In the United States, Google-owned video-sharing site YouTube has banned the video for hip hop star M.I.A.’s new single “Born Free”, citing the graphic nature of its content.
More than nine minutes long, the clip, directed by Romain Gavras, begins with heavily armed soldiers with US flags on their uniforms raiding someone’s home. The location is not known, but the setting is reminiscent of Baghdad or the Palestinian West Bank.
As the soldiers storm into the house, bass and drum-driven music begins pounding with growing intensity.
An older couple are interrupted having sex and dragged screaming from their beds. The soldiers brutally bash another man. Eventually, the soldiers find their target and violently drag outside a young white, male with red hair.
The young man is shoved onto a bus full on despondent young men and a couple of young boys. They all have red hair.
Over this scene, M.I.A sings: “I throw this shit in your face when I see ya, coz I got something to say. I was born free.”
The message is hardly subtle. The video depicts the type of brutal oppression suffered by people daily in US-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and by Tamils in Sri Lanka.
M.I.A. is a Tamil who grew up in Britain after her family was forced to flee the Sri Lankan government’s persecution. In case anyone her misses point, the artwork for the “Born Free” single features the cold-blooded execution of a Tamil man by the Sri Lankan Army during its genocidal war last year.
It is also an analogy for the treatment of undocumented workers (“illegal immigrants”) in the US — whose homes are raided and families broken up by the feared Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in scenes similar to that which starts the clip.
The clip’s trick is straightforward. It simply replaces the dark-skinned Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians or Latinos with red-haired white people. The point is these oppressed groups are targeted on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Targeting a subsection of white people in the First World makes as much sense.
The clip features some extreme violence. It is making a point about the horrors of genocide and doesn’t pull its punches.
The redheads are pulled off the bus in the middle of the desert and forced into a line, on their knees, with their hands behind their heads. Any resistance is met with brutal bashings.
When some redheads refuse to cooperate, a gun is put against the head of a young redheaded boy. The trigger is pulled with the camera zoomed in on the child's face.
The redheads make a run for it — across a mine field that blows some of them literally to pieces, with the army in pursuit.
But the clip also features resistance. As the bus with the redheads travels through the streets, the forlorn passengers look out to see a mural on a wall with redheaded men with guns and the slogan “Our day shall come”.
Young redheaded men appear on the streets wearing Palestinian-style scarves and throw rocks at the military vehicles.
The censorship by YouTube in the US is outrageous. Video clips for popular musicians, when not totally banal, are often highly offensive. Usually, this is tied to extreme sexualisation, reducing women performers to little more than strip club dancers.
M.I.A., however, has produced a video that, while graphic, has an important point to make. It seeks to bring home to its audience the horror of genocide and systematic terror directed at specific groups.
You only have to think of the racist hysteria whipped up by the media and major parties in Australia over the “flood” of “boat people” to see the significance of a popular artist seeking to build empathy with the victims of precisely the sort of horror those seeking asylum in Australia are fleeing.
The banning of the clip is even more outrageous when you consider that what it depicts is exactly what US soldiers do every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anyone who doubts it should watch the horrific video leaked this year of US soldiers gunning down journalists in Iraq.
The video depicts the reality for many peoples, including Palestinians, Iraqis, Basques (where the Spanish state has outlawed any public expression of support for Basque independence and jailed peaceful activists retrospectively for this “crime”), Afghans and Tamils.
M.I.A. has never shied away from politics — especially speaking up for the plight of Tamils. She is also one of the most innovative popular performers and songwriters around, breaking new ground musically.
In “Born Free”, she has combined her musical creativity with her politics to create one of the most remarkable and important video clips of all time.
Its censorship shows up the myth of the “democratic” West. Depicting the truth about the crimes of US troops, or Western-backed dictatorships, is clearly too much for the corporate giant Google.