“For years, her politically-charged music has rubbed critics (and even fans) the wrong way. Some see her as a demagogue, more concerned with the aesthetics of politics or the thrill of being subversive. Most of the criticism of 2010’s Vicki Leekx, which took titular and a sort of metaphysical inspiration from Julian Assange and the Wikileaks controversy, was that the songs weren’t actually that political. And yet, when M.I.A. does present more concrete commentary she’s condemned. Rarely has pop music offered solutions to pressing world matters; it is, for many, an escape, and M.I.A.’s music manages that while acknowledging the tensions of modern humanity. “I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed,” she told Pitchfork in 2007. She was talking about Diplo getting credit for her work, but the same line of thinking—ridiculing racialized women expressing curiosity or fear or an artistic interest in the world around them—can extend to her politics as well. When your body is political the issues are no longer abstract. Yes, M.I.A.’s politics have long been imperfect, but she keeps trying, like many of us who aren’t simply ideologically committed to justice, but are tethered to the fight because of the color of our skin.
Last week, wearily scrolling through the fear and self-righteousness in my Twitter feed, M.I.A.’s new song “Borders” popped up on my screen. I put on my headphones and clicked play. “Borders, what’s up with that?/ Identities, what’s up with that?/ The new world, what’s up with that?” She continues posing a long list of rhetorical questions (“Being bae, what’s up with that?”) over a chirruping sample and a dense bassline. It doesn’t sound too different from what she’s done before; it’s certainly less optimistic than “Bad Girls” or “Paper Planes”. What starts out incisive turns existential, but that doesn’t make her stream-of-consciousness less concrete: we live in cities and states and countries and on the Internet, and our borders are closing in on us. Many of us are struggling on multiple fronts. If you hear her words as polemic, it seems crude. But if you’re asking yourself the same questions, it can feel like a lifeline. And just for a minute, I felt heard.”