Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A, brews controversy in almost everything she creates. Her most recent single, "Borders," is no exception. The song—released November 27—is expected to appear on her forthcoming album Matahdatah, and the video tackles the ongoing worldwide refugee crisis. But that's not the problem. There's something amiss, and it has to do with the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
The video features a backdrop of refugee imagery: People on boats, people climbing desperately over fences, people lying on their backs in transit. There's an easy critique to be made that M.I.A. is standing in front of a display of people's suffering for her own material gain. But As Spencer Kornhaber writes for The Atlantic, "you can defend her by pointing to the fact of who she is—here, a refugee speaking for refugees—as well as to the intent of her music."
In fact, M.I.A. has a history of acknowledging the plight of the refugee. For her debut album Arular, in 2005, she told The Guardian, "What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about."
What's upsetting is this: M.I.A. is one of the most controversial, political, and bad bitch artists creating music today, and in order to distribute this video about a refugee crisis, she has to align herself with a brand: Apple.
In the hook, M.I.A. sings:
Guns blow doors to the system
Yeah fuck 'em when we say we're not with them
We're solid and we don't need to kick them
This is North, South, East and Western
Guns blow doors to the system
It seems incredibly ironic that she's singing "fuck the system" lyrics while the logo for one of the biggest, most profitable companies in the world hovers just to her right.
In the bridge, she takes a dig at popular consumer culture: "We representing peeps, they don't play us on the FM/We talkin' in our sleep, they still listen on a system." And yet here she is, participating in a "system." Even though the song can be streamed on Spotify, YouTube, and Pandora; the video is exclusively (for now) on Apple Music.
M.I.A.’s deal to have her video exclusively on Apple Music is part of the company's push for original content that includes Drake, Pharrell, and Eminem, and most likely came with some cash. You can't blame a girl for trying to make some money for her art. In fact, I'm glad that M.I.A. is using Apple money to make art that's controversial and political, and questions the way we treat other humans in the world.
But there’s a difference in using a brand like YouTube to distribute your product, and having that distribution be part of what you’re selling. Since the Apple logo sits on top of the entire video, M.I.A. isn’t just selling her message, she’s selling a platform.
But M.I.A.'s situation—aligning with a corporate behemoth in order to get her message across, even though it seems antithetical to everything she believes in and sings about—just goes to show how broken the music industry right now. There is no platform for artists that is without "evils." And the structure of music purchasing is so dysfunctional that no artist can guarantee they'll make money off the songs they create. That's how we ended up with a song about breaking down the walls of the system firmly planted within the walls of capitalistic structure.
There's a school-yard chant quality to this song, a taunting nanny-nanny-boo-boo when she sings "Borders? What's up with that?/ Politics? What's up with that?" But as much as I wanted to join her, and question what's up with police shots, identity, privilege, and so on, I found myself asking "What's up with that?" as my eyes were drawn to the shiny glow of the Apple logo.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.