The fact that M.I.A. was replaced as a headlining act in this year’s inaugural AFROPUNK Festival in London was but one of the many controversies surrounding the highly anticipated release of her fifth studio album, AIM.
Organisers of the festival felt compelled to act as a growing number of people threatened to boycott the event altogether after the Sri-Lankan British rapper made the following comments in April (with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement): “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter. It’s not a new thing to me… Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question”. Interestingly, M.I.A. released the video to the track ‘Go Off’ just as the AFROPUNK controversy was gaining traction in the mainstream media.
“The potential for AIM to sound empowering was completely missed”
Visually the video has a notable absence of people and in that sense is quite atypical for M.I.A. In an interview with Annie Mac, the artist justified this by admitting she was “sick of human beings”, which makes sense in light of the backlash she was facing at the time.
Despite her best efforts, M.I.A. sounded exhausted through the entirety of this record. The potential for AIM to sound empowering was completely missed because the lyrics (though boastful and brimming with confidence) were delivered with very little conviction, drowning out the minimal social commentary.
That said, Skrillex and Blaqstarr’s collaborative production on ‘Go Off’ proved to be somewhat redemptive. Between the traditional Sri Lankan drumming (reminiscent of many religious festivals I experienced there), thumping bass line, and synths that sounded almost like extraterrestrial life-forms, ‘Go Off’ is not only infectious but also a deceptively intimate track. A collision of three very different worlds.
“M.I.A. is giving the listener a chance to think for themselves and refine their own world view”
Throughout this record M.I.A continues to allude to a variety of issues in a manner not entirely dissimilar to her previous work; racism, sexism, migration, surveillance, and counter terrorism to name a few. However, unlike in previous albums, M.I.A.’s conclusions on these issues appear incomplete; the call/response verse structure in the opening track ‘Borders’ is the easiest example of this.
Critics have been quick to dismiss this as an inadvertent lack of lyrical and conceptual focus, though something about it felt too deliberate. Hearing the following lyrics from ‘Swords’; “Throw up your head if you’ve still got light… Yeah, it’s time you better get behind… We them girls… We hold the world…”; I considered the possibility that, actually, the social commentary is not incomplete. Rather, M.I.A. is giving the listener a chance to think for themselves and refine their own world view thus creating space for her own perspective to be challenged.
During the aforementioned interview, M.I.A. described AIM as her “cleanest” record to date, and half joked that there were “no complaints on it” and further insisted there was “another side” to her that people weren’t aware of. Her previous work always felt far more political than it did personal, but the converse is true in AIM. It may lack the daring audacity of MATANGI, the unapologetic aggression of MAYA, the violent vibrancy of Kala, and the sheer imagination of Arular, but AIM succeeds in making a far deeper point: women and people of colour do not exist solely to educate people on their experiences.
Furthermore; as a person of colour you aren’t completely infallible on matters concerning race. M.I.A.’s comments with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement being a perfect case in point. Such expectations are as overwhelming as they are unfair. M.I.A. failed to recognise that the term ‘Black’ in ‘Black Lives Matter’ is universal and all encompassing of other disenfranchised groups such as Muslims, Syrians, and Pakistani. Perhaps the world should be more forgiving towards people of colour who may sometimes miss the point, in the same way that it forgives those who aren’t people of colour.
“Perhaps it’s best that she quits whilst she’s ahead rather than risking irrelevance…”
Thus, although AIM is a slight departure from her previous work, it is still an incredibly powerful album in its own right. The cumulative backlash M.I.A. has faced over the years has stemmed from her desire to “talk and talk until [she] pissed [everyone] off”. I don’t think she ever really accounted for the fact that she could “talk and talk” but no one would listen to what she had to say. If M.I.A.’s claims that AIM will be her final full length studio release are true, perhaps that penny has finally dropped, and if the retrospective sample of ‘Galang’ and vocals from Zayn Malik are anything to go by, perhaps it’s best that she quits whilst she’s ahead rather than risking irrelevance.
Image courtesy of M.I.A. via Facebook