanya Bonnie Rae in Australia about the album as well as her thoughts on artists using their platform to raise awareness about important issues, and feminism on social media.
“I think it’s great that the newer generations are becoming more conscious and aware and political and opinionated. All of those things I feel like I’m a part of, and they’re a part of me,” she said, and we definitely give her major cred for being the kind of artist that has been part of leading this progression in a consistent manner with her art.
Tanya points out that the refugee crisis is somewhat of a personal issue to M.I.A based on her own life experience. Along with her family, she arrived in London as a refugee in the mid 1980s, a survivor of the genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
“To me, it’s important because I feel like I came out of that. I came out of a need to represent a bunch of people and speak for them, and to represent experiences and ideas that were not getting represented in the media. That’s always been the key to my work – if I didn’t do that, I just wouldn’t work,” she said.
She feels it is important for artists to use their platform to raise awareness about current issues. It’s something that is ingrained into her personal brand, because even when she tried to make a more superficial, pop video and put aside the activism for a minute, it just didn’t feel right to her.
“And I think that was a clear sign to me that I can’t ever do that. Even if I try consciously, the universe doesn’t let me,” she explained.
She admits there are many artists who an successfully focus on entertaining, but that is just not her schtick.
“Even Michael Jackson was political. I think it’s nice if you’re praised and people listen to you, and suddenly you have all this power: you are moving things forward. But you have to move things forward for the politics,” she said.
When it comes to feminism, social media, and viral activism, she expresses how she wants to see it go further than just online.
“On social media, the view of feminism is like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re liberating women in the Middle East from wearing burqas and stopping Indian women getting raped, and we’ve done that with a hashtag – we’ve all achieved it. That’s the perception on social media. So I feel like I’m stuck in this environment as an artist, where on the one hand I know that a hashtag doesn’t fully change anything… but I can’t criticize anything in the US because if I do, then my social media platform gets curbed,” she said.
It sound like she may be referencing the Iranian Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom, started by a journalist who wanted to create a way for Iranian women to defy the burqa mandate by posting numerous images of women without a head covering. And while many of us are under no illusion that a hashtag can stop rape, the awareness that is being built is important, it just needs to continue to spread into real world initiatives that change culture as well as legislation. So it is a fair point to make, just a clumsy and dismissive one on her behalf.
Her passion for more inclusive conversations in feminism is clear, and it is similar in nature to the ongoing discussion of many women of color who say black feminism and intersectionality need to be a bigger part of the movement. That it should not be dominated by white feminism, which we have seen in previous waves over the years, and it’s a good point to make.
“If you’re talking about feminism within America, you’ll be promoted. But if you’re an outside feminist and you’re talking about something critical of the US law, then they would see that as a threat that needs to be buried,” said M.I.A.
It’s true that there needs to be many policy changes in the US alone to ensure equal rights are afforded to everyone. But rather than make it out as if feminists are the ones shutting out the outsider voices, we hope M.I.A will continue to raise her voice and use her platform to raise awareness about the lives which don’t necessarily have a home in a mainstream movement just yet.
She may be a controversial, gritty and antagonistic artist in many ways, but that’s what we like about her. Art has always been a medium that has the power to bring change, and if that means M.I.A holding feminism to higher standards and pushing the parameters wider, we welcome that challenge. You can download AIM on iTunes, which includes ‘Borders’.