Late last year, M.I.A. released the video for a new song, “Borders.” A kind of deadpan art-pop take on the immigration crisis currently doing its best to tear the European Union into pieces, the clip features boatloads of uniformly buzz-cutted refugees staring stoically forward as M.I.A. drops simple little chants: Borders—what’s up with that? Politics—what’s up with that?
It’s visually arresting: presumed refugees wear gold-lamé marathon tinfoil, and stack on top of one another in wedding-cake formation. It’s also, in its manhandling of the raw stuff of front pages and op-eds, deeply problematic. Which means it’s quintessential M.I.A. And, in a roundabout way, it’s gotten her back to where she once was: standing up proudly, if shakily, for the rights of the international downtrodden—an unreliable narrator shouting out from the right side of history.
The element of “Borders” that’s drawing the most heat lately is one you may not have even noticed. Toward the end of the video, for a total of ten or so seconds, M.I.A. appears in a bucket hat and the white away kit of the soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, or PSG. In a subtle tweak, the front of the jersey has been changed: instead of the usual sponsor tagline, “Fly Emirates”—a promotion for Dubai’s national airline, the biggest in the Middle East—it reads “Fly Pirates.”
At first look, the point being made is unclear. Are the pirates in question the refugees? Or are they the government of Dubai? Are they the bandits operating off the coast of Somalia? Or are they pre-’roids skinny Barry Bonds? But as a general dig toward the sins of hegemony, the message comes through. And just a few weeks after its release Jean-Claude Blanc, the deputy CEO of Paris Saint-Germain, showed off a remarkable pop cultural attunity (he must follow @TheFADER on Twitter) by taking notice.
“We consider that the use of our brand and image in a video clip denouncing the treatment of refugees is a source of discredit for our club and distorts its public communication policy,” Blanc wrote in a legally binding letter made public by M.I.A. this week. He went on to demand that video for “Borders” be taken down, and that M.I.A. “compensate us for the harm we have suffered.”
In response, M.I.A. wrote on Instagram, “PSG wanna take DOWN BORDERS video within 24hrs- because of this tee which I bought on my connection flight in Qatar on the way to shoot. they have players who are 2nd gen migrants . What do you think I should do? #FASHION#controversy #fornorreason #brrrraa”
In a way, it’s nice of PSG to come down hard on this trifling infringement of their intellectual property. Because now M.I.A. gets to ask some good questions.
PSG is one of the titans of European soccer. Powerful and preposterously wealthy, they far outclass France’s relatively weak top domestic league, Ligue 1 (they’re undefeated so far this season) and are perennially gunning for the crown in Champions League, Europe’s premier tournament. Alongside fellow international powerhouses Manchester United, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich, PSG jerseys pop up in every last corner of the world. As M.I.A. points out, that sterling reputation—that whole money-making operation—is, in its current incarnation, built in large part on the backs of second-generation immigrants.
That includes young prospects like Jean-Kevin Augustin, Hervin Ongenda, Jean-Christophe Bahebeck, and Jordan Ikoko—all French-born kids with international heritage and dual citizenship (respectively: Haiti; Congo; Cameroon; Congo). It also includes Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is not only PSG’s star striker but also one of the greatest goal-scorers, in terms both of prolificness and creativity, in the history of the game. At 34 years old, Ibrahimovic is comfortably in the post-prime of his career. But he can still do some truly bonkers shit.
Ibrahimovic was born and raised in Sweden, and plays in international competition for the country. But as the name and the face readily give away, he’s no stereotypical Swede. His mother was a Croatian Catholic, his father a Muslim from Bosnia who drank to forget the war back home in the Balkans. He grew up in the infamous Malmö neighborhood of Rosengård, an immigrant bastion, where he shrugged off Scandinavian-style equanimity in favor of the brashness and elite one-on-one skills of his Brazilian soccer idols. And he’s become one of the most beloved athletes not only in Sweden but the world over.
In “Borders,” M.I.A. is operating in the oblique fashion she prefers. But the allusions of her imagery—to the tortuous lives of immigrants fleeing the civil war in Syria—is self-evident. At one point in his letter, Blanc that “nothing in our activities and in our daily initiatives suggests we have anything to do with the problems highlighted by M.I.A.” He continues: “More than being surprised, we simply do not understand why we are associated.”
Here, then, is her point: PSG’s star player is one of the all-time greatest immigrant success stories. But if this immigrant boy with a transcendent talent had never been given the opportunity of integration in his parents’ adopted nation, who knows what happens?
It’s no surprise that an elite international business would be vigilant about protecting its trademark. What’s illuminating, and amusing, is that PSG seems personally offended and genuinely confused by M.I.A.’s appropriation. Top-flight European soccer—where any given team’s roster is an international hodgepodge—is, in general, an aggressive and powerful testament to the virtues of both cosmopolitanism and integrationism. Is it not clear to PSG where they fit into the story? Can they really not understand?
look at the players .Paris , PSG , money from Qatar , money from Saudi ,refugees, MIA. There's only so much I can say about t-shirts. 🙊🕛🕐🕑🕒— M.I.A (@MIAuniverse) January 13, 2016
It’s been a while since many took M.I.A. seriously as a clear-minded political observer. To be exact, it’s been just shy of six years—since May 25, 2010, when the New York Times Magazine dropped “M.I.A.’s Agitprop Pop.” Lynn Hirschberg’s damning, classic cover profile of the artist was a gorgeously executed “give ‘em enough rope” hit job.
In over 8,000 words, Hirschberg—who is, as far as culture journalists go, a goddamn assassin—effortlessly portrayed M.I.A. as a dilettante stumbling through the symbols of war, picking from them pointlessly. Designing tour costumes, Hirschberg reports, M.I.A. wanted a “combination of sexy and militaristic," telling her confused designers, "The best sportswear is on Blackwater operatives."
The bit that might best stick in your mind is this: “Unity holds no allure for Maya—she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. ‘I kind of want to be an outsider,’ she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.” That alleged eager consumption of the truffle fry, a symbol of high-class hoity-toity-ness, became, hilariously, hotly debated. M.I.A. claimed it was Hirschberg that ordered the fries, thereby setting her up; actual proof was dug up that Hirschberg had used french fries as a weapon before. The phrase “TruffleGate” was coined.
But it was beside the point. Because in the course of exposing the rough process MIA uses to convert her political leanings into product—in the course of capturing her thinking out loud—Hirschberg sunk her.
At that point, M.I.A. had been as hot as she’d ever been. “Paper Planes” had proven a slow-burning crossover hit still big years after its 2007 release. Kanye lifted it for T.I.’s 2008 posse-cut “Swagga Like Us,” which led to the indelible image of M.I.A. performing the track with ‘Ye, Tip, Hov, and Wayne at the ’09 Grammys—three days before the birth of her child. But her first album post-Hirschberg, Maya, was doomed, and it flopped.
To be fair, there were all manner of reasons for her slump, way beyond the Times article. There was the quietly acrimonious split with her onetime creative and romantic partner, Diplo; a continuously rocky relationship with her label, Interscope; a vague sense that the novelty of her brand was wearing off; and, perhaps more than all, what seemed like her general disinterest in making music, including a short-lived retirement.
Since, though, in her own wayward fashion, M.I.A. has bounced back. 2012’s “Bad Girls,” and its bizzaro Arab drift video (which shares the lovely trippiness of the “Borders” treatment) was big. The song was just too good to ignore—I believe it was Teddy Roosevelt who once said, “at the end of the day, a banger’s a banger.” Her sound will never feel as groundbreaking as it did at first, but 2013’s Matangi was celebrated with some of the strongest reviews of her career. And now her fifth studio album, Matahdatah, is approaching with heat.
Still, M.I.A.’s status as a legitimately politicized voice has never fully recovered. Flipping the middle finger during her Super Bowl cameo might have been a well-intentioned saboteuring of the (possibly actually evil) NFL, but it only pushed forth her rep for cheap provocation. Hirschberg’s “political dilettante” tag stuck. When M.I.A. speaks out now, she must know that she’ll be dismissed as readily as she’ll be heard.
Good on her, then, for being unafraid to keep speaking.
“Borders” is not sophisticated, no. Almost as a complement to its aesthetic virtues it is, intellectually, a bit of a mess. But I think that’s what M.I.A. wants it to be. It is startling; it provides an affect very different from that of good reportage. And it manages to swirl in all kinds of other stuff, and it leaves it there for you to react to: What do you think I should do? “#FASHION#controversy”
In last six years, maybe we’ve realized something: that it’s good to have M.I.A. around, shooting her mouth off. Pop artists have no responsibility to engage politically, but if they choose to do so, good on them. It’s not always going to be sensible, or pretty. But there’s a virtue there, always: they engage, then we engage. M.I.A. happened to buy a PSG jersey on a layover in Qatar and then she covered up the ‘Em’ into a ‘P’ and then she decided to wear it in a music video and now we’re talking about elite European soccer’s uneasy relationship with its migrant work base.
You can get this stuff in mannered, professional essay writing, if you prefer. But that’s not as much fun. It’s clean, and bloodless: there’s no confrontation. “Compensate us for the harm we have suffered,” Blanc wrote in his letter. PSG must understand, in this context, how preposterous that phrase is.
Post TruffleGate, M.I.A.’s critics seem to want her to make her points with the intellectual rigidity of an academic; they seem to want her to act as responsibly as a war journalist. But she’s not an academic, and she’s not a journalist. She’s here to fling out questions—questions she most definitely does not have the answer to. Like Zlatan, she is a shooter. And shooters gotta shoot.