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July 2003: I’m trying to respond to an urgent e-mail from an editor at a New York–based music monthly, but it’s not easy. I’m on the east side of Sri Lanka, near and sometimes in areas controlled by the separatist Tamil Tigers, where Internet connections are rare and, when available, sluggish. After I finally manage to send an explanatory message, the editor responds by freely admitting that he doesn’t know much about geography. “Is it winter there now?” he asks of the near-equatorial country. Sri Lanka is not on the pop-culture map.
November 2004: That very same editor publishes a short piece introducing a “Sri Lankan rapper” who calls herself M.I.A., a battlefield acronym that’s also a play on her real name and the London neighborhood of Acton. The daughter of a Tamil rebel, Maya Arulpragasam experienced firsthand her homeland’s Sinhalese-vs.-Tamil conflict. “I know what it’s like to be shot at,” brags the pull quote. Sri Lanka’s 19-year civil war, on uneasy hiatus since 2002, is suddenly in the same realm as rock-star divorces and beefs between hiphop roughnecks.
December 2004: Millions of news consumers experience saturation coverage of Sri Lanka. Yet reports on the tsunami aftermath concentrate on the southern coast, popular with European tourists, rather than the neglected northeast, stronghold of the Tamil Tigers. M.I.A.’s father may be there somewhere, but the rest of her family emigrated to Britain circa 1986, when Maya was 9 or 10 or perhaps 11. (Accounts differ.)
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March 2005: Have you heard M.I.A. yet? Her electrifying debut album, Arular, was due last month, but was delayed by a legal tussle over a sample. All the publications with long lead times have already run reviews, and a critics’ feud has erupted over an album that most people haven’t heard. The principal subjects for debate are (1) Does M.I.A. support anti-Sinhalese violence, including the suicide bombings that the Tamil Tigers once employed? and (2) Is she—perhaps worse than a terrorist ally—an inauthentic art-school brat who pilfers the riddims of the truly oppressed?
The answers to these questions are (1) Probably not, and (2) Who you calling inauthentic, white boy? It’s true that, despite being an exotic and a refugee, M.I.A. is no primitive. She found a well-worn DIY-aesthete’s path out of London’s housing estates, leading to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. As much a pop-music finishing school as anything else, Saint Martins offered an art career, but also introductions to Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, Pulp’s Steve Mackey, and electroclash diva Peaches. M.I.A. became a successful painter and filmmaker who poses for promo photos as if she were also a professional model. In her glammier shots, she looks a bit like multi-ethnic actress Rosario Dawson.
M.I.A.’s music, however, is no fashion spread. As rudimentary as it is cunning, Arular rejects soft focus and high gloss. After Peaches acquainted her with the Roland TR-505 beatbox/keyboard, M.I.A. embraced the stark, harsh beats and bleeps of the hiphop-meets-aceed style that Wiley—in his “Wot Do U Call It?’’—refuses to label “urban,’’ “garage,’’ or “two-step.’’ (He prefers “eskimo’’; others seem to accept “grime.’’) “Electroclash’’ is now a dated term, yet it also seems appropriate: M.I.A. packs more metaphorical heat than any British act since Strummer, Jones, and Simonon stenciled “Sten Guns in Knightsbridge’’ on their jackets.
There are no sustained, Sandinista-style political monographs on Arular. Indeed, the song that put M.I.A.—and her homeland—on the alt-pop map is “Galang,’’ a giddy foray into apparent meaninglessness. The title sounds Malay or Indonesian, not Tamil, although some experts insist that it’s actually a dancehall contraction of “go along.’’ Whatever it means, it’s surrounded by equally ambiguous or nonsensical phrases: “London calling’’ leads to “Boys say ‘Wha?’/Girls say ‘Wha-wha?’’’ to “Blaze to blaze…/Purple haze’’ to a glorious, unexpected chorale that begins “Ya ya heeey.’’ In this song, the double-Dutch rhythms and—just as important—the distorted timbres do the talking.
If M.I.A. has something less than a political agenda, she does often refer to her father’s struggle and guerrilla actions of various sorts: “Amazon’’ is a hostage fantasy in which “Somewhere in the Amazon/They’re holding me ransom.’’ “Pull Up the People’’ is a potential Peace Corps anthem with Baader-Meinhof attitude. “Fire Fire’’ name-checks the Pixies, the Beasties, and Lou Reed, but also invokes “Growin’ up brewin’ up/Guerrilla getting trained now.’’ Thanks to a looped Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band sample, “Sunshowers’’ is the most traditionally musical of these 13 songs, but the track also includes what could be the album’s most controversial lyric: “Like PLO/I don’t surrendo.’’ “Freedom Skit’’ even includes the sound of gunfire.
Clearly, M.I.A. is milking her background a bit. Arular is named for her father, much as Tricky titled Maxinquaye after his mom. Both performers were influenced by American hiphop, especially Public Enemy, yet make music that’s singular and idiosyncratic. Whereas Tricky’s early style boasted extraordinary density, however, M.I.A. keeps things bracingly simple. There are but a handful of conspicuous samples on Arular, including the sitar bit that opens “Hombre’’—ironically, given that the tune is a lustful plea to a Spanish-speaking hunk. (Sitars, by the way, aren’t prevalent in Sri Lanka, which feels almost as Indonesian as Indian, and where the dominant music is baile, derived from the Iberian dance music of the island’s former Portuguese rulers.)
“Sunshowers’’ is the only number that follows the one-sings/the-other-one-raps formula that’s been exhausted by commercial hiphop. More frequently, M.I.A.’s 505 sound melds rhythm and melody, as her vocals split the difference between talking and singing. She’s been officially classified as a rapper, and though she’s no Celine Dion, that’s not quite right. M.I.A. is more of a chanter, and such vocal hooks as “Hello this is M.I.A./Can you please come get me’’ come as close to singing as the vocals of any monotone rocker. The Justine Frischmann connection makes sense, for Arular recalls minimalist proto- and postpunk—maybe not Wire or the Stranglers, but definitely Suicide, T. Rex, and Bow Wow Wow. M.I.A’s resonant, assertive polyrhythms suggest Burundi beat as programmed by Martin Rev: sparse and driving, but also engagingly silly. “I Want Candy’’ becomes “I want the world,’’ and without a manipulative Svengali to pocket the profits.
Actually, M.I.A. did have some assistance. Arular’s coproducers include Mackey—the Pulp guy—and Russ Orton of the Fat Truckers, an electro band. They helped M.I.A. make grime her own, with a sound that conforms to current British trends yet doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. Of course, her autobiography helps, too. Today’s most common ideological formula is identity equals politics, and M.I.A.’s identity (and politics) is necessarily more complex than most. In the album’s hidden track, “M.I.A.,’’ she calls out not to Jaffna or Acton but to a global village: “Japanese, Moroccan, Caribbean, African…/Who the fuck’s your president?’’ Defining herself in international terms, and conflating her father’s battle for political independence with her own for artistic definition, M.I.A. just may be on the path to making her own Sandinista. She’s learning what it’s like to shoot back—symbolically, of course.CP