Art continually pushes the boundaries of convention. In singer & rapper M.I.A.’s new 9-minute video for her song “Born Free,” she showcases explicitly graphic, violent images and nudity. Scenes show U.S. armed forces barging into houses, brutalizing civilians, raiding and rounding up red-haired adolescent boys. The boys are driven to the desert. In one of the more controversial scenes, a soldier holds a gun to the temple of a 12-year-old boy. Pulling the trigger, the boy is shot dead, blood spurting out. Then the remaining boys run across a minefield, as their bodies are torn to shreds.
With allusions to Palestine and the IRA, the images assault our senses. M.I.A., a political and controversial artist, often speaks out against injustices, particularly about the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka. A British-born Tamil refugee herself, M.I.A. is trying to get us as an audience to see the futility of war and genocide. Too often, people in the U.S. assume that battles in other countries are “ethnic” or “tribal” conflicts, making it easier to ignore atrocities. By showing red-haired boys, she conveys the arbitrary justifications some governments make for brutal military action (of course this may also be a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Ginger Kids episode of South Park).
Many parents in particular have denounced the video’s violence towards children. 12-year-old Ian Hamrick, the boy shot in the video, told the celeb gossip show TMZ,
“The video is definitely not for kids — I haven’t even seen the full video myself — but for all the adults and people in different countries who are doing that in real life… doing the genocides to whatever: Italians, Africans, wherever it’s from, it’s still genocide. So it’s showing violence to end violence.”
Filmed by French director, Romain Gavras, the video does not feature M.I.A. in it. A decision, Ann Powers on the LA Times music blog “Pop & Hiss” writes, that “signals her determination to keep her message front and center.” On his PBS show, M.I.A. told Tavis Smiley,
“And I think it’s always been that’s the thing about my music. Like, I wanted to become a musician and help, like, some sort of change, or stand up for what I believe in, or use music for what it’s supposed to be for. And so it wasn’t really about getting fame and success and becoming a celebrity and selling records, it was more about bringing together an opinion or a point of view of the other that doesn’t usually get heard in the mainstream.”
R&B singer Erykah Badu takes a different approach in the video for her song “Window Seat.” Another controversial video, Badu immerses herself within. Shot in one continuous frame, it begins with her getting out of a car in her hometown of Dallas, fully clothed. Inspired by Matt and Kim’s video “Lessons Learned,” as the video progresses, Badu sheds her clothing, piece by piece until she’s eventually naked. A gunshot heard, she drops to the ground, the word “groupthink” in blue spilling out of her head instead of blood. Badu wanted to show how the truth is powerful and when we bear our naked individuality, society seeks to destroy it in the name of conformity. In a voiceover at the end of the song, Badu says,
“They play it safe, are quick to assassinate what they do not understand…they are us. This is what we have become. Afraid to respect the individual. A single person within a circumstance can move one to change. To love ourself. To evolve.”
People have been outraged by the video’s violence, Badu’s public nudity in a tourist attraction and the supposed desecration of President John F. Kennedy as the location is Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was assassinated. She’s even facing criminal charges in Dallas for disorderly conduct, of which she pled not guilty today in court. It’s interesting that a woman’s naked form can be seen as so threatening.
With their visceral imagery, both videos evoke shock and outrage. They haunted and disturbed me. But I think people’s anger is misplaced. While art is subjective, artists strive to elicit strong emotional reactions from their audience. Both videos spur the debate regarding violence in our society. Would these images be any less shocking or provocative if they were not created by two women? Or two white women as opposed to two women of color? Despite Badu’s nudity, neither woman uses her sexuality to prove her point. Both musicians focus on the role of injustice. What is disconcerting is that people may be letting the gender of these two visionaries get in the way of their vital and timely messages.