Political Songs | How M.I.A. captured a struggle

A radical, humorous and delightfully catchy challenge to xenophobia.

A few weeks ago, the song Paper Planes, off English-Sri Lankan musician M.I.A.’s sophomore album, Kala (2007), popped into my head. The song is far more than an earworm that unexpectedly made it into the top 5 of the US Billboard charts. It’s a critique of how darker-skinned immigrants are stereotyped in the West.

M.I.A. (born Mathangi Arulpragasam) knows what she’s singing about. Her father is a founder member of a guerrilla group affiliated to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. As a young girl, she had to flee war-torn Sri Lanka with her mother and brother, leaving her father behind. She grew up in England as a refugee.

As a musician, she’s never hesitated to express her left-wing views. It’s the political lyrics of M.I.A., a British citizen with no criminal record, that put her in the sights of the paranoid United States department of homeland security. This resulted in a protracted struggle in 2006 with American authorities for a work visa, which she needed to complete Kala with US producer Diplo, who was also her partner at the time.

She used first-hand experiences from this struggle on the catchy Paper Planes to play with the stereotypes, generalisations and prejudices that confront immigrants, refugees and foreigners. Samples on loop of British punk-rock band The Clash’s 1982 anti-racist anthem, Straight To Hell, are used throughout the track.

Paper Planes humorously subverts perceptions of foreigners as being lazy, and prone to crime and violence. But it is the sound effects of gunshots and a cash till in the infectious refrain that comment most eloquently on how American society perceives these “threatening” immigrants:

All I wanna do is [bang bang bang bang]
And [click ka-ching]
And take your money
All I wanna do is [bang bang bang bang]
And click ka-ching
And take your money
.

Literally seen, the song is a parody of foreigner stereotyping. But the avant-rapper said in an interview that it can also be interpreted as a subtle critique of the military industrial complex that sells arms to the so-called Third World for fat profits.

It could easily be dismissed or simply forgotten as a nice pop tune with a clever message about stereotypes or the arms trade. But there’s a short distance between stereotyping foreigners and xenophobia, the hatred of foreigners. Ask the man with the trolley who was arrested by Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba earlier this month in Mashaba’s self-important citizen’s arrest.

Gloating, the mayor tweeted: “We are not going to sit back that people like you to bring us Ebolas in the name of small business (sic).” Yes, the phrase “people like you”, as academic Pierre de Vos tweeted, is most certainly xenophobic, “steeped in prejudice about, and antagonism towards, foreigners”.

You know, the “other”, the “outsider”, the “foreigner”, the one who comes to take your job, your house, your hospital bed, your wife – the “menace”.
 
Or worse, ask the families of the more than 60 people who were killed in the xenophobic attacks across South Africa in 2008; that is, if you can find them because most of them were probably among the tens of thousands who fled the rampaging mobs.

Back in 1994, while South Africa was celebrating its “rainbow nation”, xenophobia degenerated into genocide in Rwanda, where more than 800 000 people were murdered. This happened while the rest of the world looked on and did nothing.

In these precarious times, we must be ever alert. We have to keep listening to warnings in whatever form they might come.

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