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M.I.A. makes her stance utterly clear with 'Born Free' video [UPDATED]

Mia M.I.A. protested in the all-caps mode she favors when the rattling, violent video for her brash new single "Born Free" was pulled from YouTube early Tuesday morning. After using Twitter to blame her record label and then retracting that accusation -- YouTube itself removed the short film by French director Romain Gavras for its graphic content, which included a child being shot in the head and a young man being blown up by a land mine -- she simply declared, "BOOOOOOOOO" and provided a link to the "Born Free" video on her own website.

Her tweet was more childish than it was constructive, but the transnational hip-hop star's decision to team with Gavras and release a video that clearly connected to the history of political filmmaking is no rash impulse. With "Born Free," M.I.A. lets her growing cult of fans know that she has no intention of softening her message to court the mainstream.

For those who haven't seen the clip, it's a docudrama-style depiction of American military forces rounding up members of a targeted minority in an unnamed city, taking them to the desert and executing them. Much-discussed reference points include the Peter Watkins 1971 countercultural film "Punishment Park" and, because the raided people have red hair, the South Park episode "Ginger Kids," which satirized the idea of targeted minority groups by putting redheads in the victim role.

In fact, Gavras will soon release his directorial debut, "Redheads," which takes the plot of the M.I.A. video feature-length and promises to be both ultra-violent and free of Kenny jokes. His work with the filmmaking collective Kourtrajme, which he co-founded, and on videos for other artists (most notably the French electronic duo Justice, whose song "Stress" became the backdrop to Gavras' blunt depiction of Paris gang violence) lands smack in the middle of what's long been fruitful ground for political filmmakers, including Gavras' own father, Constantinos "Costa" Gavras: the killing field where dramas of racial prejudice, institutional control and minority resistance are enacted.

To me, the most relevant precedent for "Born Free" is a recent one. The jittery scenarios of marauding military captured by hand-held cameras come very close to what we see in many scenes of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning film, "The Hurt Locker." That deep exploration of the contemporary warrior's predicament left some people wondering what Bigelow's politics might be. (Personally, I considered it a powerful example of the pro-soldier, antiwar school of thought.) "Born Free" does away with the softening effect of exploring characters' psyches, concentrating fully on the physical horror of gun butts and bullets hitting flesh. [*Update: A previous version of this post misspelled Kathryn Bigelow's first name.]

M.I.A. doesn't appear in the video, a formal choice that makes sense; the presence of a pop star in the middle of Gavras' fully imagined inner city and outlying badlands would have made no narrative sense. The rapper's decision to keep herself out of this first promotion for her third album further signals her determination to keep her message front and center. My colleague August Brown discussed the musical basis of "Born Free" on Pop & Hiss last week. He didn't hear much in the lyrics, but now, I think, they carry more weight.

One of M.I.A.'s tricks has been to use the classic boasting style of rappers and Jamaican dance-hall toasters to lend a voice to what fancy academic theorists have called the subaltern -- people who can find no place within society's power structures. She does this again on "Born Free," starting with the title, which becomes the main hook. Snapping out the words, "I was booorrnn FREE!" M.I.A. takes a phrase most famously associated with lions, the kings of the jungle, in the 1966 environmentalist film of that title, and offers it up to those people historically pegged as not quite tamed: immigrants, people of color, refugees.

"Got myself an interview tomorrow/I got myself a jacket for a dolla," she says in the song, sounding a lot like someone who, in Arizona, might soon have to start carrying around a birth certificate at all times. Such pointed descriptions of poverty and living on the fly intermingle with more conventional boasts.

Then in a coda, M.I.A. turns the scrutiny on herself. "Don't wanna talk about money, 'cos I got it/Don't wanna talk about hoochies, 'cos I been it," she snarls in what's becoming the song's most quoted verse. "And I don't wanna be fake, but you can do it." 

M.I.A.'s recent harsh words for Lady Gaga seem slightly more forgivable in light of this declaration. As one of the very few female pop artists whose work doesn't primarily focus on gender and sexuality -- she's not writing love songs, neither is she making protest music specifically about the costs of beauty, glamour or "the (always feminized) fame" -- M.I.A. has to fight to keep her agenda undiluted. "Born Free" is a heavy concentrating agent that fully shows M.I.A.'s intention to say radical and aligned with her own vision of what's real. Considering the strong track record of this still-young artist, that's not shocking.

-- Ann Powers

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Comments () | Archives (32)

This is another terribly written and 'blinded in the mainstream' article by the L.A. Times. Born Free reminded you of Hurt Locker? That's the best anti-war film you can think of? Hurt Locker is a weak antiwar film. Consider "Battle of Algiers" or "Paths of Glory" or go recent with "Children of Men." Wtf, Ann? Don't be another naive American!

The video was a ham-fisted anti-authority jibe at best, but really came off as exploitational gore porn for a mediocre song. What's so edgy (or even new) about the idea that war is bad and that people in power abuse it? Who is she really "standing up against"? Build some buzz, gird the brand, move more units, that's all that anyone involved stands for.

Hmmm...looks like the goons in the video are the Maricopa County Sheriff Office (MCSO) to me.

The video is great and completely political. The Born Free chorus has nothing to do with Lions in my opinion. I think it refers to American's rhetoric about themselves, y'know they are born free, but in reality they live in a police state, and only the ones who live a self imposed trance can't see that, cue, the crack head. A bearded minority wearing tafeya's, the arab headdress, are targeted by police forces supported by the United States, cue, the flag, they are all young, gaza and the west bank are very young societies, the young men in the video throw stones like palestinian youth in the intefada. There is a poster that depicts defiant red haired young men taking up arms like the I.R.A. struggle against England, however the young men are all bearded like Arabs, this links the two struggles showing that these two struggles against oppression and all struggles against oppression are really all the same struggle, no matter the identities of the oppressor and the oppressed. The minority are removed from their homes the young being targeted and murdered primarily by American backed thugs, who wear black suits like commandos and wear helmets reminscent of those worn by Hitler's armies.
The youth are palestinian, the nazi helmet wearing police force are the isrealis who evicted the palestinians from their land and now kill their youth for the crime of resistance. Finally the police state regulates all aspects of people's lives including the sexual lives, restricting those sexualities it deems oppressive, like homosexuality or fat white people. gay people have sex, so do old, fat, white people, everybody, should have lots of sex, in my opininion, hope you all are having lots. Genius video, genius song, nuff said!

That video or "film" (term used loosely) sucked period! It's obviously Los Angeles. The "American Forces" looked like a SWAT team out of a student film. They couldn't even get the detail of the how an American Flag patch is properly displayed on the right shoulder. To push this piece of crap excuse for a "film" is pretty pathetic, to compare it to recent "anti-war" films is even more pathetic. YouTube pulled it because it sucked, not because it was graphic!

And oh, can't wait for the "feature" to come out, lol....

Oh, silly young artist that think they are radical!
Oh, silly young artist that think they are original!
Oh, silly young artist that think they have a message!
Oh, silly young artist that think they are free,
free to say and do whatever they think they are free to say and do, until
their young ones one day, feels free to pop one in their own heads...

Oh silly young artists....

The "American military forces" were clearly meant to be an American S.W.A.T.T. team, not soldiers. It seems less like an anti war film than commentary on law enforcement in America's inner city, with red heads serving as an ambiguous racial minority.
I don't get it though, what exactly is it trying to say? Both the lyrics and video are too mysterious to make any sense when taken alone. Neither she nor Gavras are American, are they too separated from our culture to pull something like this off? She may want to take on the mantle of this generation's politically motivated songwriter but she is miles behind Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy.

Just read the article. Well done. Wanted to share that I was in the video myself... in the scene where the couple is rudely interrupted. It was an interesting shoot and production treated us with great courtesy and respect. - Micael Q. Schmidt

Who buys this crap and why?

No one seems to mention the extensive use of "Ghost Rider" from Suicide (1977). One of my favorite albums, so the song has a lot of meaning to me, but is it possible that it was chosen strategically as well? Suicide in the 70's were quite mind-blowing. They had a unique vision that will make anyone feel uncomfortable (try listening to all of "Frankie Teardrop" and not cringing). Even their live performances were unsettling.

Is it not possible that the "Ghost Rider" sampling was done to achieve these same goals? Make audiences and listeners uncomfortable, unsettled, and mind-blown (mostly metaphorically, but can be applied figuratively too) as a way to open up the larger issues.

Not sure I agree that war was the main theme as others would like to note. I would argue the theme is the more obvious idea of... freedom. The use of redheads is both timely (as mentioned) and very noticeable. An eye-opening example of the idea that anyone can become the targeted minority over time. Nevertheless, if we keep to the ideal of being "born free" then those traditional divides of race, ethnicity, culture, etc. may become mute.

"M.I.A. doesn't appear in the video, a formal choice that makes sense; the presence of a pop star in the middle of Gavras' fully imagined inner city and outlying badlands would have made no narrative sense."

Thank you for drawing our attention to that... we would never have considered that without your keen insight. I love that you include "formal." Sounds so film-school. It can't just be a choice, right? So what, pray-tell, does an "informal" choice look like? And while we're at it, what would a "half" imagined inner city look like?

Hurt Locker? Are you joking? This reads like a high school newspaper. Actually I think Bigelow is more of the pro-war/anti-soldier school of thought.

What do ya say we break a sweat occasionally when writing? Maybe put out a little effort and avoid cliches etc.

Who then, is pro war? No one is, not even soldiers themselves.

Musically, I'm not a fan and I really didn't "get" the message she/the filmmaker was trying to portray.

On another note - was that Adam Baldwin as one of the police?

MIA is so 'radical' and 'real' that her lyrics should be

"Don't wanna talk about money, 'cos I got MARRIED INTO it"

This video is pure publicity bait for a less than mediocre song.

Hope her newfound Bronfman money keeps her 'radical' and 'real.'

I like M.I.A. a lot, but this video is laughable and pretentious; like a bad student film. It also rips off Rambo IV. Seriously, I'm a fan, but this sucks. It's trite and kind of hilarious.

Just a thought.. but do you think MIAs statements are more about the Tamil population in Sri Lanka? Instead of the recent Arizona law? I mean, theres more out there than just America..

What an idiot...

This song is not "Born Free". It sounds nothing like the original.

Can't she come up with an original title (does she - or any of the other idiot pop artists who do this - appropriate another song's title - even have an original thought in their heads)?

This is truly an insult to the original song.

This is 2010. We are now a nation of unshockable consumers who don't really care about any 'minority' groups' pain because almost everyone is walking wounded from something, whether it's within their own family, their sexual orientation, their current life situation; so you're of color and want to go on about mistreatment in another land - so...what? You think you're the only one in pain? How dare you!

That's what makes me laugh. People born after 1970 who think they know what 'pain and suffering is' - what's that to you - missing an episode of 'American Idol'? What do you know about life? What do you know about going hungry? What do you know about genocide? Absolutely nothing. And the last comment was right on - there are no original artists anymore. Everything is cultural rip-off or exploitation. We've reached a point where (again) the most 'shocking' stuff from 1988 (rap) is now eye-rolling - it's drivel. We've come to the end of the line. That's possibly why the best-selling albums and songs are from many, many years ago. The music within the last 20 years is so bad that even teens and young adults hate it.

Its not pointless at all...I found it to have several meanings. Just think about the US for a minute...Our leaders are always trying to promote democracy and freedom over the world, but in reality all they do is create chaos. Take the war in Iraq...Do you know how many innocent Iraqis have had their homes invaded by soldiers? And how many of those innocent Iraqis were interrogated and murdered because they were thought to have been terrorists or affiliated with terrorists? Watch the video again..Look beyond the redheads....and think..think about the world today..Do you think soldiers would invade our homes here where we are "born free" ???

This is not about gingerism, it's about state sanctioned discrimination anywhere in the world. Just look at Arizona's new immigrant law in the US. This is against states/countries being able to do what they want and target a select group of people based on their race, religion or spoken language. Once you get past the whole "oh look their ginger" you will see this video for what it truly represents. The persecution/targeting of a group based on their looks, culture, religion, national origin or political afiliation. And yes those gun-toting republicans better be very careful about this. Most of you might consider this a victory, but rest assured one day it may be you that the government or police are coming for. After all it is not that difficult to profile most republicans from a distance or track them down. Then you will only have yourselves to blame for passing these unconstitutional laws that can be easily abused and set a presedent for future laws against..., who knows what other group. Maybe they will round up skin heads or teabaggers...just saying! LOL

The selection of red heads as the terrorized minority seeks to satirize and critique the absurdity of ethnic and religious divisions that characterize such genocides in the real world. The video could have easily extrapolated its narrative trajectory from the recent Nigerian massacres; in which Christian villagers were trapped and killed by Muslim herdsman—between 200 to 500 were killed. Similarly, it could be connoting the Armenian genocide, during which 1.2 million Armenians were killed under Ottoman-ruled Turkey. As an aside, Armenians around the world gathered to commemorate the mass killings just this past Saturday.

The Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the war in Darfur, or the Bosnian Genocide are all variations on the same tragic narrative that has plagued too much of our collective human history: arbitrary violent division justified by differences that when compared to our common humanness are as negligible, as the between red or blonde hair.

The Kabosh

Roger: With you on your comment. Why so far up MIA's patoot, Powers? I don't get it...but then again, neither do you apparently.

Amazingly horrible song and flat as a crepe. The video had one interesting element--the hiring of a gaggle of red-headed actors. Good for them. I can just see all the agents perusing their client lists: "Oh, hey, we have one. Marge, call that Seamus kid, you know, the one we were going to drop, and see if his twin brother, Shane, is also available. Oh, good, Seamus will finally get his SAG card!"

But the murder of the little kid is just more proof that the song and video needed something other than a bus load of red heads to keep our attention. (Well, of course, there was that naked, apendectomy-scarred, fat guy.)

I am pretty certain M.I.A was inspired to collaborate/do this video following the Sri Lankan government's genocide of the minority Tamil population (to which M.I.A belongs) , where 20,000 civilians were killed in 2009 alone. M.I.A has been very outspoken about this issue over the last few years.

If you look at the cover for the song,


It features a picture of the Sri Lankan solders executing blind folded Tamil civilians. Specifically, the picture is based on cell phone footage that was found from the cell phone of a Sri Lankan soldier. Here is the video:


SouthPark did it so much better..

Well isn't that the point, she got them talking about genocide using their own race, with different coloured hair to invoke discussion about it, because they need that kinda common denominator to relate? I'm not surprised it's worked bucket loads.

That's what I got from it, I mean even now they're looking for parallels which has its pros and cons.

But then, there are alot of ppl who don't need them to be a particular type of person for it to appear repulsive. She's cleverly used shock factor to separate the ignorant from the involved.

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