When Art Meets Activism

Is singer M.I.A. abandoning her political and artistic aesthetic in favor of something more...conventional?


Words by J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith

Most know M.I.A. as the British performer behind hits like “Paper Planes,” “Born Free,” and “Borders,” but her identity is deeply informed by her Tamil roots—her father was the leader of a Tamil resistance group during the Sri Lankan Civil War prior to relocating to England. That the refugee exists at all is a grotesque reality entangled with war and environmental degradation, an existence that M.I.A. (born Mathangi Arulpragasam) has devoted her entire musical career to contextualizing, amplifying, and dismantling. The music video for her latest single, “The One,” off her sixth studio album MATA, released recently, and in an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music 1, she revealed that she’s a born-again Christian—the song’s lyrics announcing a “new era” to her sound and visual artistry.

For more than a decade, M.I.A.’s been characterized as a fierce, political, popstar activist, famously going head-to-head with the NFL in court over flipping the bird on live television during her 2012 Super Bowl halftime performance. Her new religious affiliation may come as a shock to some listeners, as she’s spent her career consistently centering the repercussions of global immigrant stereotypes and the construction of national boundaries—after all, Christianity is often associated with a certain kind of political conservatism in the United States, which regularly demands stricter border policies.

But also, let’s not forget that certain U.S. “liberal” agendas have included the deportation of undocumented folks, too, and the funding of political factions around the world, which then go on to enact war and genocide—just to vaguely call in the myriad ways our nation has truly fucked up. But I digress…In M.I.A.’s “The One” music video and artist interviews, the intersection of refugee status and spirituality offers fans a peek into the blurring of the personal with the political. I predict—perhaps, with a bit of apprehension and a whole lot of optimism—that M.I.A.’s latest activist pursuits, in the upcoming release of her new album, remain deeply devoted to holding oppressive regimes accountable, and that her fairly recent devotion to Christianity will ultimately serve as a tool for her activism.

The hope is that her conversion to Christianity actually becomes something subversive, perhaps a way for a kind of political insurgency that will aid in what she tells Lowe is her “new mission of uniting America, uniting the United States.” Since 2017—since before the Sept. 11 attacks, really—M.I.A. has been acutely attuned to the various divisions present within the U.S., such as Islamophobia bubbling up around the time of the attacks and the prevalence of police brutality during the Trump administration. In an interview for Oxford Union that year, she describes her understanding of the U.S. and its position within global affairs:

“There are two blobs. One, is the refugee blob, and I’m describing it as a blob because it doesn’t have a face in the media. And the other blob is one which I don’t know what it is because I’m not allowed to poke at and pick at it, but I accidentally have sometimes.”

She is speaking to the division of families and communities around the world that exists because of the internal divisions of the United States and its co-conspirators. The status of the refugee gets created whenever the U.S. or any other military regime drops a bomb or starts a war. In the interview, she’s specifically talking about those refugees of the Iraq war and from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The “second blob” resides here in the U.S., where businesses and markets, coupled with bad foreign policies, drive the demands for continual war and oppressive regimes elsewhere. Take for instance our culture of over consumption. American goods are conveniently cheaper because of plantationism and large monocrop-based businesses taking up land in foreign countries. Then, their local, usually U.S.-backed politicians fight to support and uphold these businesses because they’re seen as opportunities to bring money or “development” into their economies. But what many of us don’t see as U.S. citizens is that this taking of land displaces families, usually Indigenous peoples who then resist, resulting in conflict and continual war.

This second blob is incredibly difficult to parse. Some U.S. citizens are opponents of war and others aren’t. M.I.A. locates a source and names the U.S., its political/racial divisions and their hunger for capitalist fantasies, as culprits, as complicit in creating refugee crises around the world. M.I.A. has found her mark, completely aware of the intricacies of U.S. meddling in global foreign affairs. She's been dedicated to its “parsing” through her music for many years now, and I don’t totally suspect that becoming a Christian will derail that. In fact, perhaps M.I.A. is using to her advantage the music industry’s susceptibility to white co-option, hiding at least parts of her previous political tactics behind the guise of musical performance and consumption that, this time, will appeal to the United States’ religious and politically conservative.

M.I.A. reveals to Lowe that she had a vision of Jesus Christ, and while I’m in no position to debate the authenticity or sincerity of Jesus visions—because I, myself, am not a religious person and know nothing of religious scripture—what’s important here is to emphasize the possibility of conversion as not completely and totally all-consuming of the individual. Just sentences later she assures Lowe that she will always draw upon her Tamil identity, that her Tamil identity is a part of her, her world, and always shows up in her sounds and how she produces.

Her experiences as a refugee are so deeply rooted that it propels her, and her art. In the past, her activism was all in the audience’s face: issues, concerns, borders, bombs, redheads. In the music video for her newest single, the pop sensation and activist arrives on a lotus pad in a pink puffy jacket and pants, singing, “Why you looking for the one, one, one / When your search is done, done, done?” She is floating in a sea of blooming lotuses, at ease, the water still and calm. The sound is decidedly “lighter,” as Lowe describes in the Apple Music 1 interview, “upbeat and happier,” without the sort of heavy, relentless base and reverb one might expect from M.I.A. Instead, she’s just lounging in the water, in a tree, on a paddle board even. The “one,” alludes to the one God, but boastfully she raps, “I’m the thing that sons imitate,” having had such an influence in the music industry. The image of the lotus flower connotes purity and resilience, this flower often emerging out of murky waters pristine.


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What fans love about M.I.A. is that you get to see her on the “search” for something, not purporting that she has all the answers or the whole picture right away, but a portrayal of where she is in her process, on her own journey. God and religion seem present for sure, but there it is again, that other thing so closely linked to her Tamil identity as she raps, “At a protest like come on and try it / Put your picket down come on and riot.” This doesn’t feel like the same kind of spirituality that white born-again Christians practice. The evangelizing is different with radically different concerns.

Where historically white settlers used Christianity to eradicate and suppress the “savage” and “barbaric” in Indigenous peoples, M.I.A. is still spreading the gospel of riot, of connecting the east and west, of flipping white Christianity’s racist ways on its head in, “Spread my wings to the walk, I’ma put a swing / This time I’m gonna flip the whole thing.” Perhaps this new era of hers involves doing just that, taking such a long and devastating Christian tradition and making it into something entirely new, something that works for her. Perhaps her political and artistic aesthetic is one that doesn't see itself disappearing entirely, but existing in ways that send shockwaves through a perpetual legacy of rising and crumbling borders.

Published on July 27, 2022


Words by J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith

J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith is a Chamoru-Filipino, queer poet living in Seattle. His family is from Dededo and Chalan Pago, Guahan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia (University of Hawai'i Press), Moss, Poetry Northwest, among other publications. He has performed and read original work at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, the Center on Contemporary Arts, and at various festivals and conferences. He received an MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop and is the director/curator of the contemporary art gallery, From Typhoon. He covers culture and entertainment for JoySauce.