M.I.A. and Lynn Hirschberg’s “Agitprop Pop”

07/12/2010

By Angela Bacca



Last week, the New York Times published a controversial piece by staff writer Lynn Hirschberg on M.I.A, which painted her as a wealthy disconnected and uninformed musician who uses the politics of her native Sri Lanka to further her image and sell records. Most notable was the quote from Hirschberg’s lunchtime conversation at a swanky Los Angeles lunch restaurant (see other quotes here):

“Unity holds no allure for [M.I.A.] – she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. ‘I kind of want to be an outsider,’ she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. ‘I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.””’

The issue here is not that M.I.A. enjoys delicious food, but the projection that somehow gaining fame and wealth somehow discredits her as an activist. M.I.A. shot back instantly via Twitter by posting Hirschberg’s cell phone number and encouraging her fans to call and let her know what they think. Since the release of the article, Hirschberg has been accused of reordering quotes to suit the storyline.

Hirschberg goes on to incorrectly explain the dispute between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka. The wording of her statement suggests that the tensions between the Tamils and Sinhalese were rooted in religious differences, the majority of Tamils are Hindu while the majority of Sinhalese are Buddhist.

M.I.A., a native Tamil raised in England, has famously showed her solidarity to the recently defeated “terrorist” Tamil Tigers by incorporating tiger print into her clothing, and using press interviews to bring attention to the conflict.


The quarter-century long war in Sri Lanka has been all but absent from Western media headlines—that is until M.I.A. had even conservatives in the Midwest bobbing their heads to Paper Planes last summer (although most people have no idea that the song was inspired by M.I.A.’s reflections on the third world condition—suffer in your native land or immigrate to work low wage jobs and be shunned by their new first-world neighbors— a “paper plane” is a visa). M.I.A.’s catchy pop music caught the attention of the first world, and those who listened closely heard controversial, revolutionary, and sometimes-offensive lyrics.

The first video, “Born Free” off of the new album, Awesome!, which is set to release on July 13th is already stirring up controversy of its own. It has been banned from Youtube.com as well as shows an American SWAT team terrorizing an apartment building full of ordinary citizens– in pursuit of “gingers” aka red-headed pale skinned people, to cart away and put in jails. M.I.A.’s message seems pretty clear, the foreigner, the victim, the minority—are all victims of terrorism, so how can they be labeled a terrorist for fighting back?

So what was Hirschberg’s intention with the article? If it was to discredit M.I.A.’s political beliefs and tactics then she failed. Instead, she threw M.I.A.’s politics back into the mainstream first world media. Although I don’t agree with the violent tactics M.I.A. sometimes espouses, I respect and appreciate the dialogue she creates and is continuing to create. Let her spend money on whatever delicious food she craves.