Music artist MIA recently sparked controversy after comments criticizing black social justice movements that she shared in a recent interview with ES Magazine have gone viral. The London-born singer of Sri Lankan descent was asked to share her thoughts on Beyonce’s “Formation”, which she responded to by describing Bey ‘s political statements as “nothing new” and went on to chide black artists for not speaking out on the issues of other communities. “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter,” she stated. “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters?” MIA continued. “That’s a more interesting question. And you cannot ask it on a song that’s on Apple, you cannot ask it on an American TV program, you cannot create that tag on Twitter, Michelle Obama is not going to hump you back.”
Aside from overlooking the fact that no one has “allowed” black people to speak out for our humanity, people have literally fought and died to bring attention to racial injustice in the U.S., her statements are not only totally inaccurate and out-of-touch, but extremely dismissive and offensive. And they exemplify exactly why those outside of the black community should recognize that it is not their place to criticize our movements for justice and liberation.
In the case of MIA, with the arrogance and ignorance of her statements she totally overlooked the fact that black and Muslim are intersecting identities, and in many cases racism still intercedes in efforts against Islamophobia as demonstrated in the lack of coverage and outrage over the recent #OurThreeBoys case, where three young black Muslim men killed execution style in Indiana and served as an example of how black lives are not equally valued whether they are Muslim or not. She also missed the fact that groups like #BlackLivesMatter, Black for Palestine and many black music artists have publicly collaborated with and stood in solidarity with Palestinian social justice groups.
And, in between promoting her H&M recycle campaign and criticizing others, maybe MIA forgot that her music is available on iTunes and that if she feels so strongly about these issues she has equal opportunity to use her platform to bring attention to them, instead of foolishly attempting to compare topics that she is clearly uninformed on. Labeling musical protest to black oppression as “nothing new” while charging us with the task of apathy and speaking on the issues she deems more “interesting” and pressing, is drenched in the subtle anti-blackness that often complicates collaborative efforts between African-Americans and other marginalized groups or ethnicities of color.
While she could’ve used the interview as an opportunity to bring awareness to the media’s lack of coverage of Muslim discrimination in the U.S. without the disrespectful shade, her decision to undermine the work of BLM and black music artists, only shed light on her need to be properly informed. What is most interesting and ironic about MIA’s statements is to see them come from someone who has used black culture to cultivate her sound and platform as an artist, and yet she has displayed no sensitivity to the pain and struggle that created the music she benefits from. It’s now evident that although she profits from black aesthetics, she does not value or understand the the legacy that birthed them.
Her deeply misinformed #AllLivesMatter-esque sentiments bring to mind a recent Twitter discussion that was sparked after actor Jose Antonio Vargas decided to “call-out” Chris Rock for only speaking out on the lack of African-American actors and actresses recognized at this year’s Oscars (of course overlooking the intersection and black and Latino identities); which quickly got him checked as the hashtag #NotYourMule began trending. It was a response to not only Vargas’ tweets but moreover how some people of other ethnicities tend to look at the achievements made through black American social justice movements with disdain, opting to pin the weight of the injustices they feel affect them on the shoulders of black Americans, rather than viewing our strides as inspiration for what can be achieved their own unified efforts and solidarity.
MIA’s recent comments, are a reminder that no matter how outspoken you pride yourself on being, it’s so important to know what you don’t know when it comes to other communities and issues that don’t directly affect you. Celebrity or not, we should not be audacious enough to speak on topics that we have no true historical insight to speak on. Though she’s become a star thanks to pulling creatively from the sounds, style, and traditions birthed in black America, her apparent level of respect and understanding for the culture and it’s link to our social struggles leaves much to be desired.
As we’ve seen many times over, black oppression and activism will never be fully respected, understood, or valued form those looking from the outside in – person of color or not – until the anti-black sentiments within their own communities are addressed. Only then will people like MIA or Jose Antonio Vargas see the dismissive and problematic nature of their comments.
Shahida Muhammad was raised in Philadelphia and is currently based abroad in Colombia. Her writing tends to lie within the spaces of Black culture, identity, and womanhood. For more, follow @ShahidaMuhammad on Twitter.