by NOOREEN REZA | University of Cambridge, MPhil ’16, Modern South Asian Studies
Note: This piece was originally published in Kajal Magazine on January 12, 2016.
Anyone familiar with MIA knows she has never been shy about politicizing pop music– from rapping about snipers profiling their victims in “Sunshowers” to shocking us with evocations of the Tamil genocide in “Born Free” to mocking the Saudi regime’s restrictions on women drivers in “Bad Girls.” Her most recent, and self-directed, music video for “Borders” is her attempt to force the issue on the most recent refugee crisis; it asks pointed questions not simply about the limits of our empathy, but about how Western media, xenophobic politicians, and their repulsive supporters embody the refugee in gendered, sexualized and racialized forms.
The video makes use of the key images associated with the surge of crisis migration to Europe– boats overflowing with passengers, hastily constructed border fences, the gold emergency blankets given to those lucky enough to have survived the journey to Greek and Italian shores. These are the symbols of suffering that filled the screens of millions of viewers throughout the summer and fall, when the crisis was reaching a turning point. However, let’s not forget how ineffectual those visuals were for far too long in spurring a global response. It took the image of a dead toddler, Aylan Kurdi, on a Turkish beach to churn a popular wave of sympathy and demand for world leaders to address the refugee crisis– and that sympathy too was short-lived. If we focus on these symbols alone, as several who have analyzed “Borders” have done, the video is a poignant commentary on the fickleness of a politics based on condescending compassion, where the privileged Westerner’s capacity for empathy towards desperate strangers is the central determinant of how much a refugee’s life matters.
However, when I watch MIA sing-rap “your values–-what’s up with that?” as hundreds of young men file along to climb fences or wade through shallow waters behind her, I feel her calling out not the hollowness of our declared liberalism or professed support for the oppressed. Instead, “Borders,” with its explicitly male, dark-skinned figuration of the refugee body, is pushing us to admit to the hidden primacy of other “values” that motivate the politics of several receiving countries in the West and the attitudes of a significant chunk of their citizenry–namely racism and a healthy dose of Islamophobia.
MIA has gotten criticism for including no women besides herself in the video, though Sinthujan Varatharajah notes that these detractors erase MIA’s own personal history as a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee resettled in the UK. While I don’t agree that MIA’s presence alone mitigates this glaring absence, I do think that there’s a clear intent here rather than an oversight on her part. While images of women and children languishing on streets and in the cold tend to excite at least a modicum of sympathy, men, and especially lone, brown and black men, spark suspicion and alarm. And of course, while the refugees in “Borders” are not religiously marked in any way, one cannot ignore the fact that many of the refugees fleeing to Europe are Muslim. As I watch the young men at the beginning of the video run in an organized column across a field, I cannot help but think MIA is commenting on this fear of the brown/black male by enacting precisely the warped imaginations of the xenophobe– dark hordes in quasi-military formation (maybe even hiding some terrorists!), bringing their dark cultures with them to liberal, vulnerable Europe, and America and Canada as well.
The lone dark-skinned man of “Borders” haunts the Western imagination not just because of contemporary fears of the extremist infiltrator. Rather it’s part of a long history of sexualized racism, expressed at different times and contexts as a fear of the backward-minded aggressor. In the present, we need look no further for examples of how this tradition is alive and well than classes in Norway designed to teach migrant men who don’t “know the difference between right and wrong” how not to sexually harass; outrage over New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne being directed at migrants as a collective, rather than individual criminals; and right-wing American think tanks like the Gatestone Institute publishing articles about a migrant rape epidemic in Germany and other gems entitled “Sweden: ‘Have the Taliban Come to Town?” listing alleged sexual offences committed by “Middle Eastern men” in Sweden.
The penultimate shot of the video solidifies this critical exposure of Western prejudices with a clever use of color and light. MIA clings (glamorously, it must be said) to the border fence wearing a white shirt under a spotlight. Surrounding her, as faceless silhouettes frozen in climbing poses, are the refugees. The shadowy horde appears to converge on the supposedly vulnerable woman in white, but MIA turns this tableau into a subversion by juxtaposing it with the final shot of the boys wading through the ocean. What MIA does in “Borders” is take the imagined figure of the aggressor and turn it back upon us– and all we see is someone ordinary, innocent, striving, even weak. “What’s up with that?”
“Borders” is an incisive take on the Western response to the refugee crisis, but it does hit a few false notes. The shot in which the refugees, clad in sand-colored uniforms, assemble into the form of a boat is perhaps meant to evoke the overcrowding of the dinghies that bring refugees to Europe. However, it instead stands out as an instance in which the video slides into using bodies as a spectacle, rather than a figure to be humanized, in a manner that is discomfiting. Finally, to return to the absence of women among the refugees, it is important to consider how MIA’s presence as a striking, stylish female figure amidst a crowd of shabbily dressed men is both subversive and potentially problematic. On the one hand, it could be a subtle mockery of the use of bodies of color (male and female) as sexy or exotic background scenery in pop’s visual performance at large, especially in those of white female artists. “Borders” tweaks that notion of the sexy background folk into the sexualized figure in the shadows, showing how the sexuality of the racialized can be instrumentalized to titillate or terrify in the process of othering. Yet, despite this critical depth, there’s no denying the incongruity of a global superstar wearing aviators and pink overalls posing on a washed-out beach populated by anonymous men. Does MIA’s own refugee status resolve this tension? It would be presumptuous to call her exploitative in this context given that personal history, for it would presume that someone’s refugee-hood can be bestowed and revoked based on some outside observer’s standard of what a refugee looks or lives like. Still, the cognitive dissonance remains, and is perhaps irresolvable.
On the subject of MIA’s look, for some it seems her choice of clothing is offensive not for its incongruity but because it allegedly hurts their own reputation. On 11 Jan MIA posted a letter on her Twitter from the Deputy CEO of the Paris Saint Germain (PSG) football club, who objected to her wearing one of their jerseys slightly altered to read “Fly Pirates” instead of “Fly Emirates.” The Deputy CEO claimed that PSG “suffered prejudice” from MIA’s inclusion of their logo in the video, and shored up PSG’s charitable credentials by noting how much money they have donated to the UNHCR. Could there be a better illustration of how self-absorbed compassion-based politics can be? Instead of recognizing in “Borders” an obvious indictment of migration regimes structured by racism and orientalism– for which no single entity is implicated– PSG only seems concerned with how their organization’s character is represented. They even make sure to parade their generosity towards refugees to prove there is no basis for the “denunciation” they suffered, as if they were being held personally responsible for the refugee crisis! For her part, MIA has responded fairly appropriately– a still of her wearing the jersey is her current Twitter profile picture.
While I have analyzed “Borders” in the context of the refugee crisis in Europe, it’s important to recognize how unfortunately timeless and global MIA’s message is. Refugees are too often viewed as a blanket threat, or a faceless mass of violence, crime and sexual depravity– whether it is Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (remember that other refugee crisis of 2015?), Afghans in Pakistan, or even Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India, where Maya Arulpragasam herself temporarily relocated as a child fleeing the civil war in her homeland. Despite its flaws, “Borders” is a potent commentary on the demonization of the migrant, which I can only hope spurs its watchers to confront their values, as MIA exhorts them to.