The Meaning Behind M.I.A.’s Punk-Rock Influenced Hit “Paper Planes”

There has always been a global influence when it comes to M.I.A.‘s art. Born to Sri Lankan Tamil parents who bounced back and forth between Sri Lanka and the U.K. during her childhood, M.I.A.’s hyperawareness of the plight of immigrants and refugees comes from lived experiences. So, it only made sense that these themes culminated in the biggest hit of her career.

Videos by American Songwriter

In 2007, when M.I.A. put out her sophomore album Kala, she used the entirety of the track list to dabble in musical styles from all around the world, whether it was American hip-hop, South American funk, or African folk. For the eleventh song “Paper Planes,” though, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, the multi-dimensional artist drew influence from British punk-rock icons The Clash in order to commentate on the prejudice immigrants face in the Western world.

“The stereotype that’s attached to, like, immigrants […] is that they come and take the jobs, and take the money [off native citizens of developed nations],” M.I.A. said in reference to “Paper Planes” during her 2018 documentary film MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.

The most recognizable portion of the song comes in its opening verse, where M.I.A. starts the track with a commanding and catchy approach. Sing-rapping I fly like paper, get high like planes, she begins to craft a caricatural narrative about untrustworthy immigrants who make counterfeit passports and come to the U.S. with bad intentions.

I fly like paper, get high like planes
If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name
If you come around here, I make ’em all day
I get one done in a second if you wait

In the rest of the song, M.I.A. expands on this idea, including gunshot sounds in the hook and depicting herself as a foreign thief.

‘Cause all I wanna do is—, and a—
And take your money
All I wanna do is—, and a—
And take your money

Because of these harsh motifs, M.I.A. faced backlash from critics and the media. But, as she noted in a 2017 interview with The Daily Beast, the only ones to blame for her comfort regarding violence and gunshots are the ones who perpetrated it against her during her youth.

“If you’re an immigrant you left somewhere and most of the time you fled a war,” she said. “Gun sounds are a part of our culture as an everyday thing. If you’ve been exposed to gunfights and violence and bombs and war then I can use those sounds backing my thoughts, ya know? Look, I’ve been shot at so I’m quite comfortable with gunshot sounds. If you have a problem with it, go and talk to the people who were shooting at me.”

[RELATED: Remember When: The Clash Rocked Against Racism in 1978]

“Paper Planes” was produced and co-written by now-famed pop DJ and instrumentalist Diplo. On top of listeners being upset about the song’s contents, Diplo revealed that M.I.A.’s own label was hesitant about including the song on Kala. However, after submitting to M.I.A. and Diplo’s pleas, the song went on to earn unimaginable acclaim.

“That record was nominated for Record of the Year and that record barely made her album,” Diplo said. “The label was like, ‘This is fucking wack. Gunshots? We can’t play this song on the radio. It’s a song about taking money. This is not gonna make it.’ We were like, ‘Please, come on just trust us. Put this on the [album]. It’s the coolest thing we have.'”

Additionally, Diplo said the combination of M.I.A. and The Clash was entirely intentional, considering the similarities he saw between the two artists.

“The process of that song was just me, in my earliest form as a producer, I just loved sampling vinyl. And the sample comes from The Clash ‘Straight to Hell.’ It’s a really cool reggae-punk record,” he said. “I just thought that The Clash and M.I.A. were the same kind of artist. And I wanted to reference The Clash on an M.I.A. record because they’re both London, they’re punk, and they’d be world music. We just kind of made up the hook, and honestly we didn’t even finish that song. If you recognize it, the verse is the same eight lines, twice. And the second verse is the same eight lines, twice. We never finished the verses, we just repeated it. But, it worked.”

Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Soho House

Leave a Reply

5 Classic Rock Bands Keeping the Flame Alive in the 21st Century