Missing in Action: The Meaning Behind Paper Planes

An Article

By Ibtisaam Ahmed

“That’s amazing,” said recording artist M.I.A. in 2018 when she heard that her hit song Paper Planes earned her the Number 1 spot on NPR Music’s The 200 Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women. “I’ve never come first at anything. Like definitely a massive historical moment in my journey, to be recognized as someone who’s made this song. It’s nice because to me it’s so layered. And it did represent a time where we had the financial crisis and also the immigrant stuff, also it’s about sort of mixing genres. To me, it has a lot of memories and meaning. Yeah, people still like the song, which is kind of amazing.”

Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam was born in London in 1976 but her family returned to Sri Lanka while she was an infant because her father wanted to join in the uprising of the Tamil minority, eventually joining the Tamil Tigers. A civil war had erupted in Sri Lanka in 1983 and by 1986, Maya’s mother took her children and sought asylum in England. As refugees, the family was placed in the tough borough of Merton. Maya grew up in South London amongst high unemployment levels and high levels of crime in an ethnically diverse area. After graduating with a film degree in 1998, Maya became interested in music, writing under the name M.I.A. – designed to reflect Missing in Acton (the neighbourhood she was living in at the time) as well as the term used in war.

After gaining a critical response with her single Galang in 2003, M.I.A. went on to release her debut album Arular in 2005. The New Yorker described the album as “genuine world music,” based on “the weaving of the political into the fabric of what are still, basically, dance tunes.”

Mainstream success and widespread acclaim, however, arrived with Kala in 2007. The album was meant to be recorded in Los Angeles with Timbaland at the producing helm in 2006. But the post-9/11 milieu resulted in M.I.A. being denied a visa for entry into the U.S. largely based on her father’s connections to the Tamil Tigers and lyrics from her first album such as Fire Fire’s:

Guerrilla getting trained up

Look out Look out

From over the rooftop

Competition coming up now

Load up. Aim. Fire! Fire! Pop!

Competition coming up now

Load up. Aim. Fire! Fire! Pop!

and PULL UP the People’s:

Slang tang, that’s the M.I.A. thang

I’ve got the bombs to make you blow

The beats to make you bang.

Determined to record her second album and in a move that prioritized the Global South against American imperial hegemony, M.I.A. decided to record on the road, sampling local music on the album in countries like India, Trinidad and Tobago, Liberia, Jamaica, and Japan. The result was explosive and M.I.A. further cemented her sound of multicultural mashups, described as “a pastiche of hip-hop, electro, Jamaican dancehall, reggaeton, garage rock, Brazilian baile funk, grime, Bollywood bhangra and video game soundtracks”.  Responding to accusations and describing her music in her own words, M.I.A. said, “I don’t support terrorism and never have. As a Sri Lankan that fled the war and bombings, my music is the voice of the civilian refugee.”

This voice was particularly loud on Paper Planes, a song which catapulted M.I.A. into stardom. With its catchy melody and banging baseline, the song was featured in an exhilarating montage sequence of children hustling to make money in the film Slumdog Millionaire and is perfectly matched to the raw scenes depicting courage, brotherhood and extreme poverty.

Paper Planes went multi-platinum, topping charts around the world but the song was not without controversy, mostly over its lyrics which were perceived by some to contain a disturbing message. M.I.A. raps about evading border police, manufacturing fake visas, selling crack, and delivering “lethal poison to the system”. The chorus features a choir of children singing about shooting and taking money over the sounds of gunshots and cash registers.

All I wanna do is (bang bang bang bang)

And (click ka-ching)

And take your money

Aside from those critics who highlighted the alleged glorification of violence and criminality, the majority of Paper Planes listeners hardly understood or paid attention to the words of the song. For M.I.A., challenging the limits of pop music was part of her artistry and she explained that she “wanted to see if [she] could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing”. The importance of Paper Planes was its satire around widespread negative stereotypes about immigrants, particularly from war-torn countries – a theme that is somewhat lost in the hypnotic downtempo hip hop track sampling African folk elements.

The song also samples The Clash’s 1982 single Straight to Hell – a deliberate choice, given the band’s politics. While the British punk movement is often associated with screaming about ‘Anarchy in the UK’, The Clash rejected nihilism, condemned police brutality and came to the defence of Jamaican immigrants. A part of the lyrical theme of Straight to Hell considers the alienation of non-English speaking immigrants in British society.

The ‘character’ rapping in Paper Planes is not M.I.A. but rather “a fictional thug representing the sum of all prejudices about dark-skinned foreigners supposedly menacing Western society”. Speaking about the song, M.I.A. said, “People don’t really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they’re just leeches that suck from whatever. So in the song, I say “All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money.” I did it in sound effects. It’s up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it.”

With Paper Planes, M.I.A. established herself as that rare pop artist who addresses politics and brings issues into the mainstream. Positioning herself in this way rendered her the target of a censorship campaign and being constantly badgered about her music and it’s messages. Providing further clarification about her hit song, M.I.A. said, “[it’s] about people driving cabs all day and living in a shitty apartment and appearing really threatening to society. But not being so. Because, by the time you’ve finished working a 20-hour shift, you’re so tired you just want to get home to the family. I don’t think immigrants are that threatening to society at all. They’re just happy they’ve survived some war somewhere.”

After the incredible success of Kala (2007), M.I.A. went on to record three more albums, Maya (2010), Matangi (2013) and AIM (2016). Arguably her most iconic song after Paper Planes is Bad Girls which combined mid-tempo hip hop with Middle Eastern, dancehall and worldbeat instrumentation and whose lyrics and music video centres on sexual prowess and female empowerment. But M.I.A. has not released any new music since 2016 and she has even alluded to the fact that she has retired from music. She does, however, still consider herself an artist, something that allows her to reconcile her many identities. “I liked the Sri Lankan aspect of me and it took me ages to come to terms with it. Being an immigrant or a refugee was something I had to learn and then being a party person and art student was another part of who I was. I couldn’t be one thing, so it was about being able to have a life that was based on my experience and being many things and finding a home some way. I guess my art became my home.”

Despite being one of the most polarizing musical artists of the 00s, M.I.A.’s legacy lies largely in the way in which she was able to craft a particular moment and capture a particular mood with Paper Planes in the pre-woke days of 2008 – when songs like Flo-Rider’s Low, Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl, and Natasha Bedingfield’s Pocketful of Sunshine dominated the charts.

Dusty Henry writes, “[t]hat a song with gunshots and an anti-imperialist, pro-immigrant message can embed itself in pop culture is an incredible feat. It’s art without compromise, eagerly embraced by the masses. To this day, I’ll still hear the song in commercials, parties, and – of course – on the radio…

To get the masses singing along to a song that uplifts the immigrant community while admonishing the systemic issues that breed hate toward said communities, that’s something miraculous.”