It's always a delight to see fusty old spaces being infiltrated by innovators. And that's why this hour-long video of M.I.A. telling it exactly how she thinks it is to the Oxford Union – the university's almost 200-year old debating society, of which David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and the husband of the Prime Minister, Philip May, have all been presidents – feels like a sip of sweet, cold lemonade on a hot day.
M.I.A. was invited by the society to give a talk, but chose to just take questions instead (but only "if they're good," naturally). She addressed her long-fought battle for the rights of Tamils, as well as discussing her entry to the UK as a refugee. Questions from the audience tended to centre around her role in the music industry, and she was particularly insightful when it came to the co-option of activism as a marketing tool:
"Right now, it's really cool to be an activist in music [...] and it's not really real. For example, when they talk about feminism, and we had like, the whole women's protests, and all the artists were there, and I always think that it's a luxury just to be able to fight for women's rights, I do think that. Because I fight for like a really obscure little thing and everyone is like 'what the hell is a Tamil?' So I feel like the women's rights thing was like, a really interesting thing because it came up when Hillary was supposed to come into power and I was saying at the time – which is why you didn't really see me out there in the music landscape, because behind the scenes this is the type of shit I would say, and just be like 'uh uh' – my thing was, if you had like, an Afghani girl, how does feminism relate to her? Can she talk about what's happening to her if it wasn't painted in the way that fits the Western propaganda and narrative?"
It's an interesting point of view from someone who devotes a great deal of their time to her take on widely under-recognised Tamil cause. She also talked about her background – something a bit along the lines of a standard musician interview question – and how she fell into music via making art:
"When I was growing up [...] I got into filmmaking or wanting to tell people stories. And that's what I wanted to study. So yeah that's kind of what I did, I just went round and filmed people and went 'oh my god you're amazing!' I did that for a long time. Just chasing people down the street, I was really annoying, and I was kind of like, fearless at the same time, so I was kind of like – I loved music and I liked being social, so it was always part of me, being into music. Generally my friends were people that I met through music. But the thing that I was looking to to was to make people feel really great about who they were. So I just kind of, spent a lot of time doing that. Then, I had all these great ideas for making work, but I was too busy like, trying to get everybody else to tell their story. [...] It really didn't happen until I went to Sri Lanka to make that documentary about my cousin, and he went M.I.A. [...] and when I didn't achieve what I wanted to achieve because you're banned from using cameras, I came back and I was really defeated, and I started painting, and it really just started because Justine was chucking out furniture, and when she broke it down, I just got the planks and started painting on them because I had no money, and then it sort of got picked up, and it became a thing, and it just kind of evolved from there."
Spaces like the Oxford Union opening up to welcome people like M.I.A. – who are not white males with 'orthodox' political views – is a huge step forward, and it's really interesting to note the diversity of the crowd she drew. At points, listening to her speak resembles the meandering chat that someone might pipe up with in class, where if you tune out for a bit you don't know where they've ended up a minute later. As she says herself at the start of the chat, she didn't really prepare anything. But mostly, the appearance shows that her presence opens up this sort of seemingly closed space to others who also might not fit its status quo. Whether you actually agree with her politics (and their sometime vagaries) or not, that still counts for something.
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(Image via YouTube)