By Sheeva Azma
The Sri Lankan rapper’s outspoken support for refugees — the focus of her 2016 album — remains relevant as the United States and the rest of the world continue to grapple with immigration reform.
One of the legacies of the Trump Administration may be its radical, wide-sweeping, and unpopular reforms dedicated to discouraging illegal immigration. The twice-impeached president’s tumultuous time in office was fraught with battles tied to immigration — mostly ways to curb it (a border wall, a ban on Muslim immigration), even ending birthright citizenship.
That’s why, when I heard M.I.A.’s song “Visa” as I was driving the other day, I wondered — was this written during the Trump era? Whether or not the UK-based rapper had Trump in mind (it was released in September, 2016), her song’s sarcastic tone hearkened back to the early days of Trump border policy and Americans’ disdain for the empowered border patrol:
YALA refers to the song “Y.A.L.A.” from MIA”s fourth album, Matangi. While the acronym is meant to be a play on Drake’s YOLO, or “you only live once,” the phrase also alludes to the Arabic “yalla,” meaning “let’s go” or “come on!”
The Sri Lankan rapper knows a lot about the refugee life, which is why her songs’ critiques point so sharply at the brutal policies of the Trump presidency. M.I.A., whose real name is Mathangi Arulpragasm, was born in London in 1975. She then moved to Sri Lanka with her family, where her father was in the Tamil Tigers. She returned to the UK as a refugee escaping the Sri Lankan civil war in the ’80s. In a 2009 interview she said said, “As a Sri Lankan who has fled war and bombings, my music is the voice of the civilian refugee.”
M.I.A.’s music videos have previously attracted attention for their politically opinionated nature. The graphic video for 2010’s “Born Free” is difficult to watch — I couldn’t get through the whole thing. The song, which is about the fragility of freedom, attacks ethnic cleansing. Red-haired people have been ordered to be executed. Military forces ride around town and arrest those who fit the description in their locality. The victims are placed in a bus and shuttled away to a remote place reminiscent of a concentration camp. The combination of the song and the graphic imagery in the video version creates a vivid experience, highlighting the injustices faced by minorities in a so-called free society.
M.I.A.’s fifth album, AIM, reflects her refugee roots; it is chock-full of insights about the immigrant’s life. And her reflections are just as valid and relevant now as they were at the time of the album’s release. The recording is loaded with ethnic beats borrowed from South Asia and the Middle East, its songs criticizing isolationist immigration policies that are harmful to refugees. While the album does not represent a significant musical departure from M.I.A.’s other recordings, it has a striking political tone that some of her earlier works, such as her breakout hits “Sunshowers” and “Galang,” lack — perhaps owing to the isolationist immigration policies of the times. “Visa” and the other songs on AIM take a very powerful pro-immigrant stance.
At the time of the album’s release immigration was on everyone’s minds because Trump put it there. In Trump’s list of top 10 campaign promises made during the 2016 race, building a border wall and enacting a ban on Muslims entering the United States were #1 and #2 on the list.
Trump delivered swiftly on his immigration promises. His first days in office were spent issuing executive orders dealing with the topic. On January 25, 2017, his Executive Order 13767 initiated Trump’s promise of building a border wall to reduce illegal immigration. Two days later, he signed Executive Order 13769, a travel ban that limited immigration from several Muslim countries. The entire immigration system was brought to a halt in its first 90 days once a complete travel ban was announced. As a result of these and other Trump administration policies, refugee admissions declined greatly between 2016 and 2020.
As the so-called “Muslim ban” went into effect, scores of immigrants — including some green-card holders — were scrutinized, held at the airport, or even deported. Members of Congress showed up at their local airports to attempt to help these people be reunited with their families. Rep. Nydia Vasquez was in tears at JFK airport as she sought to advocate for Muslim constituents who were being held as a result of the new executive order. Traveling to the airport, she tweeted, “On way to JFK airport where refugees from Iraq are being detained under new Executive Order. These unconscionable actions cannot stand!”
In M.I.A.’s London, things were taking a similar turn. Following Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation, Boris Johnson, leader of UK’s Conservative Party, took office in September 2016. While he had earlier been a supporter of immigration, the PM rolled out a an exclusionary policy that would curb immigration and keep low-skilled, non-English-speaking workers out of the country.
The AIM track “Borders” takes issue with these strict border policies — “a refugee speaking for refugees,” as The Atlantic writes. “Borders, what’s up with that?” M.I.A. asks in the song. In the music video, various “migrants” from the developing world — people largely marginalized by Trump-inspired policies — are shown immigrating. They travel in a single-file line on land and through bodies of water; packed into boats; climbing border fences. All in pursuit of a better life. “We representing peeps, they don’t play us on the FM,” M.I.A. sings, staking a claim for the violently marginalized. The video received an “extreme backlash” M.I.A. told Al Jazeeera, including hate from neo-Nazi groups.
Trump’s border policy came under scrutiny again, in April 2018, when the Trump Administration instituted a “zero-tolerance policy” which punished all migrants — including those seeking asylum — with detention and criminal prosecution, separating parents and children in the process. This policy was heavily criticized as being unfair to refugees and reversed on June 25, 2018.
Perhaps talking about her own experience as a migrant, M.I.A. discusses crossing the border as a refugee in AIM‘s “Jump In”: I make a plan / Put it in god’s hand / And jump in to that van.” In “Freedun,” M.I.A. raps, “I’m a swagger man / Rolling in my swagger van / From the People’s Republic Of Swagistan.” “Freedun” speaks to the difficult path faced by would-be asylum-seekers: “Yeah, history is just a competition / Do you wanna sign my petition? / It’s for the people with dedication / Some people f*** it up, technications / Refugees learn about patience / Sometimes, I have many visions.” The song features UK-born Zayn Malik, of mixed Pakistani and European background, a solo artist who formerly sang with One Direction.
Incoming President Joe Biden has made it a point to undo those policies in his first 100 days in office. Biden’s second Executive Order, EO 13986, reversed the former President’s ban regarding counting illegal immigrants in the census. Many of his other Executive Orders were also focused on immigration: reversing the travel ban from majority-Muslim countries; ending deportation for “Dreamers,” illegal immigrants who grew up in the United States; and reunifying families separated at the US-Mexico border under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
Reversing Trump’s policies is just what M.I.A. is singing about in some of the songs on AIM. In fact, the album celebrates foreigners. The lyrics for “Go Off” contain a subtle reference to “aliens” — in other words, foreigners: “So check up on your messages / Know what the message is / Like aliens in villages.” The ballad “Foreign Friend” is a celebration of immigrants and the refugee life. M.I.A. sums up the American Dream in a few lines:
Not all of the songs on AIM are overtly about immigration, which is a nice respite for those not as invested in refugee rights as M.I.A. is. “Bird Song” contains a number of delightful avian puns and metaphors. In “Finally,” M.I.A. brushes off her haters. “All My People” gives us M.I.A. rapping out a lighthearted stream-of-consciousness ditty with an industrial techno sound. “Ali r u ok?” features Indian-inspired strings and samples. “Fly Pirate” hearkens back to M.I.A.’s old approach — repetitive yet upbeat. The album’s last track, “Survivor,” might be about someone surviving a journey as a refugee but, on its face, it is an upbeat, twinkly song about making it in the world.
The extended version of the album, which is available for streaming on Spotify, also contains some additions, including a hit remix of “Bird Song.” Also included is a song originally by GENER8ION that has M.I.A. on vocals, It is called “The New International Sound.” “Swords” seems to be a “girls-just-wanna-have-fun” anthem. “Talk” dramatizes M.I.A.’s encounters with critics: “I talk and talk until I piss ‘em off.” Finally, “Platforms” was inspired by subway platforms. The video for “Platforms,” which was filmed in Côte d’Ivoire, was not released because of charges of cultural appropriation.
In 2016, M.I.A. claimed that AIM would be her last album, but in 2017 she released a tune critical of Trump called P.O.W.A. “Super kala fascist racist espi ala tazors,” she raps in the video for “P.O.W.A.” “I’m taking on the Tower,” she says, ostensibly referring to Trump Tower.
In January 2020, M.I.A. launched a Patreon page, where she posts “films, music, and art.” A number of pieces have appeared on the page, from new songs and Q-and-A sessions with fans to thoughts about her creative process in the studio. There is a profile of an Indian superwoman who can pull a car with her hair and a feature about listening to beats with Julian Assange. “I’m just going to post whatever I’m doing, what I’m learning, who I’m meeting and what connections come my way,” she writes on her Patreon. Recently, M.I.A. joined Travis Scott and Young Thug in the song “Franchise,” in which she wears an outfit made of real flowers while rapping in a field surrounded by a herd of sheep. The song debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart after its release on September 25, 2020.
While what M.I.A. has planned for 2021 is uncertain (and she hasn’t posted a Patreon video yet this year), it seems likely that, post-AIM, she will remain an outspoken voice in support of immigrants, refugees, and other marginalized communities.
Sheeva Azma is a freelance science writer and reporter. She is also founder of her own science writing company, Fancy Comma, LLC. She can be found on the web at www.sheevaazma.com and on Twitter @SheevaAzma.