MIA is no stranger to controversy. The British rapper of Sri Lankan Tamil origin has been producing politically charged music and making divisive declarations for much of her 16-year recording career.
But an October 13 tweet from the 42-year-old artist — and subsequent public responses to it — may represent a tipping point for MIA’s public image. These developments also point to a broader cultural concern, one of anti-blackness (however consciously or subconsciously perpetuated) in the South Asian diaspora community and the role of Desis in advocating for interracial solidarity.
After her tweet, it seems that many hip-hop fans ran out of patience for MIA. The once influential maverick was publicly called out for speaking out of turn regarding misogyny in the hip-hop industry. From her Twitter account, MIA posted “Can you imagine if the music industry Harvey Weinsteined people. Especially number one genre in pop- hip hop!”
The tweet received over one hundred replies, the majority of which fell into divided factions. Some Twitter users agreed with MIA’s sly denouncement of sexual harassment in “music’s number one genre.” They lauded her for drawing a connection between the high-profile sexual harassment incidents involving former film studio executive Harvey Weinstein, and the routine sexism she observes from her own perspective of the media industry.
Many of us have wondered this week what might it take for the music industry to start outing its worst predators. But this tweet here… pic.twitter.com/Z5cAOJ3Wkx
— jamilah (@JamilahLemieux) October 13, 2017
But many other commentators believed MIA should “stay in her lane,” instead of calling out a music genre founded and forwarded by Black artists, in which she is a “guest.” Writer and activist Jamilah Lemieux responded with a series of tweets, stating:
“Many of us have wondered this week what might it take for the music industry to start outing its worst predators. But this tweet here [MIA’s]…Homegirl’s anti-Blackness has been clocked and noted long ago…But again, I’ve been taking music industry predators (offline) all week, she has a point, right?…Well…I got stuck on this…Like that Dr. Luke shit didn’t happen? The default for predator, in the middle of a white man’s scandal, is still Black men?…BUT….when Black men ARE predators, who do they usually victimize? Black women…And speaking of, the most notorious music industry predator that EYE know of is, of course, R. Kelly…I’ve spent the better part of the decade being berated 4 daring to speak ill of a KNOWN abuser of Black girls. My mentions are always trash…I’m tired of standing in solidarity with women+men who don’t show up for Black women…I’m not settling for trickle down justice or sympathy for BW+girls, because that’s not enough…And so, I’ll continue to be pissed when the likes of this broad says things like this…”
Lemieux’s tweets provide some much-needed context to MIA’s comment. The rapper’s intentions may have been in the right place (i.e. raising awareness about sexual harassment in the music industry and specifically in hip-hop), but the most important takeaway from Lemiuex’s tweets is that non-Black people of colors’ comments on Black community issues cannot and do not exist in a vacuum.
When a non-Black POC critic talks about elements of Black culture (whether it be art, politics, or society) they do so with the relative social capital and with the privilege of being taken seriously in a way that Black people are rarely afforded in mainstream media. This kind of behavior essentially robs Black people of the right to narrate their own stories. Beyond a few examples, it’s difficult to find instances of interracial and interethnic collaboration that are not tokenizing in contemporary media.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or that MIA can’t take some responsibility for perpetuating anti-blackness by “especially” calling for more awareness around harassment in a Black-led industry. Whatever her intent, MIA has an incredible opportunity to highlight hip-hop voices through her channels, rather than summarily calling out the genre. She might do well to take cues from other non-Black POC celebrities, who have leveraged their public platforms to essentially step aside so that Black colleagues can speak for themselves about their own experiences — rather than speaking for them and inevitably getting the story wrong.
A great example of this type of interracial solidarity was Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang and Lena Waithe’s work on season two of Master of None. On a popular series where most of the episodes are written and produced by two Asian men, Lena Waithe wrote, produced and performed in the episode that earned her and the series a writing Emmy. Ansari asked Waithe — already a formidable writer, actor and producer already — to write the episode on her character Denise’s coming-out story because, as Waithe shared in a recent interview and at Chicago Ideas Week, Ansari told her he couldn’t possibly write a story from her perspective, only she could do that.
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Anjali Misra is a Chicago-based nonprofit professional and freelance writer of media reviews, cultural criticism and short fiction work. She earned her MA in gender and women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spent nine years as a student and community organizer, focusing on inter-ethnic solidarity, interracial coalition building, and gender justice. She is an avid sci-fi media fan, and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan is her patronus.