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M.I.A. courts controversy yet again, with new video 'Broader than a border'

Shobhna Iyer | Updated on: 17 July 2015, 13:06 IST

As with nearly everything else she's ever done, British-born Sri Lankan-origin singer M.I.A's new video is equal parts exciting, confusing and controversial.

Broader than a Border isn't a proper song, per se, but a combination of an old song - Warriors, from her last album Matangi - and a new one, Swords.

She released the song via the continues-to-make-headlines Apple Music, and you can watch it on her tumblr here.

It features scenes shot somewhere in India, with what seem to be a truly badass group of cane-wielding, shades-sporting girls.

In the second half of the video, M.I.A shot a street dancer from the West African nation of Cote d'Ivoire who she spotted on a Youtube video, dancing to her track. This clip, it seems, is what her label wanted to hold back, for fear of accusations of cultural appropriation.

This is both intriguing and ironic, because if there's anyone at least cognizant of the concept of cultural appropriation, it's the Sri Lankan-origin singer, who has dealt with themes of race, ethnicity, war and culture repeatedly in her music and videos.

No stranger to trouble

If you only knew M.I.A. from Paper Planes, the song sadly synonymous with Slumdog Millionaire, it's not your fault.

But you should know that her music is so much more.

Mathangi Arulpragasam has been making chest-thumping, put-your-dance-shoes-and-thinking-cap-on dance music for over a decade now. Rarely has her music not ventured into controversial, or at least overtly political, territory.

There was the video for Born Free, in which a group of redheads are treated brutally and eventually executed, which M.I.A. claimed was a comment on racial and ethnic genocides. The video created enough controversy for it to be blocked by YouTube for a while upon its release in 2010.

Rarely has M.I.A.'s music not ventured into controversial, or at least overtly political, territory

Then, in 2012, she released the video for Bad Girls, another powerful song in its own right, but the hype when it released revolved more around the video, which features a 'Middle Eastern' setting, a whole lot of street dancing, car stunts, military outfits and endless desert backdrops. While some argued at the time that it was a sharp, in-your-face critique of conservative societies where women aren't allowed agency - Saudi Arabia, for example, where women aren't allowed to drive - others critiqued it for its stereotypical depictions of 'Arab culture'.

Her newest video - which she has said will be part of a larger music + video project Matahdatah - seems to be a resolute continuation of her policy of 'show, piss off, make bank'.

In reality, though, it's none of that - and it's cultural appropriation even less.

It's a well-executed example of finding and amplifying global talent that musicians themselves may be in awe of. It's a great couple of songs visualised on kickass people who happen to be from disparate parts of the world, whom the singer seems to genuinely admire and feature as performers in their own right, not as a visual gimmick for her music.

In a statement soon after the release of the video, she explained her intent for the video and the project as a whole:

I directed and edited my first music video for "Warriors" for my last album, MATANGI, and I held it back until now, because it inspired me to make a whole series of songs and videos on the concept of borders. Making songs and videos at the same time out of a suitcase on location is something I did on my album KALA, but it's video, as well as music, made by me in a very ARULAR way.

My new song Swords was filmed in a Temple in India and we recorded the clang of the metal to make the beat at the same time as shooting these incredible girls. There's ten more of these countries coming and I haven't chased where to go yet, so who knows where this project will take me. Warriors was shot in Cote d'Ivoire with a guy I saw in a YouTube video doing the most incredible dancing. I tracked him down, flew out there and played him the Warriors track. He did his thing for me. He is a spiritual warrior and communicates through dancing. It's a lifelong commitment for him to be the designated spiritual body that channels that dance.

The concept for this LP is 'broader than a border' and MATAHDATAH is the journal of MATANGI. Sometimes I move vertical and sometimes I move horizontal.

Whether or not you choose to take her intentions at face value, it's clear the singer treats her music as passion projects, and certainly isn't as blase as many others in the industry when it comes to issues of culture and appropriation.

She's sometimes overeager, sometimes tone-deaf and often too honest. But we don't have nearly enough people - especially women - making music with such chutzpah, so I think she gets a pass.

Plus, there's all that amazing music she's gifted us with:

First published: 17 July 2015, 13:06 IST
 
Shobhna Iyer @shoiyer

After studying to be an archaeologist at JNU, Shobhna worked in travel publishing before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not arguing over en and em dashes, you'll find her raving about her new favourite album, drinking copious amounts of coffee or ganna ras and struggling to come up with witty tweets.

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