The new M.I.A single couldn’t have been more timely. A compelling cry for compassion for refugees around the world, it comes a fortnight after the heartbreaking attack that saw Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists kill 130 people in Paris, a tragedy that has, understandably, prompted France to call for the suspension of open borders within Europe. And so ISIS moves closer to its wish: the further fracturing of society, greater walls between us, even more division.
Yet M.I.A, the 40-year British rapper of Sri Lankan descent, is here to remind of us the refugees around the world for whom borders are not a sign of comfort, a sign of security, but are in fact another part of their terrifying ordeal.
The second single from M.IA.’s – aka Mathangi Arulpragasam – forthcoming fifth album Matahdatah, sees her ask, “Borders/What’s up with that?” and “Broke people/What’s up with that/Boat people/What’s up with that?”, set to swirling Eastern synths and trap-influenced snare drums. It’s every bit as immediate and insistent as her Clash-sampling 2007 breakthrough hit ‘Paper Planes’, with the hypnotic, dreamlike quality of ‘Bad Girls’, the best track from her 2011 mixtape Vicki Leekz.
Increasingly, you can’t properly discuss M.I.A’s singles without talking about their accompanying videos. ‘Bad Girls’, a song about female empowerment, was complemented by the sight of her drifting, a Saudi pastime in which cars are driven on their side; while 2010’s ‘Born Free’ addressed the arbitrariness of ethnic cleansing by depicting redheads being rounded up and shot. In the stylised, self-directed video for ‘Borders’, M.I.A drives the refugee plight home: young men huddle on boats, others move to shimmy over barbed wire fences. Show this to those who claim we should close our doors to refugees, as ISIS soldiers may move within their camps.
The song itself juxtaposes these troubling images with the inanities and superficialities of online culture: “Being bae/What’s up with that?” and “Being lit/What’s up with that?” Towards the end, powerfully, the lyrics shift towards more fundamental issues of “values”, “beliefs”, “families” and “history.” In the end, only the hardest of hearts could fail to sympathise when M.I.A chastises those who’d seek self-preservation by shutting out refugees: “Fuck ‘em when we say we’re not with them.”