As rapper M.I.A. takes aim, does protest music have a future?

In a pop world often criticised as having gone soft since Bob Dylan’s protest era, MIA stands out for her political provocations. But on her ‘farewell’ album, is she still a rebel? We review AIM.

M.I.A. on stage. Her father fought for the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, an issue she has sung about. Suzi Pratt / FilmMagic.
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‘Where have all the protest songs gone?” It’s a cry that goes up from the music press on a wearingly frequent basis these days, so much so that there’s an entire Tumblr dedicated to cataloguing its incidences. Mostly, the subtext is that either an ageing critic, an ageing rock star or the combined forces thereof have a bee in their bonnet about the younger generation not being as politically engaged as in the halcyon days of Bob Dylan single-handedly stopping the Vietnam War with meandering folk ballads. Cue a crotchety splutter about narcissistic millennials and their selfies and their One Directions.

But even if the question posed can be answered with a 1,000-strong list of contemporary politicised artists, it’s worth considering the question of political pop music on a broader level. What does it mean for a song to be an effective political statement? How coherent do artists’ political thoughts have to be for this? Does the definition of “protest song” need to be expanded beyond explicit sloganeering for a specific cause?

One artist who has cultivated a reputation as a political provocateur is Maya Arulpragasam, aka rapper M.I.A. From her 2005 debut Arular, she has sold herself as an artistic rebel and freedom fighter, binding herself first to the cause of the Tamil Tigers – for whom her father fought – in Sri Lanka's civil war and subsequently to global struggles, from immigrant life to women's rights in Saudi Arabia. But intertwined with her embrace of political movements has also been a sense of vagueness beneath her "global village" slogans – and a suspicion of performative politics, where acting out the role and aesthetic of a political artist has fed the music press's desire for such a figure – and won M.I.A. credibility and notoriety.

M.I.A.'s contradictions have been on full display in the run-up to her fifth – and apparently final – album, AIM. Its lead single, Borders, is very nearly the most powerful musical statement to date on Europe's refugee crisis. "We're solid and we don't need to kick them," she declaims in the chorus; in its video, shots of hundreds of migrants scaling barbed-wire fences and cramming themselves onto boats are rendered stately and beautiful, a riposte to right-wing rhetoric about "swarms" of migrants "invading" western countries. There are clever touches throughout: a Fly Emirates T-shirt, for example, altered to read Fly Pirates.

The song itself sounds phenomenal, from its anthemic melody to the bass and trap beats that underpin it. But it’s slightly undercut by M.I.A.’s commentary on privilege and identity being a repeated, bored-sounding, “What’s up with that?” that feels underwritten at best, flippant at worst. You get what she’s going for: directness in naming real issues, sarcasm in questioning social media values and slang (“slaying it”, “being bae”, “breaking internet”). The trouble is that “What’s up with that?” is not as powerfully loaded a question as M.I.A. thinks it is; it’s an inch away from a reductive “Do you see?”

Meanwhile, M.I.A. opts for a messianic stance in the video – she is depicted as a Moses figure leading the refugees, and at one point even walks on water to do so – which has the unfortunate effect of seeming to make a global crisis all about her. Yet at the same time, actively standing up for the humanity of migrants, legal and otherwise, and for the concept of open borders is so rare in western public life that Borders still feels like a necessary statement.

The tension between the ego that makes for a charismatic pop star and the selflessness required for good activism has been a tightrope M.I.A. has walked throughout her career, but it's not unique to her. Political pop often stands or falls on how successfully and creatively the artist navigates this. This year alone, Anohni's decision to sing in the voice of, for example, a child in a bombed-out village on her Hopelessness album could have backfired, but it was her own unmistakable presence – and the personal emotions she put into her delivery – that rescued it from being mere clumsy role-play.

Less successful was PJ Harvey, who reprised the war correspondent role that made 2011's Let England Shake such a complex masterpiece, to far inferior effect on The Hope Six Demolition Project. It turned out that a journalistic approach may have brought history to a haunting half-life, but applying it to contemporary events, already documented to heart-rending effect by actual journalists, merely ended up trite; Harvey's own presence, with laboured conceptualising and privileged faux-insights, was all too impossible to escape.

For M.I.A., charisma and ego are at the heart of her political project. She raps less about the suffering of refugees and immigrants but their hustle and swagger, precisely mimicking the language of the hip-hop grind. On the oddly abstract Jump In, she mutters: "When I see that border, I'm gon' cross that line / When I see that dream, I'm gon' make it mine". She loops refugee metaphors back into her own braggadocio: her messiah complex is on full display again on Freedun, when she boasts: "Refugees learn about patience…I sail this ship to the thousands."

One of M.I.A.’s most ill-advised gaffes this year was a clumsy criticism of Black Lives Matter, snarking: “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters?” Her frustration with those causes getting less media attention was understandable; the false binary and the attack on another cause, less so. Ironically, in her own art, the way in which she interweaves her own individual power with vocalising on behalf of marginalised groups is most reminiscent of Beyoncé’s own political pop this year.

On Formation, Beyoncé presented capitalist declamations on her wealth alongside visual and lyrical solidarity with victims of police brutality. The results were electrifying and caught the public imagination to a greater degree than, for example, Run the World (Girls) from five years earlier – which seems in retrospect like a flawed prototype of a message Beyoncé has now perfected – or even Freedom, another track from this year's Lemonade that cleaves much more faithfully to what a respectable protest song "should" be.

AIM continues what M.I.A.'s career-long strengths have been: not preaching but advocating for people's humanity. Part of this is what seems like a deliberate attempt to enfold immigrants into ideas of cool – particularly those, like her, of a South Asian heritage under-represented in pop culture: "I'm a swagger man…from the People's Republic of Swagistan," she asserts on Freedun (which, not coincidentally, features One Direction's own refugee Zayn Malik). Then there's the playful Ali R U OK?, which takes simultaneous aim at hard-working and non-sexual stereotypes of immigrant men with its set-up of a wife complaining of being ignored in favour of the boss "since we left Calais".

But AIM is not an angry album: it doesn't have the white-hot rage of 2013's Matangi, nor the punk abrasiveness of 2010's Maya – albums made when M.I.A. seemed to have the most to prove to the world. Its hardest-edged cut, A.M.P. (All My People), is in fact a Matangi leftover. For the most part, M.I.A. sounds strangely relaxed; one of AIM's most irresistible moments is Bird Song, which amounts to little more than stream-of-consciousness avian wordplay. AIM's themes and moods coalesce in its central stretch: the loping Freedun links into a gorgeous paean to outsider friendship on Foreign Friend and thence into the casually shrugging Finally. It's clear that the liberty of open borders and the freedom dream chased by refugees are intertwined with her own personal peace.

If indeed AIM is M.I.A.'s final album – though scepticism on this is probably warranted – it feels oddly low-key as a farewell; a controversy lightning-rod going out with a shrug rather than with fists flying. But after a decade of inspiring eye-rolling and fist-pumping in roughly equal measure, AIM also feels like the natural conclusion to a body of work whose political approach, looked at in total, is more coherent than it ever seemed at the time.

Alex Macpherson is a freelance journalist who also writes for The Guardian and New Statesman.