'Born Free': M.I.A.'s Violent, Unsettling New Video

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Romain Gavras/Vimeo screenshot


When M.I.A. blasted Lady Gaga's authenticity a few weeks back, it wasn't exactly clear just why the Sri Lankan singer and emcee was so up in arms. "None of her music's reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is," M.I.A. said about the current Queen of Pop. "She's not progressive, but she's a good mimic. [...] she's the industry's last stab at making itself important, saying 'You need our money behind you, the endorsements, the stadiums.' Respect to her, she's keeping a hundred thousand people in work, but my belief is: Do It Yourself."

M.I.A, Born Free from ROMAIN-GAVRAS on Vimeo.

Well, "do it" M.I.A. did. Along with the help of French director Romain Gavras, she's just released nine-minute epic music video for "Born Free," the first single off her upcoming album. It's cinematic and unsettling—media outlets describe it as "extremely NSFW" and warn would-be viewers to "Watch at your own risk," due to its violent content, along with some nudity and strong language. But unlike Gaga's overproduced "Telephone" video, "Born Free" shows the key to sending a powerful message is simplicity, not nine minutes of costume changes.

The video portrays a Los Angeles SWAT team violently ransacking an apartment building in search of a red-haired boy, whom they then throw in the back of a bus where other gingers have been captured and sit awaiting their fates. As the bus rolls through the desert, we see a rebellious gang of red-headed boys wearing keffiyehs around their necks and mouths, protesting angrily. The imagery in the video is clear enough, and the instant familiarity of the gruesome scenes that follow are what's most troubling. The gingers are made to line up and ordered to run through a minefield, and they only do so after one of the armed U.S. forces blows the head off a young boy, point blank. The remainder of the video is filled with images of limbs flying as bombs erupt, the running group of boys merely targets in shooting practice.

The parallels between the video and the treatment and abuse of prisoners in Abu Gharib, and the brutality and profiling of civilians in the Middle East and at home, hits viewers hard by way of the simplest convention: flipping the subject. Using another "minority" group—in this case, redheads—Garvas highlights the arbitrary nature of targeting and profiling, the confusion of countless innocents who have borne the brunt of discrimination. It's not some new, revelatory statement or question, but its execution is chilling.

In more recent news, the recent Arizona immigration law comes to mind, and it's a timely reminder of the absurd and unfounded profiling that's sure to ensue.

The initial morning sweep of headlines warned viewers of the gory nature of the video and its banned status on YouTube. But the shock factor doesn't lie so much in what the video is trying to say, but how effectively and simply it says it. Why pack 18 screenshots worth of scattered references to create a simple statement about gender and sexual equality when you can create a seamless journey through genuine fear without bells and whistles to dizzy up the viewer? Maybe M.I.A.'s little vent session wasn't too far off—we need that girl back to keep things real.

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Aylin Zafar is a freelance writer based in New York.

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