M.I.A. takes a stand for Tamils

Maya Arulpragasam is determined to use her pop star status to change the way people think about refugees, question the rules of cultural appropriation and challenge digital colonialism


Last fall, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., dropped the video for her single Borders, a visual beast that shows refugees climbing fences and packed onto overcrowded boats. The singer, who also directed the video, stands among them contemplating pop culture expressions like “slaying it” and “breaking internet.”

The song could be the first anthem for the Syrian refugee crisis, speaking not to the survivors but on their behalf while questioning western culture’s apathy toward them.

“This is the first time we’ve had such a massive migration of human beings since World War II,” says M.I.A. over the phone from the UK. “I feel like as an artist I can’t really ignore it. It’s the biggest thing that’s going on right now in the collective human experience.”

And yet no other pop star has tackled the subject in such a big way.

The refugee experience has always been a part of M.I.A.’s brand, and a formative part of her life. If Toronto’s Tamils look to her as one of their own, it’s because she’s the only person representing their story on the world stage. That shared experience transcends borders. 

M.I.A. was born in the UK but spent her childhood in Sri Lanka. Her father, who was active in the Tamil separatist movement, was wanted by the Sri Lankan army and as a result absent much of the time. She saw the country’s tensions go from “incidents and disruptions,” with army visits to her house and talk of disappearances, to full-blown civil war. By the time she fled Sri Lanka at eight, violence and its consequences had become the norm. 

She didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived in the UK with her mother and two siblings. They lived in council flats in Mitcham, in south London, the first Sri Lankan refugees in the neighbourhood.

“Me, my brother and my sister had to fight a lot,” M.I.A. remembers, sharing an experience immigrants know all too well. “We were more confused about how we just came from being bombed out for 10 years for being Tamil and then when we came to England we were just the brown people. It wasn’t as specific as being a Tamil from the north of Sri Lanka. Before, I was persecuted for being a specific thing. Now you’re being chased home because you’re brown.”

M.I.A. readily clings to is the warmth people showed during that adjustment period, like those who would buy newspapers for her family to help them pick up the language, or her school friends Angie and Kelly, the biggest girls in the class, who stood by M.I.A., who happened to be the smallest.

“They took me under their wing,” she says. “And they were really kind in the patience that they showed to make me catch up and learn English faster.”

She drew strength from those experiences when her first album, Arular, broke out just over a decade ago. She was using pop songs with globally infused rhythms on tracks like Sunshowers while drawing attention to what was going down in Sri Lanka.

When the civil war rushed toward massacre in 2009, M.I.A. wielded her celebrity to get the world’s attention.

“The war has been going on for a long time, but it stepped into the genocide bracket recently with the new president,” she told the Daily Beast in January 2009, warning about a situation that the international community would only recognize when it was too late. Those comments, perhaps unsurprisingly, got M.I.A. labelled a terrorist.

Looking back, and sounding defeated, she describes her little island as a case study of the problems the world would experience on a much larger scale just a few years later. In 2000 she went to Sri Lanka to work on a documentary about its Prevention Of Terrorism Act, a law that allows police to detain a suspect on minimal grounds for up to 18 months.

“I worked on it for a year, and then 9/11 happened,” she says. She watched the world adopt the very practice she was trying to condemn.

Then came the boat people who risked their lives to escape Sri Lanka in 2009 and were immediately labelled terrorists by countries like Canada and Australia so they could be easily deported. 

“That attitude is there because the media helped establish the government message that all Tamils are terrorists,” she says. “It’s like when Trump says, ‘All Muslims are going to be ISIS fighters.’

“Now we can fight back. As civilians we can say, ‘No, that’s not true. Actually, there’s 4 million people fleeing the zone, and not every single one is this terrible person you paint them out to be.’ With the Tamils you couldn’t say that. There was no one to stick up for them.”

Recently, M.I.A. has turned her attention to the system that makes it so easy for audiences living in the “American bubble” to ignore the plight of everyone else in the world. In that Borders video, she depicts people who can’t cross physical barriers into the West, a hypocritical circumstance in a globalized world where Western influences respect no boundaries. People all over the world adopt American products and culture because it’s force-fed to them through new media.

“Somebody in India uses Twitter,” M.I.A. says, “which is invented by an American, on American technology promoted by Americans, economically profiting America the taxes go back into American society. We use these things – Facebook, Twitter and so on – knowing that all our information is logged and used for American marketing or intelligence.”

Hollywood relies on the international box office to make its money. Musicians rely on world tours. M.I.A. points to YouTube videos by major pop stars like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift amassing a billion views or more.

“Who do you think is giving them those hits,” M.I.A. asks before snapping back with her answer. “It’s the fucking entire world.”

The problem, M.I.A. points out, is that that influence is a one-way street, a kind of digital colonialism. American movies and music never represent the interests or concerns of the foreign audiences they influence. Pop stars don’t usually talk about foreign matters. Nor does social media help a foreign star penetrate the American market, which in turn becomes the global market.

“We have to give you the clicks, but then you won’t let us into the mainstream because we don’t exist in the fabric of your mind,” says M.I.A. “No one in America would address the fact that the entire world outside the United States gets dictated to by the United States.”

M.I.A. has taken it upon herself to democratize the pop culture stage. She’s always been a global artist, sounds from all over the world resonating in her music. And her political causes have never been limited to the problems of Sri Lanka. Her 2012 Bad Girls video featured women in niqabs stuntin’ in cars, spotlighting the #Woman2Drive movement in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t allowed behind the wheel. 

But that effort to steer attention to a worthy cause were met with accusations of cultural appropriation.

Last year, M.I.A. stirred a Twitter debate when she announced that a video she had planned, with footage shot in Africa featuring a native dancer delivering a jaw-dropping routine, wasn’t going to be released due to more possible accusations of cultural appropriation.

She put it out anyway, in Broader Than A Border, but the cultural appropriation argument still frustrates her. If M.I.A., a person of colour, can’t use her pop culture clout to speak to issues that involve people of other colours or provide a platform for their talents, then who will?

“Due to all these social justice warriors, I’ve been reduced to a POC,” says M.I.A., actually pronouncing it “pock” as opposed to spelling out the acronym for people of colour. “A POC is the only person who can speak for a POC. But a POC cannot talk about or appropriate any other cultures. We cannot be connected through a common human experience any longer.”

M.I.A. totally understands now why global successes like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift can’t engage with other cultures or speak to foreign concerns in their music. If the cultural appropriation police came after her, just imagine how they’d sharpen their knives for the girl who sings Shake It Off.

“If we really need an Arab person to come forward in pop culture and popular music in order to talk about Arab issues, because that is the way that everyone sees fit, then we’re going to be waiting for a long fucking time.”

Bonus clips

Don’t miss: I Am Tamil

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