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.