With today’s political landscape leaving many feeling frustrated and fearful, there’s at least one thing to look forward to: an incoming era of artistic rebellion. The pop music landscape may turn bleaker than it’s been in the past eight years; songs about love and partying may not be what musicians want to make or the public wants to hear. Thankfully, art is resistant and persistent, and artists like M.I.A. use their music as a way to overcome their oppression.
Remember “Paper Planes?” The track from M.I.A.’s Kala rocketed her to stardom. It was released in 2007, when George W. Bush was president. Speaking to The Daily Beast about the track, M.I.A. talked about the track’s gunshot sound effects, saying, “If you’re an immigrant you left somewhere and most of the time you fled a war. Gun sounds are a part of our culture as an everyday thing.” M.I.A.’s life as an immigrant has influenced her music, and she’s a more relatable and genuine artist as a result. Despite all that she’s had to come, M.I.A. remains victorious — “Paper Planes” dominated the radio, even under American leadership that, especially so closely after 9/11, would see the song’s artist as a threat.
M.I.A. followed up “Paper Planes” with the single “Born Free” from MAYA. Once again, M.I.A.’s heritage has played a part in her music; she chooses not to sing about love or sex. The music video is dark and violent. So much so that a trigger warning had to be added to the clip, and it even made news when it was (temporarily) banned from Youtube. It’s an aggressive track, despite being fairly simplistic lyrically. The riotous sound does its job to make you feel uncomfortable. “Born Free” is not a song to lift your spirits and make you rejoice at how sweet things are going. It’s a middle finger to oppression, and it may be one of M.I.A.’s most relatable songs at this moment.
One of M.I.A.’s best tracks also has a political stance. Matangi‘s “Bring The Noize” delivers on all accounts; M.I.A. is on top form with her rapid-fire delivery and a production that would light a club on fire. “Bring The Noize” was released in 2013, and M.I.A. focused much of her political qualms on the differences between Eastern and Western culture. “We like fucking carpets, you like fucking brooms,” she raps. In fantasy lore, magic carpets rule the East and witches fly brooms in the West. Are they really that different? Are people really that different — despite our societal borders? While M.I.A. points out our differences aren’t all that different, she also notes that her beef with America is warranted: “It’s not me and you, it’s the fucking banks.” (And while she targets the banks let’s not forget, M.I.A. practically warned everyone they were being spied on by the NSA with MAYA‘s “The Message.”)
“Paper Planes,” “Born Free” and “Bring the Noize” all addressed immigrants and freedom, and her unreleased remix of Beyonce’s “Diva” finds M.I.A. adding a feminist stance to Beyonce’s anthem. There’s no doubt that Donald Trump would label M.I.A. a nasty woman, but considering she released “Baddygirl” 2 years ago, it’s unlikely she cares too much.
“Gritty and witty, we’re more than just a slutty girl,” she sings, “on the committee for Haiti, we’re political.” She follows up later with the lyric “Men and women are 50/50.” Besides just being a genuinely good tune, M.I.A.’s “Baddygirl” is empowering and unrepentant. She is a woman; she is a refugee; she is proud.
Other lyrics of M.I.A.’s worth a mention include the AIM song “Swords”: “Loads of guys can’t handle this ride / When will they know we’re best by their side? / They keep us down and we take it in stride.”
The AIM album is full of political messages, but the appropriately titled “Visa” is a jab entirely at Donald Trump and his proposed wall: “At the border I see the patroller, cruising past in the car. Hiding in my Toyota Corolla, everybody say YALA!”
Lastly, “Talk” fires shots at the political landscape in its entirety: “Big event, millions spent, but what you stand for — that’s relevant.” “Hate-ism or Hate-Islam? Better check up on your baptism.” She even takes voters to task for not doing their part to ensure democracy: “If you don’t give a fuck that’s skepticism, if you do give a shit that’s whack to some.” Nonetheless, she promises to “talk and talk” until she pisses them all off.
While the entire album AIM focuses heavily on current political issues (much like all of M.I.A.’s discography did at its time of release,) perhaps the most powerful track on the album remains “Borders.” Released before the album, back in 2015, the song focuses on the problems with humanity, including the desire to draw borders and divide each other. “Borders” focuses its first verse on political problems (ie. Police violence, refugees, etc.) and its second verse on the generation’s problems (ie. ‘making money’, ‘breaking the internet’ and other trivial things society has become obsessed with.)
The chorus focuses on changing the government “system”: “Guns blow doors to the system / Fuck ’em when we say we’re not with them. / We’re solid and we don’t need to kick them.” She speaks of changing first world government problems, arguing that force is needed for change — but those who are down, (ie. minorities, third world countries) don’t need to be kicked.
On its third verse, “Borders” offers hope to those who are distressed by the problems she previously presented, ending with “Freedom / Your power.” The people have the power, and M.I.A. may have been kicked while she was down, but she’s somewhat optimistic society will right itself.
Some of M.I.A.’s best art has been crafted in times of hardship. This is one artist that is proof that even a change in political power cannot truly keep down the human spirit. Obstacles may be put in the way, but isn’t it human nature to come together and overcome these roadblocks? There may be an interesting four to eight years ahead of us, but music and art will remain an unhindered safe place. That’s a fact — and not an “alternative” one. Music and art are a sanctuary for the oppressed. Let the music calm you, make you feel safe, but also let songs like M.I.A.’s incite you to act and change and band together no matter what you may face.