"it takes immigration of millions to hold us back"
People fear the unknown. And that fear is often exploited by those in power. An active imagination and a good speech writer can also turn our hesitations into hatred. Thus rulers enforce racially based edicts and governments justify wars - all based on drawing out what is familiar and suppressing what is different.
M.I.A. (Maya Arulpragasam) is an artist that embraces difference as a tool for spreading knowledge. Everything from the clothes she wears to the literal sound of her music is engineered to stand out amongst an increasingly cookie-cut crowd. Her purpose is not merely to be a unique artist, but she is unique precisely because her artistry seems to have purpose. With the video for "Bird Flu," a new song from her upcoming sophomore album, she has a number of things of social and political consequence on her mind.
Bird Flu is a vein of the influenza virus that has been around for centuries, but has recently re-emerged as a global threat in a few countries around the world. The exact origins of this particular strain are not necessarily known but the possibility of outbreak in South East Asia is higher than in most places. But the real reason for this has little to do with biology or geography.
Not only are there large populations of poultry on farms in the area (bird droppings are a source of infection), but the conditions and safety precautions of these countries are thought to be less than desirable - which has much to do with poverty and unstable government. M.I.A. sings/raps, "bird flu gonna get you/made it in my stable/from the crap you drop/on my crop when they pay you." Which reminds us that very few problems in the world are completely independent phenomenon, and that those in luxurious power are complicit in the death of those who are simply fighting to get by.
So M.I.A., looking absolutely radiant, decides to film her entire video among the villagers and birds that we fear as possibly diseased. She embraces goats, chickens and random children while jubilantly dancing through the town. She puts her t-shirts on the people, choreographs large-scale movements, and throws one huge party in the streets. Yet from a seamstress closing up shop to some boat hands heading off to work, M.I.A. doesn't shy from celebrating the mundane, realistic and foreign (to most viewers) aspects of these people's daily lives. In interweaving these two themes she emphasizes the common underbelly of human expression that is often obscured by our focus on difference. So while the quick pace of the editing and bright colors of the shots can be hard to follow, the pure energy of the dance sequences and watching the child M.I.A. imitators is something anyone can see and understand.
As an artist she consistently looks to contradict and challenge our heavily invested assumptions about her, where she is from and all outcast groups of people in general. In the video she dons both the bandannas traditionally associated with criminals and the police officer hats (with feathers) which tend to represent justice. Here is a singer who actually believes in the power of her work to affect real change - especially on the younger generations. She speaks of one day raising legitimate leaders, rather than the unreliable men who seem to run things nowadays. In one particularly telling shot a boy holds his mother's hand while listening to a Walkmen. They may still use cassette players in this village, but they understand great music just the same. The kids that permeate this video represent the hope that M.I.A. spreads through her work.
Throughout the song she alludes to her status of being on the brink of super-stardom, as if she is hoarding rations for that leap to the next level. And while she rebukes the idea of simply becoming a "rocawear model," she doesn't deny wanting to jump to a global stage. Instead she suggests that every time someone attempts to hold her back or literally "drops" on her ability, they are simply planting the seeds for her infectious rebuttals.
By the same token the hard-looking kids on rooftops imply that cycles of violence and hatred breed entire communities of soldiers ready to fight. The ignorance and prejudice of certain people among powerful nations will eventually have its consequences. Contemporary society seems to be asking for a type of "bird flu" by continuing to demonize and ostracize those whom they don't understand. But thankfully M.I.A.'s movement is one virus we don't have to fear. She harnesses the rebellious spirit of the forgotten streets and channels it into music that burns with passion. The knowledge and self-confidence that she brings to her brand of fun, danceable music & video is something her more popular contemporaries could use a heavy dose of.