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By Antonino D’Ambrosio
As a soft wind began to blow in from the San Francisco Bay and the sun started to dip behind the giant Ferris wheel, a British-Sri Lankan woman bounded onto the stage at the First Annual Treasure Island Music Festival. Backed with a DJ and one lone dancer, M.I.A. brashly asked the crowd “Where my pirates at?” With a roar from the nearly 10,000 gathered and a tip from her captain’s hat, she launched into a performance that was equal parts old school rapper and new millennium musician.
Just moments earlier, I had been standing backstage with a contemplative, quiet M.I.A. Wearing a fedora hat, she stood in stark contrast to the musician that moments later would scale the thirty-foot-high stage scaffolding, dangle over the crowd with her oversized blue T-shirt with “M.I.A.” printed in gold across the front and, with a mic in her hand, lead the crowd in a “hands-up” rendition of “Paper Planes,” a track from her latest album, Kala.
To be sure, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam is not easily defined or categorized. She is not rap, hip-hop, rock, punk, Jamaican dance hall, electronica, Bollywood, world music, or the scores of other styles that are packed tight into her music. She is not simply pop or political. She is all these things and more. As Chuck D of Public Enemy told me, “She is the future of music, and the future is here.” For anyone who has listened to M.I.A. or seen her perform, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.
Before M.I.A. was a year old, she moved from London to Sri Lanka, where she lived until she was eleven. The family left Sri Lanka primarily because her father joined the Tamil Tigers, a militant group fighting for an independent state in the northern and eastern parts of the country. (The Tamil Tigers are notorious for their suicide bombings.) She and her mother and siblings eventually returned to live in a housing project in South London. This constant movement between worlds that were politically, culturally, and economically distinct allowed M.I.A. to synthesize her experiences into a worldview that is solely her own.
A product of art school and the British club scene, M.I.A. established a new aesthetic that challenges the way people view and hear her as a performer. With oversized T-shirts, brightly colored outfits, and stretch pants, her style is almost 1980s kitsch, but her sound is very much a collage of the history of music and a starting point for something new. M.I.A. stands at the forefront of a movement in global culture, joining international musicians Rachid Taha and Manu Chao, who also strip away borders.
In many ways, the story of M.I.A. can be told through her first record. During one of her earliest interviews, M.I.A. discussed why she named it after her father, Arular. Her mother repeatedly told her that the only thing her father gave her was his name. “So if that’s the case,” M.I.A. explained, “then I’m going to use it.”
M.I.A. grabs the listener by merging a fresh “do-it-yourself” sensibility mixed with a playful pop sound and dance beats (she built the tracks for her first record in her flat using a sequencer, a machine with simple drum grooves and sounds). She holds her listener with startling images of war, cultural displacement, and urban blight.
She opens Arular with “Pull Up the People,” which has the refrain “pull up the people/pull up the poor.” In “Fire, Fire,” she paints a stark picture of suppression and the resistance it ferments: “You shoulda been good to me/Then I wouldn’t get so rowdy rowdy.” She sprays lyrics that are bitingly sarcastic, cleverly satirical, and always proudly rebellious, as is the case with “Bucky Done Gun” when she declares, “I’ll fight you just to keep peace.”
M.I.A., who keeps a home in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, was denied a working visa when she attempted to return to the U.S., where she wanted to record her next album. She believes the U.S. government profiled her in part because of her father and the lyrics of some of her work, including “Sunshowers,” which mentions the PLO: “Like PLO don’t surrendo.” MTV USA banned the video unless a disclaimer was included. After writing a blog about her visa situation on her MySpace site titled “They Try Shut My Door,” M.I.A. decided to get creative and set about traveling the world.
The result was Kala, which includes tracks recorded in Japan, India, Australia, and Trinidad. This time she named the record after her mother. The record includes all of her previous sounds, plus cash register chimes, gun shots, and children’s shouts.
If the theme of Arular centers on notions of freedom, the message of Kala is one of never giving up in the face of hardship.
Kala also highlights the absurdity and contradictions of male posturing—and how they lead to violence. The song “Jimmy” links another one of M.I.A.’s favorite subjects—sexual dynamics—with the desire to dominate through brutality: “When you go Rwanda Congo/Take me on ya genocide tour.” Later she sings, “I know that you hear me/Start acting like you want me.” And in “World Town,” M.I.A.’s indefatigable spirit comes pouring through: “Yo don’t be calling me desperate/When i’m knocking on the door/Every wall you build i’ll knock it down to the floor.”
Since Arular and Kala are records that present bold political views coming from an immigrant woman musician, M.I.A. has had to fight battles on two fronts. First, she has had to repeatedly account for her father’s connection to the Tamil Tigers—particularly in the American press—even though she has made it plain on numerous occasions that she has no contact with him. Recently, M.I.A. told The Guardian, “Although he didn’t live with us or spend any time with us, we suffered all the consequences of having him as a dad. Our houses would get extra bombed, and the people in our neighborhood would get extra tortured, and the army would come round and beat my mum up. All for this mythical dad figure that I never had.”
The second battle M.I.A. continues to fight is that of a musician who is not taken seriously because she is a woman. Some high-minded critics with lowbrow prejudices see M.I.A. as nothing more than a novelty act or a manufactured creation completely dependent on male producers like Diplo for her success. M.I.A. fires back, “I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed.” These prejudices are not solely held in the West. M.I.A. painfully discovered that in places like India and even Sri Lanka, they would prefer her to keep her mouth closed. (She’s actually had to enlist her brother to accompany her when traveling to these countries.)
She just doesn’t challenge stereotypes, she smashes them. As record company executives desperately seek answers to why sales are down and recycle every old record catalog they own in hopes of staying in the black, M.I.A. is a “life experience artist” pushing music in daring new directions. As she “mash up things to make us one,” M.I.A. offers not only aggressively vivid portraits of the way the world is today but a sincere vision of what it can be in the future.
Antonino D’Ambrosio is a writer and filmmaker based in San Francisco and New York. His current film is “Let Fury Have the Hour.” His next book is “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: The Battle for America’s Future.”