Pop-artist Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam (AKA M.I.A), has made sand-ripples of protest through her latest music video stunt, an ethnically-posturing rich desert recording. Laden with crass stereotypes, (Arabian horses, big Jeeps and Arab men watching women misbehaving) the politically correct watch-dogs have raised the alarm lest her latest musical offering makes an offensive ethnic commentary. Others have sprung to the defense of the sassy British-Sri-Lankan star as show-casing some Arab home-truths to make a statement about gender inequality, as per the Saudi driving ban.
The ‘terrorist’ (self-appropriated label by the pop rebel, in reference to being refused visa entry into the US in the past) ‘refugee’ icon, rapper of Tamil, Sri-lankan origin has made a desert storm with this video in the same week as she offended NBC viewers with her obscene finger gesture at the Super Bowl.
Better known by her stage name, M.I.A, which chimes in with her given names, is no stranger to controversy and media sh**-stirring making some noise or having pop videos banned, visa applications rejected or her whole persona put-down (as per New York Times profile by Lynn Hirschberg ). In fact this has been the story of her fame-game so far. This time she has been accused of propogating Arab stereotypes by her latest release Bad Girls that shows scenes of Arabian desert (courtesy of a Moroccan filmed backdrop) with war-clad woman and Arab-garbed men. She is also no newbie to treating ethnic profiling in her music videos. Her past hit Paper Planes tackled immigrant stereotypes ("All I wanna do... bang bang, Cha-Ching.. is take your mon-ey") and scored acclaim as the supporting song for the hit block-buster movie Slumdog Millionaire. Forget any upset caused by Bad Girls, her most 'bad' offering yet is Born Free (banned from video-viewing site Youtube) that shows an American army rounding up ‘gingers’ (red-heads) and killing them in an ethnic cleansing-esque, graphic assault. MIA has proven herself, if nothing else, not censory shy.
This video is no more shocking than many a rap video show-casing their hyper worlds of gangsta culture. At least, M.I.A switches the setting to Arabia, adding something original and fresh to the storyboard (even if visited before by fellow rap-artist Busta Rhymes - also abrasive and in your face - and already having tested his tricks on crude Arab stereotypes – as per “Arab Money”).
For one thing, the lady MIA has certainly done her research. The drifting (or Arabic tash-feet, see videos shown to the left) subculture has long existed in Saudi Arabia’s sleepiest of desert spots, with reports of such perilous activity dating back to the 1970s. Reckless driving and even the curious phenomenon of ‘sandal skating’ (see video to the left) is a pursuit that Arab male youth in the Arabian peninsula are known to partake in, in a country where social restrictions, or ‘boredom’ breed entertainment and invention in play.
Set to her bland, crude cool lyrics featuring themes of living fast, dying young, hitting, banging, tied hands and bling, M.I.A's video if anything sidelines its bad, oriental girls for the typical sand warriors – the men and their recreational pursuits - at home in their Kingdom.
So first off, she presents an accurate picture of male customs in, supposedly, the KSA. Secondly, if she’s being accused of stereotyping, then she’s turning the oriental fantasy on its head when she has Arabian women dressed in khaki styled, though still Arabian, dress or gear, toting guns and strutting their stuff with a swagger unknown to the conservative female society that has women closed off or ‘haremed’ from the male gaze. M.I.A’s girls are a far-cry from the harem-veiled subversive mysterious women of the oriental fantasy in their floaty feminine veils, if we’re accusing her of feeding stereotypes. She’s toying with the militarized West infiltrating Arabia. Sexing it up a notch to have her 'bad girls' owning male guns and aggro. And rap-artists have the prerogative to sexualise and play with stereotypes, do they not?
Her crime then? A minimalistic lyrical music video exploring recreational (but not totally fictional) Arab desert activity oft’ witnessed among Arabian male-thobe-dressed types.
“Bad Girls” is surely not something new in pop-world with Madonna and many before singing vacuous lyrics on ‘material’ feisty or just ‘naughty’ girl types. If ‘bad girls’ on this occasion signifies gun-toting or even, in being strewn over, and in, cars, criminal, girls in a country that prohibits them from driving (while filmed in Morocco it is distinctly meant to represent Saudi Arabia), then the video presents a distinct challenge to the stereotype of Arab subjugated women. All this in the same week as her superbowl lewd gesture to the camera that showed she couldn’t care less for causing offence in any sector. She is not afraid to trash social graces as well as smash gender or racial stereotypes. She’s used her song videos to launch statements on racial profiling or immigrant stereogtyping, prejuidice, racial persecution and indiscriminate killing in her unruly past.
If anything, this music video's cardinal sin might be to have undermined the campaign for Saudi’s women to be trusted behind the wheels, given their male role-models blatant disregard for road-safety.
By Dina Dabbous.