Poverty, Surveillance, Cooptation: Three Thoughts on MIA’s Extraordinary Music Video “Borders”

In “Borders,” her recent music video, artistic provocateur MIA broaches a subject of great urgency—the contemporary refugee crisis. Performed and directed by MIA, this remarkable and widely reviewed music video presents humanity on the move—clambering over fences, marching in long files across dusty landscapes, setting forth on boats across the ocean. Here’s the video if you haven’t seen it yet:

MIA, “Borders”

And here are three thoughts on the video:

  • Poverty: Released in November 2015, a few months after the migrant crisis in Europe (often identified in the media as the Syrian refugee crisis) peaked during the summer, the music video has been most commonly seen as referring to that crisis. It’s worth noting however that MIA does not in fact specify the reasons the migrants featured in her video are on the move. As MIA herself has noted, her background includes being a Tamil refugee in Britain fleeing the political violence in Sri Lanka. Are the young brown men featured in the video meant to be political refugees? Perhaps, but the true power of the video lies in not focusing on a reason for the flight of these young men. By not identifying any immediate cause the video directs attention to a world structured in racial and economic as well as political exclusion—rather than episodic (Sri Lanka yesterday, Syria today, some other place tomorrow), the problem is structural. “Broke people (what’s up with that?)” goes one of the lines of the song. War and genocide are not the only reasons people are on the move across continents. Poverty is a reason too.
  • Surveillance: We live in a world filled with surveillance. Commentators have noted the fence that plays such an important role in the video. The surveillance camera that is perched on top of the fence has not received the same commentary. The camera features in many of the frames of the video, including one in which MIA is shown balanced over it. The camera indicates that the men clambering over the fence are being watched. There’s political intentionality behind borders of exclusion and the camera draws attention to that intentionality. The people who set up the fences haven’t abandoned the fences. They are watching and waiting for the men, and who can say what welcome they will give the men on the other side of the fence? Think Donald Trump. And we who browse the Internet and watch the camera watching the men—what welcome are we prepared to give?
  • Cooptation: Controversy has been raised about this video on exclusionary borders appearing on the platform of one of the mightiest corporations in the world (Apple). Let’s be frank—this is a problem worth thinking about. Corporations are not innocent when it comes to exclusionary borders. It might take sustained critical work to uncover their guilt, but implicated they most certainly are. It’s the old problem of cooptation (check out the Che tee shirt). Have MIA and her video been coopted? “Your privilege (what’s up with that?)” MIA asks her viewer in another line from the song, rightly suggesting the implication of we who browse the Internet on our laptops. Of course that question is even more resonant when aimed at a celebrity like MIA. Is MIA already aware of this issue? Is that why she’s the only woman in a video filled with men? The only one wearing fashionable sunglasses? And the only one picked out by a spotlight in the concluding frames of the video? Or is it rather that she is a self-obsessed celebrity? Round and round cooptation makes us go with its questions. Here’s the real question: what are we going to do with this knowledge of the problem of cooptation?