M.I.A’s video for “Borders” is one grand visual spectacle. Released last November, the self-directed video recalls images of the humanitarian crisis – where people from developing countries across the world are fleeing the dangers at home in search of safety and shelter, often with little more than the clothes on their back, a mobile phone, and the hope that their boat might be one that actually reaches its destination.
In her video, we’re presented with the many forms migration can take – crossing the desert, climbing barbed fences, moving through bodies of water. Not only is the track itself an innovative political statement about adversity in the face of an ongoing and pressurising crisis, the video is a show of solidarity from M.I.A – a refugee herself, having come back to London from Sri Lanka at nine years old – with the citizens of the world. Or at least that’s how we interpreted it.
Yesterday, she revealed that the French football club Paris Saint Germain had – in a letter dated December 21, 2015 – threatened legal action over a doctored shirt she wears in the video, which changed the sponsor on the official PSG club-strip from “Fly Emirates” to “Fly Pirates”. Among other things, the four-page letter states: “You unduly took advantage of our popularity and reputation to enhance the attractiveness of your artist and, consequently, the profits of your company”. You can read the club’s letter to M.I.A in full (via her Twitter) here.
The unveiling took most people by surprise. How could they ask M.I.A to take down a video highlighting and humanising the migrant crisis, all because a knock-off version of one of their shirts featured in it? Don’t they have better things to do with their lawsuits? Earlier this morning we called up M.I.A (who is no stranger to court cases, having been embroiled in a four year court battle with the NFL over that infamous middle-finger she threw at the Super Bowl) to have a little chat about her current predicament, her new album, and the meanings and ideas behind the "Borders" video.
Noisey: So, all this mess over a t-shirt. Am I right in thinking you actually picked the PSG shirt up in a market in Qatar?
MIA: Yeah, but I made the Fly Pirates bit. I put the P on there. I took the official one that did say Fly Emirates, but it could have been an Arsenal or a Real Madrid tee or something like that. Whichever one they sponsor. But I specifically took the Paris one because I have friends in Paris and I thought it would have been a nice way to link it. I didn’t really think I would get in trouble because I modified it to "Fly Pirates".
Did anyone warn you that there could be a backlash like this?
I made the video very consciously, because it was really difficult to go there and believe in this project and make this video knowing that it was borderline; it could go either way. People were probably expecting me to make a video about Somali pirates running around with guns. A lot of people called me [when I was filming in India]: creative people, directors, magazines and stuff, but I really cut myself off to go and make it. I didn’t show anybody the treatment. A lot of people gave me heat saying, “Oh, what are you going to do, go and make a video with starving Africans and this sort of ‘I’m-a-refugee-please-save-me-UN” video?”
So, I consciously made a decision to make a separation between what’s cool: arming these people that then become pirates, and separating that from peaceful non-armed human beings, like the migrants and the refugees. The whole project and the video was to define the difference between those two things. When I put that t-shirt on I really felt it was a nod to – yes, I could have made a ‘cool’ video about pirates and it could have been cool and everyone could have been happy with that sort of ‘coolness’. But I chose to make something that needed to be said, which is that these people are not that. They are not violent, armed people that are angry. It was really important to make that really clear and that’s why the video got made.
You can see that separation in the video. It humanised an issue that gets demonised quite daily, in the UK press especially.
I didn’t want be the person that drags them into closing the gap between them and threatening people in society. That was the problem. We constantly have to face people squashing those two things together – women, children, and real people in need, who get lumped in with armed conflict and militia groups and pirates. So that t-shirt was a nod to all my friends who were like, “Why aren’t you making a cool Somali pirates video?” That’s not what we need right now. But it’s weird that now I’ve ended up in trouble because of a t-shirt. As far as I’m concerned, it’s something realistic – migrants who wear sportswear. What are they going to do? Rewrite that? If that’s the case, they need to take their matches off cable television and stop showing it in these countries.
Some stories about the letter you received, ours included, suggested that you might have picked Paris Saint-Germain on purpose based on their Qatari and UAE sponsorship?
No, not at all. I was thinking about the bigger picture, which is that way more people are going to die at sea if we don’t do something. We’re in the thick of winter. Yeah, 1,200 people dying at the stadium [in Qatar] is one thing, but I’m sure 1,200 people have died at sea already, and we can do something about that. It’s happened to the Tamils that left Sri Lanka in 2009 and 2010, they’re still in detention, and a lot of them died at Christmas Island trying to get to Australia. To me it’s bigger than that.
One thing you wrote on Instagram, which I’m drawn to agree with, is how Paris Saint-Germain FC seemed so keen to remove any association with the refugee crisis despite many players being second-generation migrants themselves.
Exactly! They have people from Angola and Haiti and other places. How are they going to disassociate themselves from the fact they have players from there?
So, what’s going to happen now?
I don’t know. I just find it extremely arrogant that they are trying to police something like that. You can’t police who wears it, how they wear it, and when they wear it. If you’re representing a type of people and you’re making a film about Japanese samurai fighters, you’re going to have to put them in a samurai outfit. I think if you’re talking about migrants or refugees or people generally living in war-zones, unfortunately sportswear and football tops are part of the uniform. How are you going to police that? Obviously I can’t afford to go in court. I’ve been in court for four years now straight. If I have to spend another year in court, I don’t know what I’ll do.
That must be mad exhausting.
It is mad exhausting when you’re a single parent mum with a kid and you’re trying to make music or do anything creative. It’s just really difficult to spend time on this, especially when it’s irrelevant. I’d much rather spend my time going to Calais and inventing a football team out of the immigrants and getting PSG to pay for it if they really care about it all so much, rather than being in court fighting over a t-shirt.
Can you see a possible resolution?
I think both of us have to say: you care about it, and I care about it, y’know? Because what we’re doing is censoring the final product, which is the art. I also feel like it’s a bit late, it’s already done. I don’t feel like [the video] got any negative [press] – apart from the article that they pointed out, and god knows if they paid for that article to be written in the first place – because I never saw a single negative thing about the t-shirt.
In the past twenty-hours, I've seen people tweet that they want their own version of the t-shirt.
Yeah, and also it’s the most – out of all the pictures I’ve seen on the internet, in Instagrams and stills from the video – that is the only one the French people reference. If they took a still to talk about the video, no matter if you’re a broadsheet or a blog or an Instagram account, that is the one that everybody went to. So many people asked me about the t-shirt and stuff like that, and I didn’t exploit it, I didn’t sell it, I didn’t make money. My video is on Apple, so it’s not like I make money or whatever. They paid for it and I gave them the video, and that was it. If it does a good thing and it does something positive for the people that are in need, that’s all I can ask for. So in order to go back and defend this t-shirt it’s a bit difficult. I do have to figure out the positive things. I need to look at my personal situation, which is that I have been in court with… people. Another huge sports team. It’s sports teams that keep coming after me! I don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe I should marry a footballer!
Aside from the t-shirt, “Borders” was a bold statement in the face of the humanitarian crisis that’s happening. Are you going to keep discussing these issues on your next record, Mahtadatah?
Everything accumulates to one point and this will definitely become part of the next thing. Conceptually, we just want to keep it broader than a border, whether that’s geographical, psychological, physical, emotional, whatever the thing is, and just keep going. It’s interesting to put stuff out and see where you get the push back and this is definitely not where I thought it was going to come from.
Earlier, you mentioned that, “people think MIA will do a cool video on pirates or whatever,” but then you went and used the opportunity to highlight a serious issue, not a stylish one. I want to know if you think other artists are afraid to approach serious topics like immigration for fear of seeming like they are appropriating something extremely serious?
I think there’s a lot of fear of being boring. A lot of people don’t want to talk about issues because it’s not sexy. If I had a video where I was naked or in skimpy clothes for most of the time and then wore a PSG shirt, I’m sure it would be different. But it’s got subjects in it that are not very sexy and instead scary, I guess, combined. [*puts on mock voice*] Unsexy and scary, that’s just not cool – get me out of this territory!
Last year you tweeted that you had made a video in Africa which you were then not allowed to release because of cultural appropriation. Was that in the back of your mind when making “Borders”?
It helped. The one I made which got banned – and it got banned across all platforms – was for a song called “Platforms”. It was actually to test platforms. We made a video and it got banned everywhere: Apple, YouTube, Vevo, you name it. Because it was too real. With “Borders” we had to walk the line between real and y’know, fiction.
How do you mean?
In South India there’s 132 camps with Tamil refugees and they’ve been there forever. The people that are in my video, that age group of kids in the camps are actually second generation, they were born and bred there – they didn’t come across in the boats, it was their parents. That’s how long they’d been there. But they’re still restricted: they have curfew, they have to have a day pass to get out, get a job, but they’re not actually citizens. So there was a lot of problems trying to get them to be in the video. I initially wanted to shoot there so I could actually get the Tamil refugee kids to become something more and to contribute and communicate the message about the entire planet and what was going on – all done through them. I thought that would have been a really beautiful thing. But legally I had so many problems, and I couldn’t get access to them because of the restrictions that I couldn’t over-ride. It was also Indian independence day and the Sri Lankan Tamils still have an air of scariness. When I was shooting we literally had to move out of Tamil Nadu state and shoot in Pondicherry because they heightened the terrorist security.
In the end, we cast real kids from the streets. It was still really beautiful to say, “I’ve got these kids.” These kids are from the slums, they’re from the ghetto, or they’re working class kids, and to get them to represent someone who is even worse off than them, it was amazing of them and I’m super thankful and what they did was amazing.
It seems self-evident to me, because when you’re saying stuff that needs to be said some people will want to silence it, but why do you think these big businesses – NFL, PSG or whatever – come after you specifically?
I don’t know. I have people in higher places who hate me. Now and again, I feel the force. But I think it makes it interesting because I don’t really care about those things. I wish they would spend their money better. How much bad press do footballers get? All the stuff they’re involved in. It’s crazy they’re looking for trouble with me. That letter is like – [*puts on mock voice again*] “Why’s she doing this to us? Why is she dragging us to this place?” It’s like, “Hello! look at your team!” They do crazy shit.
It’s not just that. You’ve put the letter out and, at least to me, it looks bad on their part. It doesn’t make them - it makes them look, not cool, basically.
It’s not cool. Especially when I’ve had this with another sports team that are like, twenty times bigger. D’you know what I mean? The entire NFL. Not just a team, not just the Giants. The entire NFL came after me. And I won. So if they want to come after me on a t-shirt, that’s crazy to me. It’s not even a big enough fight to me this year.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil