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Refugee Crisis: M.I.A.’s powerful protest song and video

Borders, a new song and music video from musician M.I.A. serves as a sharp rebuke for policies that turn away refugees. It lyrically and visually challenges the way in which Western countries export everything from art to democratic ideals as it turns its back on the people who seek assistance.

“As a musician, I feel like we are part of promoting ideas to people. You know, ultimately we fight to get what we do in the West into the homes and the screens of every single person on the planet,” she said in an interview with NPR. “Obviously, some of the kids are gonna say, ‘Okay, yeah, I want the dream,’ and you’ve got migrants who believed in the aggressiveness of our sale of democracy. We can’t really blame people when they are ready to embrace it. If the West is so deliberate in promoting its brands and is using art and culture to inspire people’s dreams, how can the West then turn people away?”

The issue of refugees is personal to M.I.A. Her father fought against the Tamil rebels during Sri Lanka’s civil war. She and her mother sought refuge in the U.K. during the brutal fighting. Malnutrition deprived her of teeth by that time, but she regained her health and eventually became a widely-acclaimed hip-hop musician. Politics and refugees are issues that have featured in her career.

MIA borders grab

‘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,” she said in a Guardian profile in 2005. “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?”‘

Those ideas are best captured in the question repeated throughout Borders: “What’s up with that?” The question is posed to issues from boat people to refugees to privilege. It builds to a direct challenge to Western nations.

What’s up with that?
Your power
What’s up with that?

In the accompanying video, M.I.A. is surrounded by scenes of people who appear to be from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia enduring many of the same hardships experienced by refugees. They pour over barbed-wire fences and crowd into boats. At one point, M.I.A. is singing at the front of a human boat. She deliberately uses men in the video to subvert the notion that it is mostly men who are refugees fleeing violence. By using only men, she shows that even if that were the case, they are still people looking for safety.

The lyrics themselves are meant to also evoke the dichotomy between using violent language to mean something positive (“slaying it”) while also applying similar terms to people seeking asylum in Western countries. It circles back to the notion of exporting ideas and culture that does not apply equally to all people.

MIA human boat

“Maybe in 20 years one of them will be like me, but a lot of them just want to come over and have a flat screen and drive a car and get a job and be on that pecking order where they’re going to be called bae or queen,” she said to TIME. “They want to be slaying it. Not in a way that they want to blow up the local McDonald’s. They’re the same as everyone else. They want to look good and wear nice clothes and have a nice job and be seen doing well.”

The video and song are not without controversy. Critics say that M.I.A. used people of color as props for her art. And there are of course those who disagree with her ideas about how to treat refugees. All of which fit into the ultimate goal of the song and video – to spark debate and reflection on a real world issue.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]