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M.I.A. and Lynn Hirschberg's "Agitprop Pop"

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.


  1. I'm not convinced you read the article very closely. Even her producer Diplo said that Paper Planes was about making fun of American love of "Gangsta" culture ( “I never thought the song was political,” Diplo told me. “Mostly, Maya was making fun of American rapper culture. ‘Paper Planes’ was making fun of being what American kids are into, of being ‘gangsta.’ ”)

    Secondly, you miss the whole point the author was making of MIA's characterization of the conflict in Sri Lanka, which is that is a complicated political issue that is simplified by MIA in her characterizations. Don't let you respect for her music infiltrate the importance of public figures being truthful.

  2. First, let me start by saying that MIA and Diplo had a falling out. While the music may have been mocking American rap the lyrics clearly are not.

    Second, I am not defending MIA or saying she has a clear understanding of the situation. In fact I am incredibly turned off by some of her comments. I do, however, think that Hirschberg's clear distaste for MIA led her to oversimplify her message. Because I DID read the article closely, and I think both Hirschberg overlooked MIA's one positive influence on the situation in Sri Lanka: WE ARE TALKING ABOUT IT That is what artists do, they provoke us-- whether or not accurately or appropriately.

    She created a dialogue when there was one-- let's not lose sight of that.


  3. Who's to say she doesn't have a clear understanding of the situation. So far, NO ONE has negated her view on the situation with anything substantial. That elephant in the room is what is keeping her afloat.

  4. I read Hirschberg's profile of M.I.A. with interest a few weeks ago and I don't really feel like she was being unfair. I'm down with M.IA.'s music but lets not begin to take her seriously as some sort of political figure. This isn't Vijay Prashad explaining the Tamil conflict, its a pop star who thrives on mixing and matching sounds and images into catchy songs and drives her record sales by appearing to be radical. Promoting violence isn't radical, it's stale, especially from the comforts of your couch in Beverly Hills.

  5. Well said Will.

    I'm a MIA fan, and will continue to be a fan. But sorry if I don't take her self promoted image of radicalism seriously, when she's living a privileged life in Brentwood. Yes she's a pop star who has the power to bring political issues to a mass audience, but if you are not encouraging the public to have a responsible and serious dialogue than you are just another inflammatory presence in mass media. Controversy doesn't mean your are positive political force. Let's not pretend that making a dialogue is the ultimate goal here, especially if you are starting the dialogue under false pretenses.

    Anonymous #1

  6. M.I.A. simply let Lynn Hirschberg have it. The article wasn't that bad, but she tried to make M.I.A. look shallow by manipulating the two interviews and mocking her. The writer is a joke.



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