…via Children of Men and M.I.A
The last few months have been scary. The news has been a continuous, apocalyptic horror-show, full of bloodshed, chaos and carnage. Refugees from Syria have been fleeing one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War, only to be greeted by the resurgence of fascism in many parts of Europe and a Republican presidential candidate – who seems more like a buffoonish cartoon villain than an actual politician – calling for a ban on all Muslim migration to the US.
Xenophobia is nothing new. The tabloid press often wields images of foreign troublemakers to pacify and terrify the population, many of whom are themselves struggling against the effects of austerity. But in recent months, The Migrant, that shadowy figure sneaking over fences and under trains at Calais, has become a new kind of Folk Devil: a furtive, dark-skinned menace seeking to despoil Europe and exploit its benefit system. The ‘migrant crisis’ has been presented in a completely decontextualised way, as though those fleeing conflict in the Middle East had been beamed in from some other galaxy, rather than having escaped the very same Terror the US and UK claim to be at war with. With hate-mongers like Katie Hopkins calling for gunboats to sink ships carrying refugees across the Mediterranean, it sometimes feels as though the dystopia of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men – in which all forms of migration are made illegal, refugees are imprisoned in sprawling concentration camps, and a militarised police force defends the country’s borders – is not such a distant reality.
M.I.A is one of the few artists who has confronted this bleak social context in her art. Born in London to Tamil parents, much of her early childhood was spent in Sri Lanka, where her family lived in hiding from the Sri Lankan army due to her father’s political activities. These early experiences of displacement and eventual resettlement in the UK have had a huge influence on her work as a visual artist and musician.
She has never shied away from political controversies: her video for ‘Born Free’, in which redheads are violently rounded up and taken into the deserts to run across a minefield, was temporarily banned on youtube in the US and UK for its graphic depictions of violence. Her self-directed video for her recent track ‘Borders’, features hundreds of shaven-headed Asian men, running across a desert, trying to scale barbed-wire fences, and crammed on to boats. It can be read both as an indictment of the physical structure of border regimes, and a critique of the representation of refugees.
The use of only male bodies is not incidental. She often surrounds herself with men in her videos, perhaps as a kind of counter-objectification, a response to the way in which female bodies are frequently used as mere adornments in music videos. (For a more in-depth look at the gender politics of the video, check Immediate Mischief’s podcast here). In ‘Borders’, the men scurry and run, but are voiceless and deprived of agency. They are a backdrop, a horde, while she herself remains in the foreground.
But she also stands within the horde – she is one of them. And so is her music: influenced by displacement and diaspora, and situated within a space of cultural exchange, of questioning and resisting dominant narratives.