News From Nowhere
But perhaps M.I.A.'s "nowhere" was really everywhere--or, to be specific, everywhere but the First World's self-regarding "here." At the time of the album's release, she said she felt homeless--and that she hoped the music might be a way home. She told one interviewer, "My survival technique in Britain was to forget Sri Lanka--completely--and block it out of my mind. Then I thought, 'I know the other side, I've lived through that for 10 years, and I have to speak for them at some point.'" She also complained about the insularity of her British Sri Lankan community: "It's obvious I care about where I came from. It's obvious I'm fucking brown. I don't have to say it again and again, underline it and talk to the people within the circle when it is about getting out there."
Like writers Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat and Rattawut Lapcharoensap, artists Nadine Robinson and Julie Mehretu, and cartoonists Marjane Satrapi, Adrian Tomine and Lalo Alcaraz, she found herself caught between roots and a desire for rootlessness, communitarian uplift and mainstream success, freedom and responsibility, exile and return. The languages of salad-bowl multiculturalism and authenticity-obsessed pop criticism (which labels everything not from "here" as "world music") couldn't locate M.I.A. But pop culture could.
On Arular, she broadcast the sound of those with one foot in the First World door, the other in a Fourth World gutter, where the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa," Chaka Demus and Pliers' "Bam Bam," New Order's "Blue Monday," Basement Bhangra, Black Francis and Bobby Friction and Nihal are equal touchstones. Her spray-can and stencil art featured images of young gunmen flashing peace signs or bereted, bare-kneed Third World female soldiers marching en masse. But those images--like Arular's words and sounds--weren't just about war, sex and revolution; they were about what it means to consume those ideas. Against a media flow that suppresses the ugliness of reality and fixes beauty to consumption, M.I.A. forces a conversation about how the majority live. She closes the distance between "here" and everywhere else.
In trying to synthesize realities, Kala made stunning connections. Some of this was accidental. After Arular, M.I.A. signed with media giant Interscope, home to 50 Cent and Eminem. She rented an apartment in Brooklyn and prepared to record her second album with superstars Timbaland, Lil Jon and Akon, among others. Had everything gone as planned, Kala would have been a capital-P pop album. But visa problems, probably related to her father's affiliations and her own art and lyrics, delayed her entry to the United States. In a sense, Kala is what happens when antiterror hysteria touches the artistic soul.
Literally homeless, she traveled to Liberia, India, Angola, Trinidad and Jamaica, and met the children who shaped the record, holding recording sessions as she went and collecting the noises, movements and rhythms of those moments into often sublime songs. Youth whistles, cheers, interjections and cries drive singles like "Boyz" and "Bird Flu," which, in their boldly antisubcultural use of, say, Hindu dhol drumming, Trinidadian chutney-soca and New York hip-hop, deliriously suggest a new kind of everywhere.
In the videos, hundreds of boys dance--including Jamaican dancehall kings like Spikes and Sponge Bob and scores of Indian villagers in oversized T-shirts screened with M.I.A.'s ironic antislogans Buy All Means Necessary and It Takes Immigration of Millions to Hold Us Back, jokey reversals of Boogie Down Productions' By All Means Necessary and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Boys move ecstatically in choreographed unison. "How many no money boys are rowdy?/How many start a war?" M.I.A. shouts above the pandemonium. She also sees that their competitiveness--an alternative to military conformity and enforced discipline--has its own trap doors. "Oh gosh, it's the new warlord," she remarks with ambivalence.
The album's masterpiece, "Paper Planes," takes Wreckx-N-Effect's booty-call anthem "Rump Shaker" and replaces the "zoom-zoom" and "pum-pum" lyrics with gunshots and a cash register, linking everyday misogyny with the violence of globalization. In her rap, she adopts the pirate outlook of the corner boy, walking through a sonicscape where Mick Jones's tremoloed guitar lick evokes the ruins of American shock-doctrine projects from Baltimore to Baghdad. Its core sample comes from the Clash's "Straight to Hell," in which a Vietnam GI coldly dismisses an Amerasian war orphan's plea to be brought to the United States, leaving the boy exiled from both Main Street and the rice field.
If rootlessness is the defining condition of the planet of slums, then what does it mean for art to come home? Kala's answers--like all great "political" art--cannot be any more than provisional. But now, at least, no longer running to or from someone else's utopia, M.I.A. is behind the wheel, switching the lost youth of the Fourth World into the network society, her radio on.