M.I.A. Uses Twitter, "Space Odyssey" to Bring Attention to the Continued Plight of Tamil Civilians in Sri Lanka

Musician M.I.A. released a song titled “Space Odyssey” this past week that has become notable for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was her reaction to a New York Times travel guide spotlighting Sri Lanka as a travel destination in 2010.

First, new work from M.I.A. is eagerly anticipated as she went on hiatus following a tour for her Grammy nominated record, Kaya. I was at the far edges of the crowd with my sister when she told the audience at Bonnaroo in 2008 that it would be her last performance.  Since then, M.I.A. has largely kept away from music creation.

Second, M.I.A. chose to deliver “Space Odyssey” to fans via a twitter update, where she shared the video via TwitVid, a popular 3rd party service for video hosting that competes directly with Vidly.  While M.I.A’s choice of TwitVid as the media player allowed her to use her Twitter feed to deliver new music directly to her fans, it also has forced everyone to listen to this critically important release in terrible quality video and audio.  Check out the embed above.

Most notably, following the surprise release of the song, M.I.A.’s publicist confirmed that “Space Odyssey”  was released specifically in reaction to a recent New York Times story on the Top 31 Places to Go in 2010 written by Lionel Beehner.  In the NYT piece, Beehner acknowledges that the country has been “plagued by misfortune…but the conflict ended last May.” and goes on to suggest that “miles of sugary white sand flanked by bamboo groves that were off-limits until recently are a happy, if unintended byproduct of the war.”

If you are unfamiliar, a brutal civil war was being fought between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  Leading up to the end of major conflict in May of 2009, many civilians were killed in efforts by the government to put down the rebel group.  The US State Department has issued a report outlining areas of concern (pdf) where International Humanitarian Law is believed to have been violated.

For some time following the end of combat, a quarter million people from the Tamil minority were forced to remain in refugee camps for months.  Between the brutality on both sides during the war and subsequent forced confinement afterwards, Sri Lanka’s international standing is quite low.  M.I.A. is of Tamil ancestry and fled the country as a refugee.  She has specifically decried (see her explanation at 3:25) the violence on both sides of the war.

M.I.A’s made a bold move in connecting her new artistry directly to a major US news publication’s pithy and embarrassing portrayal of Sri Lanka as a top tourist destination.  She did so using her platform of roughly 82,000 Twitter followers, all eager to hear what she would follow Paper Planes with.  M.I.A. has hit upon a near perfect mix of social networking, social action and artistic expression, most certainly setting her apart as an artist to watch in 2010.