The Rapper of Refugees

What’s M.I.A.’s “Borders” video really about?


Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”

That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?

The video for “Borders,” a song off her forthcoming album Matahdatah, features images recalling all sorts of migrations from the developing world—there are people crossing deserts, fences, and bodies of water. Though much of M.I.A.’s work has been about women and children, this video is filled with brown men: the ultimate bogeyman for many in the West, stereotyped as terrorists, criminals, and job-takers.

There are shots of the men’s faces, clear reminders of their individual humanity. But for the most part, M.I.A. (who directed the video) is interested in them as a mass. She has them climb a fence and spell out “LIFE.” She has them lay on their backs on the roof of a jampacked ship, silent and bored-seeming. She has them form into a human sculpture in the image of a boat. As one point, their watercraft crowd like an armada.

M.I.A.’s camera watches for patterns in people and in environments, for repetition in silhouettes and wave wakes. The effect isn’t unlike that of other art forms using synchronized masses of people—marching bands, ballet troupes, performance art. It’s hypnotizing and viscerally pleasing, even as it spotlights difficult conditions. She also adds doses of fabulousness: There’s a shot of her and the men sitting artfully on breakwater rocks, swathed in gold Mylar blankets, symbols of emergency situations suddenly made couture.

The video may prove controversial for reasons beyond the fact that it seems to want to assert of the dignity and beauty of people who are often denied those things. M.I.A. is front and center in most of the shots, mouthing the words to her song while dressed in incongruously cool outfits (most memorable: the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team’s Fly Emirates shirt remixed as “Fly Pirates”). As is often the case in M.I.A.’s career, some may argue she’s using people as props, aestheticizing poverty for her own gain, and mixing cultural signifiers in ways that could feed stereotypes about the developing world as an undifferentiated mass. This is a dynamic she’s well aware of; last year, she tweeted that her label censored a video of hers because of “cultural appropriation,” and she didn’t so much protest the decision as ask for a wider discussion of it. But you can defend her by pointing to the fact of who she is—here, a refugee speaking for refugees—as well as to the intent of her music.

Then again, that music is almost always divisive as well. So it is with “Borders,” which at first seemed to me like an Aldous Snow-type parody of clumsily political pop stars. Autotuned to the frequency of radio rap, she begins by drawling “Freedom, ‘I’-dom, ‘Me’-dom. Where’s your ‘We’-dom?” Then she breaks up into a chant that, like many of the most catchy songs, appears totally naive:

Borders: What’s up with that?

Politics: What’s up with that?

Police shots: What’s up with that?

Identities: What’s up with that?

It’s another classically M.I.A. move: She’s playing with pop tropes and schoolyard repetition in order to cause a confrontation. After the first verse’s litany of world problems, she starts asking “what’s up with that?” about pop slang: “queen,” “slaying it,” “being bae,” “making money.” Most explosively, perhaps, is “love wins: What’s up with that?”—the subtext being that America’s favorite gay-rights slogan could be applied to a much wider array of issues around the world but isn’t. She’s essentially indulging in what my colleague Megan Garber labeled “attention policing.” But instead of chastising those who gleefully debate the color of a dress but not what to do about global warming, or those who mourned Paris but not Beirut, she’s highlighting the gaps in liberal-leaning pop culture’s preaching of acceptance, empowerment, and humanism. As she rapped in 2013’s “ATENTion,” another song about refugees (the title’s capitalization references tents), “my intent is to let you know what’s important.”

The most powerful thing about “Borders” is that the mantra of “what’s up with that?” is not a condemnation. It’s a question. Standing calmly in front of representations of the most desperate populations in the world, M.I.A. asks it again and again. What’s your answer?