On The Politics and Talents of M.I.A.

The New York Times Magazine just published a very long profile on British/Sri Lankan/Pop/Hip-Hop star M.I.A. You would think that someone would be flattered to have so many words written about them, right? Wrong. Not if the reporter writes an article painting you as a hypocrite and poser! Lynn Hirschberg wrote about M.I.A.’s siding with the Tamil Tigers, who are now in a bloody civil war with the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. I don’t know much about this civil war and Hirschberg argues that neither does M.I.A.

The article is an interesting read because Hirschberg is a great writer and a clear thinker. Her thesis is that M.I.A. is an incredibly talented and unique musician, who makes uninformed statements about politics and Hirschberg stays true to that through all 9 pages. That is an incredibly hard feat to accomplish unless you had all your evidence lined up. The following is a perfect example of her thesis:

The combination of being nearly naked, hugely pregnant, singing incendiary lyrics and having the eyes of the world upon her was too much to resist. And she was riveting, upstaging the four much more famous guys and dominating the stage. “That’s gangsta,” said Queen Latifah, one of the show’s presenters. Three days later, her son, Ikhyd (pronounced I-kid) Edgar Arular Bronf­man, was born. … As usual, she wanted to transform her personal life into a political statement. “You gotta embrace the pain, embrace the struggle,” she proclaimed weeks before Ikhyd was born. “And my giving birth is nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp.” As it happened, Maya, who is 34, gave birth in a private room in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

And this quote is just HILARIOUS in its dry humor:

Jimmy Iovine, who runs Interscope, my record company, said, ‘Pick your battles carefully — don’t put your life at risk,’ but at the end of the day, I don’t see how you can shut up and just enjoy success when other people who don’t have the fame or the luxury to rent security guards are suffering. What the hell do they do? They just die.” Maya’s tirade, typical in the way it moved from the political to the personal and back again, was interrupted by a waiter, who offered her a variety of rolls. She chose the olive bread.

As much as I love M.I.A., I will have to side with Hirschberg on this feud. M.I.A. has a very distinctive sound and I love her music. It is infused with an infectious, tribal beat and she does things with sound that you don’t think will work, but for some reason it does. She named her first two albums after her father, Arular, and her mother, Kala. You have to respect that. She claims the first two English words she learned were “Michael” and “Jackson.” I don’t know if that is actually true, but anyone that holds MJ on a pedestal is OK by me!

Despite my obviously being an M.I.A. fanboy, it absolutely drives me nuts when celebrities decide to make political statements. Just because you are a good musician does not give you the right to spread your opinions as if they are gospel and then throw a temper tantrum when someone disagrees with them, which is exactly what M.I.A. did. She tweeted the reporter’s phone number, so that she is now deluged with calls from random people. I am not saying that pop stars can’t have opinions, but by being a pop star, you have already signed onto be a role model. People will honor your opinion and take it as more than just an opinion. With this power comes a great responsibility — not to let your personal bias shape your public statements. Everyone has a personal bias; I am not faulting M.I.A. for that, but you must be aware of what limitations are imposed by this bias.

Oftentimes, it seems that celebrities take up political causes because they believe it is trendy. At some awards show I can’t quite remember now, people were wearing pins for Haiti. Nice gesture, but really, that pin did a lot more for the celebrity wearing it than it did for Haiti. Politics are too complicated, too murky, too serious to be trendy. You are an entertainer. You get paid to entertain us. Please stick to doing that because we are not paying to hear your personal opinions on a civil war, the complexities of which we are completely naive.

Hirschberg’s portrait of M.I.A. was indeed accurate. She IS a fascinating musician; she IS a pop star; she DOES live a life of privilege; but she is NOT an expert on global politics. Hirschberg does not even say any of that is undeserved or wrong. It is only incongruous. Take the criticism as constructive and move on.

EDIT: I just saw M.I.A.’s video for Born Free. I love it. It is a work of art. In the video, M.I.A. shows a group of young redhead boys being captured out of their homes, put on a bus, and hunted down. The images are raw and incredibly shocking as the children are shot in the head point blank and blown up by grenades and land mines. Although I stand by my argument that M.I.A. has no place telling the world whether the Tamil Tigers or the Sinhalese are correct, she is still an artist and an artist is nothing if they are not breaking down boundaries. Her music video can be interpreted in different ways and is not restricted to Sri Lanka. She is not directly making a statement about any political group, but is taking a universal stand against genocide. Some have even applied the message of this video towards Arizona’s recent law making discrimination against immigrants legal. These are abstract concepts that absolutely fall in the domain of artistry, even though specific politics do not.


9 thoughts on “On The Politics and Talents of M.I.A.

  1. An interesting post Aulelia.

    I also read the NYT article though I must say Hirschberg went for the agent provocateur angle herself. If we take on board it was her finale for the daily, it’s clear why she wanted to court publicity with a less than glamorous take on MIA’s profile and background. It seemed to be a cheap shot by an otherwise reputable journalist. The embellished details was frankly naive.

    Whether this be owing to ignorance of the conflict in the South-Asian country itself or partiality on her behalf, it deserved a rebuttal to clarify the facts (voila, Twitter!).

    Atleast, the controversy has given attention to the real issues Hirschberg and her ilk should be writing about – the oppression and ethnic cleansing of minorities around the world – which MIA’s video, unflinchingly explicit as it is, gives long-due exposure to.

    Sadly, the (media) politics has typically deviated it from what should be the true source of conversation. Not a surprise there. This is the exact hypocrisy “Born Free” highlights in vivid detail.

    You may be interested in my post on this video:

    I think we can expect more of the same from MIA, as for Hirschberg it was a strategy that worked and backfired at the same time.

    • I disagree with you, politely of course.

      The idea that a singer can be a sort of spokesmodel on really complex issues and dissecting them in a simplified way in a music video
      is precarious at best.

      I like MIA but her blasting the writer’s number on Twitter was immature and foolish. She’s too odd for her own good.

    • I think Hirschberg’s article was a very fair assessment of MIA. I do not think that she wrote a disparaging profile of MIA. In fact, she gave credit where credit was due. She acknowledged MIA’s novelty in the music scene, but also pointed out they hypocrisy in her lifestyle. That’s fair.

      MIA did not give a rebuttal with her Twitter outburst. She was just being petty. If she does articulate a serious response to the article, I would love to read it though.

      As for the Born Free video, I liked it a lot. I think it was a great and provocative way to highlight genocide as a problem in the world. Oftentimes, we see genocide as something that affects “others” and not “us” and MIA effectively merged the “others” with “us” by using pale red headed boys as her victims. There is a very big difference in making a statement through a music video, which is unmistakeably art, and making a verbal statement publicly, which is outside the realm of art and thus artistic license and freedom of interpretation.

  2. I agree with you sort of. I don’t think celebrity and political activity are mutually exclusive. Bono and Angelina do it well. I think their biggest boon is that they never endorse any one side of a conflict. They fight for things like hunger or children or health.

    Also, musicians are people too. They are just as eligible as anyone else to become an activist. But they must educate themselves! A regular civilian like you or me wouldn’t start spouting off about topics we don’t know in a public setting. You need to be educated enough to support evidence for your claims and know both sides of the story. I feel that MIA is uneducated on these topics and speaking out about them is frankly an abuse of her celebrity.

    I do think its OK for a song to be political though. Like it is fine to sing about independence or peace or something universal like that because you don’t need an education in political science and current affairs to have an opinion on those topics. But don’t sing a song about Sudan or Iraq or Sri Lanka

    • I think also the issue with M.I.A is that it can comes across slightly pretentious that she spends money doing expensive videos about Sri Lanka/etc but perhaps that money could have better good in the actual country.

      Speaking out on really complex issues like Sri Lanka can not be compressed into soundbites and that is what she needs to be careful about.

      And what is with her denouncing her father all of a sudden? She’s peculiar.

      • HAHA, peculiar is definitely an accurate word.

        And I agree about the expensive videos thing. That’s why I have issues with movies like Blood Diamond, which I think had a $100 million+ budget that would have been better donated to Africa. It was a good enough movie, but still superfluous

        • I think you make a good point there, also there comes a point where talk becomes cheap. MIA is alright but there comes a time and place for things too.

  3. M.I.A’s issue is that she comes across as a little ”too entitled” and almost a bit sacred about music. I like music just as much as the next ordinary person, but I also need people who are so sacred about it to get over that, and realise that it is a business and a form of entertainment, hence why her comments about Lady Gaga were bang out of order.

    M.I.A came to my university 4 years ago to do a student concert set. Little-known Santogold was her supporting act! No one knew who they were, but we all paid 10 quid to see these two women sing and they were both really good. This was when she released Galang which to this day is still her best ever song in my opinion. I really liked her vibe, the heavy accented beats of her songs and I liked that she took this bright, saturated look in her videos.

    I saw a young woman who was doing something different in music, but all this politicisation is bollocks to me for the simple reason that music and politics can never be simultaneously mixed in to come across as wholly convincing.

    Politicians cant go into the booth and record a whole album about music because they would not be convincing to the public, and nor can M.I.A record music about politics and convince everybody.

    M.I.A is a beautiful woman, and to be honest, that has also allowed her to be a bit more crazy when she talks about things.

    I have a lot of love for her because she is from the tough parts of London as well, but all this holier-than-thou chat needs to end.

    Activist or Singer — both is not convincing.

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