M.I.A. has a personal connection to the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis that inspired her self-directed music video for “Borders,” which TIME recently named one of the best videos of the year: she’s a former refugee herself, having escaped the violence of a civil war in Sri Lanka to come to London as a small child.
She’s been making music about the refugee experience since her very first album in 2005, but M.I.A. says she felt particularly inspired by current events while making “Borders,” a song she wrote in two hours—the quickest she’s ever written something. “I always felt that I wanted to make a video around that subject,” she tells TIME. “We’re at some sort of turning point. Society was gearing up to become more closed off than it has been.”
Below, M.I.A. talks about her inspirations for the video, the criticism around it and why it never would have existed without her Apple Music deal.
TIME: Some people have suggested there’s an irony in singing about blowing down the doors to “the system” in a video hosted by one of the biggest corporations in the world. What does it mean to you to be able to talk about these issues from the platform of Apple Music?
M.I.A.: I think that’s really interesting. That’s probably also why I kind of enjoyed it, because it’s such a weird dilemma to put those two things together. But also, for example, one of the photos I saw in TIME magazine—on the TIME website—is what inspired me to even want to make this video.
You guys printed a photo of maybe 500 or 1,000 people in one boat, and it was an overhead shot of this boat in blue water. It was one that I put on the wall and was like, “This is what I’m going to do.” I was going to India, and that’s the reference photo that I have everyone: “I need to find boats so I can get this many people to be able to shoot it overhead.” Then I left and didn’t have the money to film it, but I just knew I wanted to film something. I wanted to be able to shoot somewhere I could fit more than the amount of people [the boat usually carried]. I needed to basically go to a place where health and safety didn’t restrict the amount of people I could put on a boat. I wanted it as realistic as possible.
I came back and had the meeting with Apple accidentally, like a month later. I told them I was shooting a video, and it just sort of happened that I ended up on Apple and made the deal because I really wanted to shoot this thing.
I didn’t really question a lot of these things at the time because I just wanted to do it as fast as possible. But now I think it brings a broader question: the values we promote, the restrictions or borders and all of these things are also applicable to corporations, to the workforce that actually makes the technology, to us even selling this back to those people and pretending they are inclusive in this culture. My point is: are they or are they not [included]? Because looking at this video and the YouTube comments under it, it’s so divided. If we do believe in a society where everybody can live together and be equal, then we have to work really hard. We’re in 2015 and it seems like a regression, but we’re being sold the idea of progressiveness. I think that’s interesting about having something like that on Apple. It merges those two worlds.
In the second verse of the song, you call attention to the way we talk about celebrities: “queen, “slaying it,” “being bae.” Why talk about that in the same song you address refugees?
I started writing that verse because I was thinking about how our references to being amazing are actually a reference to killing somebody: killing it, slaying it, dragging someone. If we are a society that can use aggressiveness as a compliment, then [why do] we look at these people coming on the boats as like, “Oh my God, this is white genocide, they’re coming to kill us!”? I’m really confused. I don’t know where kindness and compassion and humanity come through in our popular culture. The same language that we apply to these people—”These people are coming to kill us! We’re going to kill them! We need to slay the threat!”—is then applied to a picture where your lipstick looks good. That’s kind of how it started: the concept of reigning and being a queen and slaying people appreciates you being quite a selfish, power-hungry human, and it’s praise. That’s the values we uphold.
I think these are questions that a refugee or a migrant would go through. Maybe in 20 years one of them will be like me, but a lot of them just want to come over and have a flat screen and drive a car and get a job and be on that pecking order where they’re going to be called bae or queen. They want to be slaying it. Not in a way that they want to blow up the local McDonald’s. They’re the same as everyone else. They want to look good and wear nice clothes and have a nice job and be seen doing well.
How much of the video was a response to portrayals of migrants and refugees in the media? Some critics have praised “Borders” for humanizing a group of people that get talked about like this mass, faceless threat.
Everyone always asks, “Why are there a lot of men and not women and children?” When the media cover [the crisis], it’s like there’s this swarm of men in boats coming to wipe the west out. That’s the way it’s talked about, and the comments on my video say the same thing. One of the ways I was trying to deal with it was to say, “What does that look like?” If it was just men arriving on the coast like an army, this is what that looks like.
Except it’s not that. The real images of what it looks like are actually women and children. I didn’t want to go to the easiest source of empathy, which is to show a child dying on the shore, because that’s really what it took in Europe at the time to get a rise out of people, for them to actually pay attention. There was an actual turning point, and it’s when they discovered that image of a kid being found on the beach. It shouldn’t even get to that point. And coming from the personal point of view, when we arrived [in London], it was just my mom and three kids, and there wasn’t a man in sight. A lot of people’s situations are like that, because [the men] were the first ones that got killed [before they fled]. It was just a weird fantasy to look at: if you thought this is what it is, this is what that actually looks like. But luckily it’s not.
People have criticized the video, saying you use people of color in it as props. But you also talk very explicitly in this song about privilege, and and you’ve also talked before about how cultural appropriation concerns led to the shelving of one of your videos. How much do you wrestle with these concepts?
I’ve taken a lot of criticism and made a lot of sacrifices because I keep talking about this. I could never talk about this again and be more successful, more accessible and more famous and more rich. But I’ve never done that because that aspect is important for me. I don’t have any problems with it at all. I’ve said it from day one—it’s not like I’m blindly promoting or making ads for the United States army or the British army or the French army and then talking about refugees. I’m not that artist. And a lot of artists do that and they don’t have a problem with it and they can go wherever they want.
If they started talking about immigrants on one song just out of the blue because they see it as a topic that is happening this year, then you can say that. But I’m the other type of artist—actually, this is who I am, this is where I come from, there are my people. It’s difficult as an artist to shy away from it when you do know a lot about it or when you empathize a lot with the situation. It’s very difficult not to talk about it. Those are the dynamics I was facing: why can’t I talk about this as a musician? Why can’t I put this on Apple? It’s the only platform I have because I don’t have access to saying this on Fox News or saying this in the media when I don’t have anything to promote.
Tell me about what it was like actually making the video. Who are the guys that you feature? Are any of them actual refugees?
It’s a mixture of people. A lot of them were people we street-casted. But I did approach a lot of refugee camps in the south of India where the Tamils of Sri Lanka live. I got some fisherman whom I actually got the boats from. None of them are actors, though— it’s real people. To employ 1,000 people in India, I also had to go through each one of them asking what I’m doing and why I’m making what I’m making and what I’m trying to say. It was a really good feeling to try and understand it by doing this project, what that meaning was.
There’s a lot of grey area and a lot of hurdles in trying to bring all of these worlds together. Every group of people involved in this project has to confront the idea of borders, whether it’s mental, physical or geographical. We built a 200-foot-long fence [in the video] to replicate the Spanish one. Just by chance we weren’t allowed to build this fence in the state I had permission to film the boats in. We got kicked out and had to go to the next state and had 24 hours to build this fence. It just so happened that we built it on the border itself between two states. It was a complete accident because it happened to be the only area where we could, because there was no grass on it. We found this barren land, and we found out there was actually a border there.
There was this little tree area and we went under there for shade in between takes, [but] there was a huge fight that erupted because there was a fence on the border. If you went in to stand in the shade, you had to pay the state money. We weren’t allowed to use the shade under the tree. We had to stand in the sun and it was [over 100] degrees in the dessert and people are coming out with blisters on their faces. It’s so interesting, even on this shoot, going through the problems, so I just knew that it was right. Something about this video was right, and I was doing something for a good cause. It didn’t really feel like I was doing it to promote my own pop stardom. “This week I’m going to be on refugees and next week I’m going to be on AIDS!” It just felt like everything came together for a reason.