M.I.A. has always mixed pop with politics. And her new video, for a track called "Born Free," is a nine-minute, disturbingly graphic film that raises more questions than it answers.
The singer born Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam often juxtaposes feel-good beats with powerful, thought-provoking lyrics — "pull up the people, pull up the poor." But her visual imagery — usually colorful, vibrant and peppered with graphic design ideas — takes quite a turn in this clip, directed by French filmmaker Romain Gavras.
In the video (embedded above; and be warned that there is brief nudity) armed soldiers — with American flag patches on their uniforms — break into homes, looking for something or someone. It becomes clear that people doing drugs or having sex are not the intended target when the soldiers take a man with red hair and throw him into a bus full of red-headed boys and men. That these guys are being treated like criminals, when we have not seen them engage in any illegal behavior, leads us to believe that their only crime is their appearance. As the bus full of gingers is driven out of town, it passes a crudely drawn mural depicting red-haired men in uniform, with the words "our day will come." The bus is driven to the desert; the red-haired boys and men are killed.
All the while, M.I.A. sings:
I don't wanna live for tomorrow
I push my life today
I throw this in your face when I see ya
I got something to say
I throw this shit in your face when I see ya
Cause I got something to say
I was born free
I was born free
Watching the clip, you might ask yourself, what did these seemingly innocent people do to deserve this treatment? The real question: Who says they deserve it? And if you're thinking, this reminds me of the Nazis, but something like that would never happen in the United States of America, the truth, is, of course, it already has, in a way.
Whether this video is a comment racism in the United States — especially interesting in light of goings-on in Arizona — or an allegory about the struggle of the Tamil people in the Civil War of M.I.A.'s native Sri Lanka, some the questions it raises are beyond borders: Why do we, throughout history, find the need to distinguish "otherness" between ourselves and fellow homo sapiens? What animal is more cruel than humans are to each other? Do we only know what it means to be human by knowing what is inhumane? Is the shock factor in the video heightened by the fact that the oppressed people are not brown-skinned? Is it right to use a violent clip to comment on the senselessness of violence?
But even more interesting than the themes and ideas in M.I.A.'s video is the fact that, for the third time in the last month, a female artist has used a short film — a music video — to make a big statement. In an era when MTV is airing The Hills and Jersey Shore, M.I.A., Lady Gaga and Erykah Badu are making the music video an artform again. Sometimes it might not be easy to watch, but a revolution rarely is.