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Destined: M.I.A.

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Ben Yaster breaks down the limitless appeal of Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A.

Destined: M.I.A.

  • Download Diplo’s mix of Fire Bam from the mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1.

In November, Diplo, one-half of the DJ outfit Hollertronix, introduced American ears to the music of Maya Arulpragasam, or M.I.A. The mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism, was striking, and not just because Arulpragasam’s photogenic features graced the record’s cover. The British-based performer’s music, rather, strikes, as well as kicks and stomps in a manner difficult to classify. M.I.A.’s recorded work – which includes the Piracy mixtape and her Arular LP (set for release next month on XL) – bends genres. One can hear the attitude of hip hop in her lyrics, hip-swinging dancehall in her beats, and riotous rock-n-roll in her production. Her sound is global and exceeds the limits of American popular music, Caribbean reggae, Indian bhangra, or whatever regional genre you choose. And this year, her global sound is destined for orbit.

By any unknown or underground artist’s yardstick, M.I.A. has had a fantastic four months. Both the mainstream and independent press have celebrated her music. Her singles, especially the ragga clash of “Galang,” have garnered a strong cult following. But all the praise seems somewhat surprising in light of today’s music market, where artists are increasingly stratified and distinguished by niche. One of the most challenging aspects of M.I.A.’s sound – not for her, but for her critics, publicists and the general public – is figuring out what to call it. By and large, the token categories of contemporary pop music, whether broad labels like “dancehall” or more exacting taxonomies like "UK garage,” dress M.I.A.’s music as inappropriately as a suede overcoat during the drench of a New England winter. Her music is too intemperate for those specialized and specific titles, her appeal too broad. But it is exactly her breadth, her capacity for including diverse genres at once, that separates M.I.A. from most everyone else on earth.

M.I.A. is often associated with dancehall and hip hop, thanks to her jangling beats and rapped delivery. To put it a bit crudely, however, hip hop and dancehall are boy’s clubs. With few exceptions, the heroes of both genres – the 2Pacs, Biggies, Buju Bantons, and Beenie Men – are all men who exude a certain kind of alpha-masculinity, a combination of brawn, trigger-happy will, and lothario virility. Which, sad to say, leaves little room for women, aside from fawning singers and fellating groupies. M.I.A. is obviously neither. “Girls have been fed the male image of what women singers should be,” Arulpragasam said in an interview with Dusted. “Everyone looks exactly the same. Girls that belong [to hip hop and dancehall] look exactly the same. It’s like, ‘how much can you look like Beyoncé or Ciara?’”

The image M.I.A. projects in her music and in person is markedly different than what you might hear from women on most hip-hop radio stations or in the pages of The Source. “Hip hop doesn’t teach women to have a brain,” she said. “I want to show that it’s alright to be an individual within that area, whether hip hop or dancehall that sets up women to depend on men so much.” M.I.A. rarely sings to or about boys with handsome faces or men with deep pockets. Likewise, the conventional sexuality of, say, Beyoncé – a sexuality that is less empowered than overpowered by the charms of men – is not to be found in her music. This is not to say that M.I.A. is not sexy or sexual. Even the most casual listener would recognize the temptress in the chorus of “Sunshowers,” a song that coos falsetto desire as M.I.A. recounts a day in the life of a third-world laborer. But her combination of the political and the sexual is quite different than the consumers of hip hop and dancehall are accustomed to hearing.

The difference between the images and sexualities of M.I.A. and the Beyoncés of hip hop and dancehall is similar to the difference between M.I.A.’s global sound and the regional trappings of the two genres. If I may paint with a broad brush, hip hop and dancehall almost always connote a geographic region with each bass line and rhymed couplet. Dancehall is Caribbean music. Its rhythm is slower, as if hip hop’s funky drummer had spent the week leaving footprints in island sand. Its patois, while inscrutable to American ears, is always identifiable as the dialect of the Caribbean, usually Jamaica. And as for hip hop, while it may have a global appeal, it is hardly global music. Dizzee Rascal, British hip hop’s poster boy, creates something that looks and sounds different than the American standard. His squawk and accentuation leave no question about his UK roots. And photographs of Europeans and Africans flashing the ubiquitous hand sign for “Westside” seem fundamentally wrong outside of the United States, for it is ultimately a hip-hop gesture that only makes sense within America’s borders.

That said, the music of M.I.A. is never aptly defined when the words “dancehall” and “hip hop” are mentioned, largely because the music does not fit into these regional categories. Her words thread in and out of the beat, like unwound yarn too loose for hip hop’s staccato stitching; her beats flush with colorful swatches of background texture, amounting to a palette richer than most dancehall tracks. M.I.A. is ultimately a stranger from these – or any – regional genres.

Arulpragasam attributes the strangeness of her music to personal biography. Born to a Sri Lankan family in a London hospital, M.I.A. has been a stranger for most of her life. After her birth, her family returned to their native country where M.I.A. was an ethnic minority estranged from the country’s ruling faction. Her family was of Tamil descent, an ethnic group that has sought independence from the country’s majority Sinhalese population. Her father, in fact, dissented against the Sinhalese government and helped begin the rebel group EROS (the Eastern Revolutionary Organization of Students) who, contrary to any semblance of love the group’s acronym suggests, was militant in its rebellion against the Sinhalese government and served as a sister group the dominant and violent rebel Tamil Tigers. The title of her LP, Arular, is a tribute to her father – Arular was his name in rebel circles.

The eventual civil war between the Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese – a war that has percolated some 30-odd years today – forced M.I.A. and her family to flee Sri Lanka and return to London, a city where she was not only a minority, but a foreign refugee. Her feeling of foreignness in England, a feeling compounding the strangeness of being a Tamil in Sri Lanka, was formative for her eventual music career. “I was embarrassed about being Sri Lankan, being a refugee, and being so poor,” M.I.A. recounts. She stressed, however, that she did not adopt England, nor did she assimilate into English culture. “I adapted to England because I didn’t have anything to grasp onto,” she said. “I let go of my identity.”

In place of her Sri Lankan identity, M.I.A. resorted to an ad hoc production, a pastiche from the hodgepodge of voices and faces mingling in London’s public squares and cobblestone streets. “I was actually creating,” she said. “I became a blank canvas – I traveled through everything and picked out the best information.” As a foreigner from England, Arulpragasam has had a freedom to do with British culture, or any culture for that matter, as she pleases. She has no national identity to uphold, no language or custom to maintain. If she wants to turn the English language on its head, breaking and repeating it into a collection of meaningless sounds, she can. So it goes with her use of hip hop’s braggadocio or dancehall’s island sway. M.I.A. is not beholden to being authentically hip hop or authentically dancehall. She makes use of styles and cultures as she wishes, conjuring whatever meaning – or lack thereof – she chooses.

The influence of M.I.A.’s strange and cosmopolitan youth upon her music can be heard on the opening track of Arular, “Ba-na-na Skit.” Over a skittering drum, she repeats the syllables in the rote meaninglessness of an elementary language lesson, where the object is not comprehension but pronunciation. As M.I.A. repeats the word “banana,” she begins incorporating it into the drum’s rhythm. The word no longer sounds like the yellow-skinned fruit; it’s rather become a game, transformed into the skipping rhymes of midsummer Double Dutch., or even the bubblegum “sha-la-la” of rock ‘n’ roll. In M.I.A.’s hands, the English language becomes a series of gleeful syllables, meaningless yet fun.

A similar theme runs throughout the rest of Arular, as M.I.A. takes pieces of world cultures and weaves them together in her own design. Her single “Galang” is another potent example of her appropriation technique. The song, a recitation of wartime images against the clapping of a dancehall rhythm, appears like politically-inspired dance music on first listen. But don’t be fooled – the song is not a simple soapbox anthem. The chorus, “Purple haze / Galang alang alang / Blaze to blaze / Galang alang alanga” does not suggest an issue to mobilize an audience or crowd. If anything, it channels the battlefield for dramatic effect on the dance floor. Or, vice versa, it summons the dancehall’s “galang alang” catcall to the battlefield. Either way, the song cannot be cut squarely as stump speech or inane crowd pleaser. It is both. Or neither. Or, like all of M.I.A.’s music, whatever she wants it to be.

Arular will be released in the U.S. on Feb. 22 by XL.

By Ben Yaster

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