When she debuted in 2005 with Arular, critics couldn’t get over the package: the brown doe eyes, the cover model looks, the bracingly danceable music–not to mention the lyrics about war, terror and poverty. Her name–Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, better known as the rapper M.I.A.–was everywhere. Her second album, Kala, has stirred a small backlash among critics who admit they don’t know what she is trying to say. That’s hardly her fault. Kala shows she is one of the most important musical artists of the decade.
Children–brown-skinned children from Liberia, India, Jamaica and Baltimore, the post-hip-hop nationals of what M.I.A. calls World Town–climb all over the grooves of Kala. Their noise becomes part of the record’s texture: they shriek in delight, laugh and dance; they kick rhymes; they cock guns. Not unlike the fourth season of HBO’s hit The Wire, Kala explores poverty, violence and globalization through the eyes of children left behind. M.I.A.’s London refugee crew sling sugar water, bootleg CDs and color TVs to stay ahead of Border and Immigration, send remittances back to Asia or Africa and survive another day while their parents pray they become accountants. “Why has everyone got hustle on their mind?” she asks.
On the opener, “Bamboo Banga,” a nod to Darkroom Productions’ Baltimore street anthem “Bmore Banga,” she sets up an image of a Hummer speeding across the desert with a quote from the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner”: “Roadrunner roadrunner/Going hundred miles per hour/With your radio on.” For Jonathan Richman, it was the sound of postwar innocence, Kerouac in love with the modern world and the open road. For M.I.A., it’s the sound of Green Zone excess, First World abandonment, white flight on wheels. She roll-calls the planet of slums: Somalia, Angola, Ghana, India, Sri Lanka and Burma. “Now I’m sittin’ down chillin’ on some gunpowder/Strike match, light fire,” she raps. “M.I.A. coming back with power power.” Suddenly the setting isn’t the desert; it’s your country–a Lou Dobbs nightmare, the future sheathed in dark skin come home to your streets. “I’m a roadrunner,” she sings. “I’m a world runner.”
Much has been made of Arulpragasam’s revolutionary birthright: her estranged father is a founding member of a Sri Lankan Tamil minority resistance group, the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (or EROS, a name that becomes ironic given the way Maya’s art has been seen through the frames of sex and violence). EROS was responsible for a number of bombings and kidnappings in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and had links with the PLO, from whom her father reportedly learned how to devise explosives. He later became a member of the militant Tamil Tigers, whose violent tactics in their fight for a separate Tamil state (including suicide bombings) led the State Department to declare them a terrorist organization. His name, Arul Pragasam, inspired the title of her astonishing 2005 debut.
But perhaps not enough has been made of the fallout from that revolution. Arulpragasam’s early childhood was one of perpetual motion. Soon after she was born her family moved from Hounslow, London, back to Sri Lanka, just as the island’s ethnic tensions descended into civil warfare. Her father left the household to serve the resistance; she has never lived with him. Sometimes her mother booked her to dance at parties, where she was paid in food. The music she performed to–a Bollywood disco tune called “Jimmy Aaja”–turns up on Kala, named in tribute to her mother, who secured their passage out of Sri Lanka to an Indian refugee camp. They then returned to England, where Maya’s mother sewed clothes to support her three children.
Raised in the South London council estates, England’s postwar housing projects, the revolutionary’s daughter listened with a schoolgirl’s concentration to a radio tuned to Madonna and Bananarama. One day it was stolen by estate boys. Suddenly the Public Enemy she heard playing from other apartments seemed not only crucial to survival but inviting. She has said that hip-hop–the arts movement that grew from the find-and-use, cut-and-paste pastimes of socially and politically abandoned city kids–made her feel connected to England and the wider world for the first time.
First as a visual artist, then as a rapper and musician, M.I.A. courted controversy. As a 1998 grad of hipster factory St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, M.I.A. stenciled tigers and armed militants onto her canvases, not unlike the way Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash had stenciled Rastafarian slogans onto their jumpsuits a generation before. She soon discovered the Roland MC-505 Groovebox synthesizer/drum machine and almost instantly began making tunes like “Galang,” whose sheer exuberance made it one of the most infectious songs of the ’90s. The schoolgirl chants, crashing dancehall-style percussion and Clash and Hendrix references made it easier to digest (if not ignore) messages like “They say…work is gonna save you/Pray and you’ll pull through/Suck-a-dick’ll help you.” On Arular, she adopted the squiggly minimalism of Virginia hip-hop, the screechy braking beats of East London grime, the two-clap bounce of Puerto Rican reggaeton, the blazoning bass thrusts of Brazilian baile funk and the skittery percolations of Baltimore club to back fist-pumping slogans like “Pull up the people, pull up the poor” and “I got the bombs to make you blow.” On “Sunshowers,” she shouted-out the PLO.
While her enthusiasm for emerging Third World club sounds made First World clubsters swoon with jungle fever, critics–mostly male–asked what a St. Martin’s grad was doing playing with fire in a post 9/11 world. They complained that her politics didn’t reveal enough program, as if artistry and policy were the same thing. (Is Bono a better artist for working with Jeffrey Sachs? Are Sachs’s politics better for working with Bono?) They accused her of hipster imperialism. No less a critic than Simon Reynolds, author of the seminal Rip It Up and Start Again, charged, “Arular, strictly speaking, comes 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.