M.I.A.'s 'Born Free' Video


M.I.A. has a new album coming out on June 29th. If the people of the Internet didn't know that already, there's an excellent chance they do by now. Yesterday, the Sri Lankan-British agit-pop star was handed the keys to Pitchfork's Twitter feed,  and she also let loose the ultra-violent video for "Born Free," a 9 minute firestarter that includes full frontal nudity and pale-skinned red-haired youths quite literally getting blown to bits while M.I.A. raps over a sample of "Ghost Rider," by the '70s New York electro-punk band Suicide. The video has been pulled off YouTube, but if you've got  the stomach to see what happens to the kid in that picture, it can be seen at a variety of places, including on her official site.

The video, directed by Romain Gavras, the son of politically-charged filmmaker Costas Gavras (Z, Missing) depicts what appear to be U.S. military police rounding up white red-haired kids - "Gingers," if you must - and driving them into a open desert to be executed.  The argument she's making is a worthy one: discrimination against any group based on skin color, religous beliefs, ethnic background or whatever, is heinous and hateful. The persecuted rebels in "Born Free" could be stand-ins for the Tamil minorities in M.I.A.'s Sri Lankan homeland or Palestinian teenagers on the West Bank (a connection underscored by the way a select few feebly fight back by tossing rocks as the busload of their incarcerated brethren rolls by) or, in the most timely sense, illegal Mexican immigrants corraled in draconian Arizona. 

To make her argument, did M.I.A., who doesn't appear in the video, need to graphically show what it looks like when innocent children get their brains blown out by military personnel?  No. But I'm not the least surprised that she did. It takes a who lot to rise above the din these days, and the artist also known as Maya Arulpragasam means to use shock tactics learned from Madonna to make art with her own incendiary political agenda, which in this case means taking the kind of superviolent imagery routinely shown in slasher movies and recontextualing it in the service of an pointedly unsubtle argument against U.S. foreign policy.

And in aiming to make a video likely to incite even more chatter than "Telephone" by Lady Gaga - of whom M.I.A. recently said "none of her music's reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is" - M.I.A. wielded a handed as heavy as the one she used on the CAPS LOCK key when shouting out mostly uninteresting gibberish on Pitchfork yesterday. 

All of this is made more complicated and interesting because, thanks to actual talent and one irresistible hit from 2007's Kala - the Clash sampling "Paper Planes," produced by her ex-boyfriend, Philadelphia's own Diplo  - M.I.A. now commands an audience even bigger than the belly she sported while rapping with Lil Wayne, Kanye West and crew on the 2009 Grammy awards.

And it gets even richer - literally - when you consider that the provocateur who rapped about her desire to "Pull up the people, pull up the poor" on her 2005 debut Arular  is now rabble rousing from a position of extreme financial privilege, having married into the many-billioned Bronfman family fortune, which controls Universal Music, who she records for and ranted against on Twitter yesterday before realizing they weren't the ones responsible for having "Born Free" pulled from YouTube. (In a pre-emptive strike for all haters who might accuse her of being inauthentic because she's now richer than Croesus, M.I.A. raps on "Born Free": "I don't want to talk about money, 'cause I got it... I don't want to be that fake, but you can do it.")

Musically, "Born Free" is hard-driving, distorted and pretty powerful, though it doesn't do anything all that creative with Suicide's "Ghost Rider," on which Alan Vega hypnotically - and concisely - proclaimed "America is killing it's youth." (Check out the original.) M.I.A.'s version certainly suggests, though, that her still untitled album will be uncompromised musically as well as politically, and that's good news. The album's track list is here.

What would have been better news would have been if the "Born Free" video was as good as the typically great 2005 South Park "Ginger Kids" episode in which Eric Cartman's paranoid fear of red haired and freckled kids ("Judas was a Ginger!" he declares) inspires Kyle, Stan and Kenny to sneak into his room at night and turn him into a red head through the use of hair dye and tattoos. Diagnosed with "Gingervitis," Cartman then goes on a hateful and hilarious rampage, starting the Ginger Seperatist Movement. He inspires his troops with slogans like "The only way to fight hate is with more hate!," before later leading a "We Are The World"-style singalong that's a whole lot catchier than "Born Free" and goes like this: "Black or white, brown or red/We shouldn't kill each other 'cause we're all the same/Black or white, brown or red/We shouldn't kill each other, 'cause that's lame." You can watch that episode here.

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