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Featured Blog: Rap and refugees

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In light of the recent refugee crisis, which has gained worldwide media attention, rapper and provocateur, M.I.A asks “What’s up with that?” in her song titled “Borders.”

TIME scored an exclusive interview with the star in December 2015. During that interview, M.I.A. told TIME that she wrote the politically charged song in two hours. This record-breaking time for songwriting was due in part to M.I.A.’s frustration with the subject and her connection to the refugee experience.

Although she was born in London, M.I.A. spent her childhood in Sri Lanka, a small island off the coast of India. At the young age of nine, she returned to London as a refugee after violence in Sri Lanka forced her family to leave. Despite her connection to the refugee struggle, M.I.A. has strong critics. Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic accused her of “using people as props, aestheticizing poverty for her own gain, and mixing cultural signifiers in ways that could feed stereotypes about the developing world as an undifferentiated mass,” and more generally, cultural appropriation.

Recently, using cultural signifiers has landed M.I.A. in hot water with the famous Paris soccer team, Paris Saint-Germain. In her music video for “Borders,” M.I.A. sports a PSG jersey, which is altered to say “Fly Pirates” rather than “Fly Emirates.” Although the video was initially released in November, PSG did not make a comment on the altered shirt until a letter dated Dec. 21, 2015, threatened legal action. Then on Jan. 11, 2016  M.I.A. posted the alleged four page letter from PSG to her popular Twitter account with over 660,000 followers, garnering thousands of comments, likes and retweets.

Clearly this tiff between PSG and M.I.A. raises many questions. Why did PSG wait so long to comment or even bother to comment? Did M.I.A have subversive intentions behind wearing the PSG jersey? And forefront in my mind is, what is the larger issue here? Let’s start though with the first question: why did PSG bother commenting?

We can speculate all we want, but obviously PSG took issue with being affiliated with M.I.A. Personally, I can understand not wanting to be associated with M.I.A. because she is incredibly controversial and has a history of unpredictable behavior. Remember the middle finger incident at Super Bowl XLVI in 2012? But I think recognizing how much media attention PSG has received by contacting M.I.A is important. People like me, who pay little attention to professional sports, recognize its jersey and know exactly who PSG is. Again, this is all speculation, but at the same time we need to be critical because who truly knows if PSG had good or bad attentions.

That brings us to the intentions of M.I.A. Did she have an agenda in wearing the PSG jersey? She claimed that she didn’t in an interview with Noisey UK on Jan. 12, 2016. As an M.I.A. fan (yes, I will admit my bias), I want to believe her, but who knows? Is it ironic that she picked a jersey sponsored by Qatar (hence the “Fly Emirates” logo on the jersey), where recently 1,200 people died at a stadium? Maybe, or maybe it was just a coincidence. As an opinion article published by Sourdoreille, a French music website, eluded to, now (regardless of her real intentions) M.I.A. has convinced the public of a link between the money of the UAE and immigration problems. However, the PSG jersey choice also sparks questions about intention because in 2015 France experienced difficulties dealing with immigration, and Paris in particular dealt with tragic terrorist attacks. So was M.I.A. choosing to target the issues in France by using PSG? Again, the answer is maybe.

Beyond these questions with no clear answers, what is the larger issue surrounding the song, “Borders”? The answer here is simple: refugees. Honestly, who really cares about a petty argument over a soccer team’s jersey when thousands of people are fleeing horrific and dangerous conditions? Forget about M.I.A. trying to grab your attention with pop culture language like “bae,” but seriously consider these questions she poses in “Borders (What’s up with that?), Politics (What’s up with that?)… Your privilege (What’s up with that?).” In my opinion, “Borders” is causing a productive type of controversy because it is creating a dialogue about refugees in popular culture that otherwise would not exist.

Junior Alena Klimas and sophomore Annalycia Liston-Beck also contribute to this featured blog, “Critical International Media Perspectives.”

CORRECTION: This article has been edited from its original form in respect to an incorrect French translation.

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