The Complexities of M.I.A and Cultural Appropriation

6:26 pm — Sun, May 24, 2015

By Shareeka Helaluddin and Aulina Chaudhuri

EDIT: having been informed about M.I.A’s dyslexia we have altered the title and content of this piece to remove our ableist remarks about her spelling. We apologise for this oversight and will strive to do better in our efforts to practice intersectionality in our writing and politics. We’re profusely sorry for our oversight and hope to remedy it and hold ourselves accountable

Very rarely does an artist take the time to address or confront cultural appropriation, let alone within their own work. Earlier this week, rapper M.I.A. prompted a discussion on social media about concerns over her new video being culturally appropriative, provoking debate amongst fans, and is now possibly having it axed over concerns of cultural appropriation.

Below are the series of tweets from earlier this week. There was no information about who called her out or who attempted to suspend the release of the video. “I’ve been told I can’t put out a video because it’s shot in Africa,” she wrote.

Given the rampant appropriation and the continued commodification of non-white people and cultures by countless white artists; it’s remarkable that M.I.A initiated a dialogue in the first place and (seemingly) took the time to reflect and respond. However, the short-lived ‘discussion’ came across as somewhat insufficient, and was reduced to a superficial engagement with issues of cultural appropriation — by the artist and her fans. There are a whole load of complexities in this interaction, and it is imperative to consider issues of class and gender as well as the fact that cross-racial cultural dialogues are not as opaque when deconstructing the power dynamics behind them.

Further, there’s an opportunity here to actually have a nuanced conversation about cultural appropriation instead of instilling dichotomous understandings of good/bad and appropriation/exchange. The point here is not to find a ‘resolution’, but to present a necessarily fluid and flawed artist, and the complexities that come with being an artist of colour. Complexities that are too often ignored, but have the potential to disrupt shallow understandings of M.I.A and what it means to be a displaced, Third World artist engaging in cross-racial interactions.

Within cross-racial and cross-cultural interactions, the boundaries between ‘appropriation’ and ‘exchange’ can get muddied. When flows of profit come into the picture, with M.I.A the primary economic beneficiary, this becomes a more complex issue. The platform she has as an international rapper and artist comes with power, influence and responsibility. M.I.A has previously shown us that she does not treat her position without consideration with videos such as ‘Bad Girls’ & ‘Bring the Noize’. Lyrics such as “I can say lots with the little words, a few” never rang truer, as her cryptic internet presence catalyses this long-awaited discussion.

This isn’t the first time that M.I.A has been met with questions of cultural appropriation. Her 2012 video ‘Bad Girls’ was criticised for perpetuating a misrepresentation of Arab life: horses, big Jeeps and Arab men watching women misbehaving, as well as presenting exotic, harem-veiled women. However, it is difficult to gauge this for several reasons. First, the project was a researched, collaborative effort with members of the drifting culture that has long-existed in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the video was a protest and commentary on Saudi Arabia’s driving ban. The girls in the video enter masculine spaces and counteract fetishistic oriental stereotypes, their representation is subversive and necessarily political. ‘Live fast, die young’ is a very macho ideal, with masculine culture of souped-up cars, sports and technology. M.I.A reclaims that without inserting a binaristic man vs. woman in an Arab context. She displaces dominant social misconceptions that the experiences of Arab/Muslim women are defined by oppression from their male counterparts. Here she compiles Arabic references that are both fantasised and real to construct a festive and badass challenge to the racial profiling and stereotype of the subjugated Arab woman.

Importantly, M.I.A has long made a point of centring the experiences of marginalised identities as a mode of anti-establishment politics, exploring divergent experiences and locations, both sonically and visually. Her hip-hop aesthetic is not just an appropriation of African American hip-hop — which in itself is so diverse and multivalent — and is a deliberately incohesive collage of the rhythms, lingo, and sounds of the Global South. This is her Worldtown. M.I.A’s disparate use of Third World iconography also destabilises and discomforts the centrality of the White gaze, that continually homogenises and simultaneously co-opts these cultures. As Ayesha Siddiqi explains,

“By lifting imagery associated with the global south and restyling it with an unapologetically gaudy insistence on its “otherness,” M.I.A empowers both herself and brown kids worldwide who had previously only been the subjects of Otherization, not the agents. Her reappropriation of the exotic kitsch brands subaltern struggle with dance-pop cool, while triumphantly avoiding privileging white consumption.”

This difficulty furthers in the saga of this week’s tweets.

Although it probably isn’t beneficial to deconstruct components of her messages, her crypticism leaves much to the imagination. What is significant however, is that she is confronting this before that piece ever sees the light of day, not after the damage has been done so to speak.

Her subsequent tweets and retweets were less clear.

She does come across as defensive, perhaps she is, which is valid. She also doesn’t give us much information on what exactly she is being accused of. If the issue is indeed as straight forward as “you can’t shoot a video in Africa,” this is very tenuous and holds very little grounds for being offensive. However, if the work became exploitative or contributes to the fetishisation/exotification of ‘Africa’ and its’ indigenous people (also this in itself is assuming Africa to be a monolithic cultural singular when in reality it is filled with a wide multitude of cultural, linguistic and historic diversity) that is when it could be classed as cultural appropriation.

She continued.

M.I.A purports to using her video to provide this unnamed performer a platform, a stage to perform their craft for the whole world to see. Given that the video remains unreleased, it’s hard to judge whether it would be exploitative, but for the most part it sounds collaborative, and a prioritising of a local artist not likely to be afforded such an opportunity (but importantly does not need to be ‘validated’ by an artist like M.I.A). Again, her platform is not the result of privilege and to say it is would be a disservice to the labour of being an artist of colour and a female rapper; and the limitations and misconceptions that come with these identities.

M.I.A does not wield the structural power to exploit in that way. As a self-identified Tamil refugee, she is not the proto-typical Asian immigrant trying to fit in. As far as she is concerned, she is an unwanted refugee from an impoverished, war-torn, Third World nation. Her affinity towards other Third World nations is therefore both organic and intimate. It’s why she chooses to film in places like Morocco and Ivory Coast. Sure, M.I.A can represent globalisation and cosmopolitanism but not the privileged and entitled variety displayed by white westerners who can go and do whatever they want. Her hybridity is a product of displacement and the fracture of not having a localised identity.

If respect and agency are given to the communities or individuals which you are artistically representing for whatever reason, then maybe there is a way to navigate the rightfully complex discourse around appropriation. In the case of M.I.A, there is no definitive ‘yes’ this is good/ ‘no’ this is bad binary. It should be difficult and nuanced as we should aim to deconstruct the hegemonic social foundations that shape our understanding of ‘culture’ and not deny the multiplicity and nuance of lived oppression. Artistic freedom and expression does have responsibilities to not erase marginalised groups of people, and M.I.A should be commended, but not put on a pedestal, for considering this in her own way.

It’s exciting that social media has facilitated this dialogue between artist/celebrity, audience and communities, seeing the dissolution of binaristic visions of the world, and the advent of unpacking hybridity and the obscure complexities that are coloured by power structures. It is refreshing seeing an artist not assume the passivity of her audience, permitting our inclusion and knowledge to further develop ideas and hold herself accountable as a form of activism and seeking of justice. In any cross-racial, cross-cultural interaction, histories and powers should always be considered. The communities affected by exploitation, should always be deferred-to, consulted, prioritised; if we are striving for sustainable, equitable forms of communication and creativity.

Originally published at

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