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(DV) Billet: US Locks Out MIA







Rapper or Terrorist? 

US Locks Out MIA 
by Alexander Billet
June 14, 2006

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As if hip-hop didn’t already have enough on its shoulders, now immigration officials are treating MCs like terrorists.  The June 15th issue of Rolling Stone reports that British/Sri Lankan rapper MIA was denied permission to enter the US, where she was scheduled to start work on her new album. Always one to poke fun at the situation, the MC wrote on her Myspace page: “Roger, roger do you hear me? Over!!!! The US immigration won’t let me in… Now I’m strictly making my album outside the borders!!!” MIA’s agents, William Morris, later denied the claim, saying that immigration simply hadn’t gotten back to them (a nice way of saying her application has been “held up”). The controversy over all this is a bit confusing since MIA already toured and worked in the US as recently as last year. But under all the damage control coming from her agents, there’s the possibility of something a bit more calculated -- and all too common in the climate of the war on terror and an anti-immigrant backlash.


MIA (born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam) is part of a growing number of politically charged artists. Her lyrics, delivered with a streetwise intelligence, take on everything from consumerism and poverty to exploitation and war. She’s unabashedly outspoken, and a supporter of liberation movements around the world. Her audience has quickly grown within the past year, and her debut was named one of the best album of 2005 by Blender, Spin, Rolling Stone and a handful of others. As usual, militant stances and a wide audience are a dangerous recipe for some. The US government has been a frequent visitor to her website, and MTV has refused to air her video for “Sunshowers” unless she takes out references to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Likewise, she has spoken in favor of the Sri Lankan guerrilla group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (better knows as the Tamil Tigers), which her father is a member of. The Tigers, long at war with the Sri Lankan government, are branded by the US as “terrorists.” A handful of magazines and blogs have speculated that her connection to them may be the reason for her being blocked from the US. Against the background of Republican and Democrat alike screaming for tighter borders in the war on terror, this should come as no surprise. 
But the overwhelming hypocrisy of this stinks like John McCain trying to spin for Jay-Z. Sri Lanka has one of the worst human rights records in Southeast Asia. Prisoners are regularly held for eighteen months or longer without trial, and civilians suspected of subversion are shot without cause by police or military, including children. For the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, this oppression is double. Anti-Tamil pogroms are not uncommon, and soldiers are ordered to shoot Tamil refugees seeking to escape the country. Any male captured in connection with the Tigers or other Tamil groups is beaten and tortured. And, of course, Sri Lanka’s present government is an uncritical supporter of the US’s war on terror.

All this must have stuck with Maya Arulpragasam as she grew up in the northern regions of the country. As a child, she rarely saw her father since she was in hiding as the civil war heightened. When he did visit, he would climb in through as window and assure that nobody had followed him. The military were regular visitors to Maya’s house, asking questions about her father and his whereabouts. It’s easy to see the effect this had in the lyrics on her hit album Arular, which is named for her father. MIA isn’t just another political rapper. She’s seen first hand the brutality of oppressive governments, and she knows what side she stands on. 


Which brings us to today.  Some leftist writers have mentioned that the exploding immigrant rights movement has let many South American immigrants expose their own radical traditions to a generation of young people. If this is true, then MIA’s own radical background, mixed with her uncompromising attitude and growing popularity, are something the US would want to close its borders to. But the claim of protecting our borders from “terrorists” rings hollow. When it came to granting asylum to Luis Posada Carriles, a former El Salvadoran death squad member and anti-Cuban mercenary, the US pulled out all the stops. But when it comes to a smart, articulate Tamil MC working on her album, the Land of the Free is suddenly “Closed for Business.” 

The latest news is that MIA’s lawyers are still working on getting her stateside. And despite what the MTV censors and immigration officials want, she’s not going away. It’s obvious that she’s got more music to make and more things to say, and this controversy will only add to her buzz. I can’t wait for her next album… provided the Migra lets it be released! 
Alexander Billet is a writer and music journalist currently living in Washington, DC.  He is a contributor to Socialist Worker, CounterPunch, MR Zine, and Dissident Voice. A longtime social justice activist, he is also member of the National Writers Union. He can be reached at: alexbillet@hotmail.com.

Other Articles by Alexander Billet


* In Defense of Rock n’ Roll
* Toward a New Left Filmmaking