M.I.A.’s Born Free: Violence, Media, and Artistic Representation

Another week…another controversial music video…

This time up to bat is avant-garde hip-hopper M.I.A., with the short film for her single Born Free.  M.I.A., born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasa, brings politics front and center with a violent albeit cinematic critique of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The shocking video was banned from YouTube just yesterday.

The daughter of a Tamil revolutionary father, M.I.A. is no stranger to the violent political discord, the likes of which her video dramatizes.   She was born in London but was raised in Sri Lanka during the decades long Sri Lankan Civil War that pitted the ethnic Tamil minority in rebellion against the Sri Lankan government.  The conflict was characterized by forced evacuations, raids, and many argue genocide.

French director, Romaine Gavras sets the video in a generic-gray cityscape, complete with the high-rise tenement housing that serves as a backdrop for the docudrama styled film.  Born Free’s sonic rock, drum laden beats and distorted vocals open the video with a police raid on one such tenement that finds a terrorized couple, nude in their bed and under attack.

Next, the video narrows in on its disjointed narrative, which finds the police squadron singling out, kidnapping, beating, and eventually executing red heads.   The most jarring scene features a redhead boy being shot in the head at point-blank range.   Other violent scenes include cringe inducing police beatings and a graphic landmine explosions, one in which a man is blown up and torn apart limb by limb.

The selection of red heads as the terrorized minority seeks to satirize and critique the absurdity of ethnic and religious divisions that characterize such genocides in the real world.  The video could have easily extrapolated its narrative trajectory from the recent Nigerian massacres; in which Christian villagers were trapped and killed by Muslim herdsman—between 200 to 500 were killed.  Similarly, it could be connoting the Armenian genocide, during which 1.2 million Armenians were killed under Ottoman-ruled Turkey.  As an aside, Armenians around the world gathered to commemorate the mass killings just this past Saturday.

The Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the war in Darfur, or the Bosnian Genocide are all variations on the same tragic narrative that has plagued too much of our collective human history: arbitrary violent division justified by differences that when compared to our common humanness are as negligible, as the between red or blonde hair.

Lady Gaga’s Telephone video filled with bondage, sex, and Quentin Tarantino references felt risky and subversive less than two months ago—now with Badu and M.I.A. making strong and radical political statements in their videos and songwriting, Telephone’s celluloid sexuality and materialism feels like light fare.  [See M.I.A.s humorous take on Gaga here]. 

M.I.A.’s social justice critique does not single out one group, conflict, hero, or villain in the video; instead she takes wide lens in her radical approach to confronting injustice of persecuted minorities.  Like Erykah Badu’s Window Seat, Born Free seeks to make a bold political statement about injustice—through asexualized nudity and graphic violence.   Badu’s assassination and M.I.A.’s executions are both uniquely striking visual representations, during this cultural moment.  M.I.A. inserts an international voice to the domestic conversation Badu started with Window Seat.   The systematic persecution of people of color, undesired minorities, poor people, and immigrants is a shameful and all too common reality in this country and around the globe.

How timely that this video would come out at the same time that Arizona enacts a law ” that requires local police to question the legal status of anyone they “reasonably suspect” of being in this country illegally”.  The law—noted by our immigrant son President as being “misguided”—will no doubt lead to increased racial profiling and harassment of ethnic Native,  Mexican, Hispanic, and Latino peoples, regardless of legal  their status.

The law appears unconstitutional and against the very precepts and values of a Nation supposedly founded on the equality of all men; a nation alo built by immigrants and “displaced” people, whose checkered history on human rights rightfully deserves interrogation. From the historic treatment of Native peoples, the tragic past of African enslavement and Japanese internment to the systematic plague of urban warfare that plagues are large cities today, America should pay close attention to Born Free, before life imitates art.

Militia groups, Tea Partiers, Birthers, and any number of groups are rallying in the name of freedom, with cries of “we want our country back“.  However, what does “our country” really mean?  The radical fringe elements of these and other groups are advocating secession, civil war, armed rebellion, and even the assassination of dissonant voices.  This is scary stuff.   With Palin’s firearm rhetoric and talking heads spewing hateful and malicious  vitriol 24/7, I wonder where our great country is headed.  Is polarization and divisiveness really our only future?

While cable news can be scary, it is not nearly as frightening as the government mandated discrimination that provides the framework to the Arizona law. For those concerned about civil liberties, regardless of political affiliation, this law should be of concern.  It brings us as a country—developed nation and all— one step closer to the police state depicted to in the M.I.A. video.

So what do we think? Does M.I.A.’s use of graphic violence to critique the injustice of genocide provide the cultural stimulus required to start a national or even international conversation on human rights?  Or are her unapologetic politics to radical much for the entertainment sphere?  Is political music and art vital and/or commercially viable in this cultural moment?




  1. Thanks for writing this comprehensive post on the video-it has illuminated points that I was seeking to read more about in researching it. I especially liked that you connected her earlier post to Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat.” I recently wrote about that video for the Gender Across Borders blog:

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this post, and look forward to reading more on this site 🙂

  2. Thanks for the comment Maria. I will definitely take a look at your blog and share my thoughts.

  3. […] DeJuan Price suggested in her blog, The Kabosh, the apparent absurdity of gingercide serves to question what we may deem acceptable […]

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