Paper Planes (2007) - MIA - All about the song

How did the MIA hit become a generational anthem? A radical, humorous and delightfully memorable challenge to xenophobia.

The history of the composition "Paper Planes" (2007) by singer MIA

"Paper Planes" is a legendary pop song from 2007-2008 by MIA, which she wrote and performed with American musician and DJ Diplo (Wesley Pentz). The song was released as a single in 2008. It was featured on MIA's 2nd studio album titled "Kala" (2007).

Cover of Paper Planes (2007) - MIA
Cover of Paper Planes (2007) - MIA

Style and sound

MIA's distinctive sound comes from the deconstruction of other pieces of music from around the world. For example, in the song you can find: the rhythm of "juice" (Trinidadian music), the drum roll of the Indian bhangra, an excerpt from the old Clash song, and also an excerpt from the rap of the Jamaican dancehall. The reunion of pieces and fragments into fresh new creations and creates her own and unique style in music.

"Paper Planes" combines elements of African folk music.

Does the message of the Clash's anti-racist punk anthem "Straight to Hell" carry through in the looped sample of this song that MIA uses as the basis for "Paper Planes"? Does Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker" party vibe flow into the gun-fuelled "Paper Planes" chorus that borrows its melody? In both cases, it does play its part through MIA's acts of cultural appropriation (her style), but only if the listener is prepared for those references.

The Clash-Straight to Hell

If you've never heard "Straight to Hell" or "Rump Shaker", you won't be able to get the original message of the song. That's what postmodern art is: you think you know what the song is about until someone tells you the song is about something else.

Wreckx-N-Effect – Rump Shaker

The meaning of the song

In "Paper Planes," MIA screams without regret about the police (border guards), making fake visas, selling crack, and delivering "deadly poison to the system."

More disturbingly, it's a song where a choir of adorable kids sings that all they want to do is shoot you and take your money. All this is interspersed with the sounds of "eh" shots and cash registers.

Not surprisingly, the song caused a lot of controversy and discussion. Both MTV and The David Letterman Show censored the shots; others called for the entire song to be labeled "adult content" by the label and be kicked off the air. The MIA has been accused of glorifying violence and crime - even promoting terrorism.

However, MIA insists that it was misunderstood that the song was not intended to support anti-social behavior, but to satirize widespread negative stereotypes about immigrants.

The main character in the song "Paper Airplanes" is not a real MIA, but a fictional gangster who is the sum of all prejudices about black foreigners supposedly threatening Western society.

In part, this song's ambiguity is a natural result of MIA's self-conscious postmodern art style.

And yet… What is the song about?

In fact, "Paper Planes" can be seen as an immigrant's response to the surly attitude of the native British and Americans. In this version, the lyrics of "Paper Planes" can be seen as the nihilistic dreams of an immigrant, a fantasy vision of turning to gangsterism to achieve the American Dream, all too often denied by the grim reality of minimum wages.

If the main idea of the society is: “You don’t need / go straight to hell,” then the immigrant can boldly respond: “All I want to do is [blam blam blam blam] / I [ka-ching] / And take money".

There may be a strong autobiographical element to this explanation, since MIA herself had to go through a war somewhere - in her case, Sri Lanka - and then endure life's hardships, she was a refugee. And only then she was able to break through to the top and become a famous pop star.

Whatever this explanation of the song "Paper Planes" may be, there are other meanings to it. MIA wrote the song after spending most of the year dealing with the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, unable to obtain a legal visa to enter the United States. It was never explained why the US government was so reluctant to let MIA (actually Maya Arulpragasam, a British citizen with no criminal record) into the country.

It was rumored that her ties to her father, who was associated with the Tamil Tigers separatist movement (a movement that sometimes resorted to terrorist tactics during the Sri Lankan civil war) came to the fore and put her on the terrorist list. Others have suggested that the Bush administration simply did not like the message of her music. Also, perhaps the delay was just some ordinary bureaucratic turmoil with no political significance.

In any case, for most of 2008, MIAs were not allowed to enter the United States.

In an interview, MIA complained that the border guards "always gave me trouble ... so I wrote [Paper Airplanes] just to express my dissatisfaction."


Since the debut of her first album Arular in 2005, MIA has become a darling of music critics on both sides of the Atlantic. But before Paper Planes, she struggled to break into a mainstream audience.

"Arular" (MIA's debut album) has been on almost every year's Top 10 Critics' Top 10 list, but it barely sold 100,000 copies in America.

Paper Planes humorously refutes the notion that foreigners are lazy, prone to crime and violence. But it is the sound effects of the gunshots and the sounds of the cash register in the infectious refrain that speak most eloquently of how American society perceives these "menacing" immigrants!

"Paper Planes" took the world by storm, eventually earning triple platinum and a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. Created with input from producers Diplo and Switch, the song even appeared on the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and in the trailer for Pineapple Express (2008). Also, the composition became the main soundtrack of the cult game "Far Cry 3" (2012).

Soundtrack to the film "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008)

Song from the trailer "Pineapple Express: Sitting Smoking" (2008)

Soundtrack for Far Cry 3 (2012)

Interesting Facts

  • MIA co-wrote this song with DJ/producer Diplo (Wesley Pentz). They dated from 2003 to 2008. Diplo was little known at the time. "Paper Planes" became his first hit. A couple of years later, the track was on the charts along with his other songs, including Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now" and his Tiesto collaboration "C'Mon (Catch 'Em By Surprise)".

Chris Brown - Look at Me Now (feat. Busta Rhymes)

Tiesto Vs Diplo – C'Mon (Catch 'Em By Suprise) feat. Busta Rhymes

  • Both Mike D and Adrock of the Beastie Boys, as well as DMX, made cameo appearances in the "Paper Planes" video, which was originally planned to be filmed on the border with Ecuador. However, the musicians were forced to travel to New York due to MIA time constraints. Directed by Bernard Gorley, the video was filmed at the Caribbean Community in Brooklyn. According to VH1's Pop-Up Video, MIA's manager wouldn't let her wear a Metallica T-shirt for some scenes, so she locked herself in her apartment for two hours until he relented and let her.

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