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

April 27, 2010 | 11:14 am

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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