Though MIA’s 2013 album, Matangi, was generally well received, it was not well understood. This was, in part, because of many Western music critics’ lack of curiosity about cultures outside their own, and specifically the music within; Matangi was an assertion of MIA’s globality, but also centered specifically on a spectrum of Hinduism that went beyond the gesture of spirituality most (white) critics seemed to grasp. She purposely made the internet the locus of her spiritual exploration, an artistic statement that cobbled together and curated goddesses in the decoupaged way she records her music.
On Monday, MIA (Maya Arulpragasam) released “Matadatah Scroll 01 Broader than a Border,” a new video shot in Western India and Cote d’Ivoire, viewable on Apple or Tumblr if, in her words, you “don’t fux with Apple.” (The woman who predicted that our government is monitoring us certainly would have a sensitivity to an aversion to the company, though that did not stop her from releasing it on the Apple Music video platform exclusively.) It’s an MIA-directed video element synced to two songs, the new track “Swords” and Matangi’s “Warriors,” which sampled a cacophony of djembes and Spanish mákina as she repeats the refrain “warriors in the dance.”
Those warriors are embodied here, MIA herself appearing only intermittently among groups of physically strong brown women working in tandem, awe-inspiring at their agility and fortitude as a crew. “Swords” begins by sampling the clink of sword upon sword and metal shield, featuring a nimble-footed crew of what could be kalaripayattu dancers and women spinning the staffs of silambam, two Tamil martial arts whose quick choreography is “bangin’ like Bangalore.” (The goddess Matangi is sometimes depicted with a sword and a goad.) On the outro, the camera focuses on MIA seated on a temple pier with a bowl of incense as she hums a a sacred “Om,” like she did so much on Matangi. Om signifies the moment of creation, an explicit suggestion that she sees music-making itself as a spiritual act, that artistic creation and the quintessence of living are not mutually exclusive.
“Broader Than a Border” is also in profound contrast to other Western music video takes on India—Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” a perfect song marred with its video’s othering qualities or, infinitely worse, Iggy Azalea’s “Bounce,” both of which place gleaming white women at the center of the Indian women dancing in the background. (It’s pretty ironic that MIA claimed her label made her hold back her video for “cultural appropriation,” though she’s been reasonably accused of that before, most notably with the “Bad Girls” video.) In “Matadatah Scroll 01,” as with many of her other videos, MIA re-centers these Indian women and girls, emphasizes they’re not your back-up chicks, nor exotic props to be put on film for Western eyes to consume as pretty flowers, but in fact real women with real lives that are not to be erased simply because they may live in a developing nation.
MIA’s always been reflective of both her culture—she salt and peppered her mango on her first-ever track—and her cultural multitudes. But as she gets older, she takes deeper dives into the essence of what that means. “Broader Than a Border” is just the first Matadatah track to receive a video; in an official statement released via her label promises this will be yet another globally-traversing, globally-created project:
I directed and edited my first music video for “Warriors” for my last album, MATANGI, and I held it back until now, because it inspired me to make a whole series of songs and videos on the concept of borders. Making songs and videos at the same time out of a suitcase on location is something I did on my album KALA, but it’s video, as well as music, made by me in a very ARULAR way. [...] There’s ten more of these countries coming and I haven’t chased where to go yet, so who knows where this project will take me.
Borders are what were theoretically obliterated once the internet began to explode; a lack of borders is what helped create the genre-blind “global bass” music that MIA makes and, indeed, helped create. As a refugee and a world traveler, borders are something she’s uniquely primed to understand, as no one knows the chasm between arbitrary cultural and national land divisions better than a person who is forced to leave their homeland due to war, poverty, or other unlivable concerns. (Famously, she was supposed to have been unable to enter the States during the recording of Kala due to visa troubles. “I’m locked out! They wont let me in!” she wrote in 2006 on her MySpace page. “Now I’m strictly making my album outside the borders!!!!”)
Presently, borders are perhaps a more volatile and important topic to explore since the time she’s been making music, with immigration-policy tensions bubbling in the US, UK, and across Europe, as countries like Libya, México, and Syria are less stable by the day. It’s interesting that after a childhood defined by displacement, MIA’s chosen to lead her adult life rather nomadically, traveling to parts of the global South that rarely receive a tourist spotlight in the Times when she’s not on tour. (She discovered the Cote d’Ivoire dancer in the latter, “Warriors” half of “Broader than a Boarder” in a YouTube video and, she says, spent two years searching for him.)
Of course, it’s easy to ascribe MIA with the kind of topics we want to be talking about in pop culture but often don’t, to project our social, political, and personal aspirations onto her. We do that because that is what we do with all pop stars—and particularly with MIA, because she is truly one of perhaps three current English-language pop stars who are migrants and/or refugees (Rihanna, Pitbull) and the only South Asian pop star in the US, a segment of people who very rarely see themselves represented in Western pop culture. If it seems like some fans elevate MIA into a political superhero, it’s churlish to cast blame; she’s not perfect, but as with Beyoncé up in front of that “FEMINIST” sign, her mere existence is giving agency to women of color who don’t always feel they have it.
“We dem gyals say, holla holla holla,” she chants, “we hold (/hope?) the world say holla holla holla,” as the LED-buzzed, tabla-juiced dancehall riddim of “Swords” cuts out into chimes and a bhangra sample. That’s when the video shows this:
It’s a feat, laying still while someone you must trust very much chops a gourd right on your neck. Showing it not only lets MIA’s non-Indian fanbase in to a tiny aspect of these women’s lives when, even in 2015, the going narrative remains a Slumdoggian, feel-good, third-world fantasy, but also represents the danger and bravery women the world over have to embody just to get through the day to day. It’s also a scene leading into a darkened, woman-only space in the temple she filmed; the staffs are lit up with fire and an image of the Om symbol (stylized as MIA’s name in lowercase) is in flames.
With “Warriors,” MIA shifts from the womanly paradise into a heavily male-centric video, focusing mostly on the twitchy-legged, Ivorian dancer’s astounding moves, his legs jittering almost independently of his torso, which remains taut the whole way through. (He must have an incredible core, I thought, my Americanness spooging all over itself.) Top dog even though I didn’t speak no English, MIA raps in “Warriors,” both an acknowledgement and validation of a huge part of the immigrant experience that is often rendered invisible. That she said it as a point of pride in a verse about swag is even more important.
As he dances, his feet look as though they’re ghostriding the whip. He’s clad in a green iridescent track suit embellished with raffia wrists and ankles; it matches MIA’s manicure.
Between moves, she cuts to archival shots of the green-skinned goddess Matangi, regal in her prayer stance, surrounded by drums as is her domain as the protector of music. “He is a spiritual warrior and communicates through dancing,” said MIA in a press release. “It’s a lifelong commitment for him to be the designated spiritual body that channels that dance.”
“Gangsters bangers, we’re putting em in a trance,” she raps. Two years later, the double entendres are still exciting. So is her vision.
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Images, .gif via screenshot.