mixed feelings about M.I.A:
an essay

by Cia Mangat

image source: Saint Heron // image description: M.I.A, wearing a traditional South Asian veil like a hoode over a patterned shirt, holds a bunch of silver foil balloons.

My relationship with the rapper-songwriter-activist Mathangi Arulpragasam - more commonly known as M.I.A - is a rather complicated one. Allow me to explain.

As a young South Asian woman, I think it’s fair to say that there are a few stereotypes surrounding people in my demographic. You can ask any feminist about the way that sexism works on an everyday level; in today’s view of South Asian culture, sexism seems to manifest itself slightly differently. In the media – Bollywood and otherwise - South Asian women tend to be deified (sexually, as item numbers and otherwise) without any actual respect for their intellect or political stance. On a domestic level, most women are expected to obey their parents’ wishes until their (often arranged) marriage, where they are expected to obey their husband’s wishes until death. We’re often seen as coy, ‘shy-bride’-like, submissive, wearing dupattas and holding brooms. Of course, this isn’t always the case! This is (a rather oversimplified version of) how I’ve come to view society’s perception of South Asian women so far.

Before beginning this essay, I didn’t know very much – if anything at all – about M.I.A. Sure, I knew the lyrics to Bad Girls, but that was about it. Throughout her career as a rapper, she’s never really been known for her voice: in her latest release, titled P.O.W.A, she says ‘I’m not Rihanna/ I’m not Madonna/ I’m not Mariah/ Or Ariana /I’ve been around in this world causing drama’. So, how come she’s the only female South Asian pop star I can think of? Could it be the fact that she’s bold enough to rap politically provocative lyrics? After all, in 2006, she was considered controversial enough to be barred from entering the USA on account of the subject matter of her songs.

There was a time where I wholeheartedly considered M.I.A to be an unapologetic activist, mainly because the theme of immigration and the refugee crisis runs strong throughout her work. One of the most obvious examples of this is Paper Planes, released in 2007. Despite being widely regarded as a relatively laid-back summer song, Paper Planes is about immigrants and the view of them as terrorists and as job stealers. In the first verse, M.I.A takes on the character of a passport counterfeiter (‘If you come around here, I make ‘em all day/ I get one done in a second if you wait’). She uses imagery of violence throughout the song – the chorus is known for the gunshot sound effects, and she mentions pirate skulls, sticks and stones later on. Here, she refers to the violence faced by refugees in their own countries. In her own words:

‘If you’re an immigrant you left somewhere and most of the time you fled a war. Gun sounds are a part of our culture as an everyday thing. If you’ve been exposed to gunfights and violence and bombs and war then I can use those sounds backing my thoughts, ya know? Look, I’ve been shot at so I’m quite comfortable with gunshot sounds. If you have a problem with it, go and talk to the people who were shooting at me.’

M.I.A addresses the refugee crisis more directly in Borders, a track from her latest album, titled ‘A.I.M’. The song critiques the current generation by juxtaposing its jargon (‘being bae’, ‘your goals’, ‘breaking internet’) with hard-hitting phrases that are becoming more commonly disputed within politics (‘police shots’, ‘boat people’, ‘your privilege’). In the bridge, she addresses her aim to represent those who have messages that the world needs to hear; have you ever considered the fact that we seldom – if ever – hear what actual refugees have to say? In an interview with Rolling Stone, M.I.A said:

Later on in Borders, M.I.A moves to questioning constructions that are more universal to mankind, such as values, beliefs, families, histories and the future. Although it’s tempting to commend M.I.A for these lyrics, it’s also rather easy to argue that they’re not as politically meaningful as they may seem. After all, one could very well say that she’s hopping onto the ‘woke is the new cool’ bandwagon - read more here.

In the past, one of my personal favourite M.I.A songs was Boom Skit. Here, she playfully mocks her American critics with the soundtrack of a Tamil movie in the background. In the song, she addresses the way that she’s been received in the music industry as a South Asian woman (‘Eat, pray, love/ Spend time in the ashram’ and ‘Boom boom jungle music/ go back to India’). Halfway through the track, she refers to her infamous 2012 Superbowl halftime appearance alongside Madonna (‘Let you into Superbowl/ You tried to steal Madonna’s crown’) in which she flipped the camera off, resulting in a lawsuit from the NFL. Of course, M.I.A reacted by releasing an expanded version of Boom Skit, titled Boom ADD, in which she speaks of the ignorance towards South Asian culture in the Western world, despite how often it’s appropriated: ‘Jesus went to India, Steve Jobs went to India/ Now when you see me you say/ “What the fuck’s a bindi uhh?”.

So, why am I writing about my love for her in the past tense? Well, the thing is, after further inspection, I realised that she wasn’t the ideal brown girl activist I’d been looking for. Her activism is far from perfect. Arguably, she’s not quite the ideal role model for young ladies of the South Asian diaspora – see her 2012 Superbowl performance (as well as the following controversy, and all the others she’s been accused of. Somehow, I find it difficult to criticise her for these; a part of me agrees with her in her decision to stand up and speak out, while another part of me wonders whether all of this is coming from and going to the right place.

I won’t say that I agree with all of her views. For example, when asked about her thoughts on Beyonce’s Black Power salute to the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2015 Superbowl in an interview with the Evening Standard, M.I.A replied with ‘it’s not a new thing to me’, and then directed the conversation towards Muslim Lives Matter and Syrian Lives Matter - of course, these lives do matter, but - on a personal level - I don’t think that it’s fair or right to deflect an important conversation about police brutality/racial profiling.

Like in many other instances in the past, M.I.A’s comments were deemed controversial; controversial enough, in fact, to have her dropped as the headlining act at Afropunk in London last year. Once this came out, I began to realise that M.I.A doesn’t really fit the not-problematic-at-all-South Asian-female-activist-pop star I dream of seeing in the world. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that I think you ought to hate her! This is where my love-hate relationship with the word ‘problematic’ begins again: is there such thing as anyone, let alone an activist, who isn’t problematic at all?)

The number of South Asian women in mainstream media is fairly limited at the moment. I must admit that I appreciate M.I.A’s presence in a world seemingly saturated with Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and the like, but I don’t think it’s as easy to idolise her anymore, in the same way that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find pop culture idols in the age of the word ‘problematic’. One of the things that frustrates me most about having a lack of representation of people like me in the mainstream media is the fact that I keep pinning my hopes onto them - hopes of them being talented, both lyrically and as singers or rappers; of them activists, but not ‘problematic’ and of them being a fair representation of my demographic, to both people inside and outside of it.