From the Congo to Colombo – M.I.A. Redux

Kanye West thinks she’s a genius. Madonna invited her to collaborate on a song and a Super Bowl performance; a performance that is infamous more for a middle finger than anything else. She has Mercury Prize and Oscar nominations, won Grammies and sold millions of units and no, she is not Adele.

She is the Sri Lankan born British rapper M.I.A – pop music’s enfant terrible taking militant stands on issues like terrorism and genocide while serving up some of the most memorable dance floor bangers in the last decade. She launched herself on ‘Paper Planes’ and right up to her latest single “Borders’, she has been giving the middle finger to everyone who thinks that pop and politics should be mutually exclusive.

‘From the Congo to Colombo……’

She is no ordinary Sri Lankan girl being the daughter of one the LTTE’s most high profile sympathizers and has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Sri Lankan Army, especially the operations under Mahindra Rajapaksa, which she calls “systematic genocide, ethnic cleansing … it’s just out and out Nazi Germany”.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Semi-9 and snipered him/On that wall they posted him/They cornered him/And then just murdered him[/pullquote]Her father’s troubles made her family political refugees in the U.K and she has worn that refugee tag on her sleeve ever since. She shares an uneasy relationship with her father but his some of politics must have rubbed off because themes like war, oppression, dispossession and armed struggle dominate her music. She is certainly not the first to rap about these issues but we think that her stand has been more militant than most. Even her hit songs are peppered with lines like ‘Semi-9 and snipered him/On that wall they posted him/They cornered him/And then just murdered him’ (Sunshowers, Arular, 2005).

‘No one in the corner has swagger like us….’

Growing up in the U.K she was exposed to electronic and dance music but she owes her greatest debt to hip hop and that proud tradition of British muck raking represented by the Sex Pistols, the Clash and by present day artists like The Muse and P.J Harvey. In fact, her biggest hit to date – ‘Paper Planes’ – contains a sample of The Clash’s ‘Straight to Hell’. Many will argue that there would be no M.I.A without the Asian Underground and it would be true. But there is a crucial point from which the two diverged and never really engaged with each other again. M.I.A owes hip hop more than the Asian Underground ever did and in turn she, along with artists like Sarkodie, has helped add an international dimension to what is essentially an American art form. The Asian Underground, on the other hand, forsook hip hop in their pursuit of drum and bass utopia.

Essential Listening: Paper Planes, Sunshowers, Bucky Done Gun, Come Around, Bamboo Banga, Born Free, Bad Girls, Matangi, Borders

It has to be said, though, that M.I.A is not the most natural rapper or musician around but she has managed to overcome her limitations with the combination of an astute sense of beat and rhyme, her lyrical invention and her wide sphere of musical and cultural references. For a limited musician, she has successfully carried off a number of styles – from the straightforward dance floor premise of ‘Galang’ to the stylistic minimalism of ‘Sunshowers’ and from the left field samplings of ‘Paper Planes’ to the classic hip hop bling of ‘Come Around’. And bang into the middle of all this, she raps hers odes to Insurrection ‘You wanna go? /You wanna win a war? /Like P.L.O, I don’t surrender’, Illegal immigration ‘….I got visas in my name/If you come around here, I make ’em all day/I get one down in a second if you wait’, Third World ‘banga’ brotherhood ‘Somalia, Angola, Ghana, (hey!)/India, Sri Lanka, Burma, bamboo banga (hey)’ and good ol’ Retribution ‘Ain’t Dalai Lama, Ain’t Sai Baba/My words are my armour and you’re about to meet your karma’

 ‘Load, Aim and Fire, pop……”

As mentioned M.I.A wears her politics on her sleeves; a politics that is part anarcho punk, part (post No Logo) anti capitalism, part Third World Fraternalism and part Riot Grrl. Needless to say, a lot of people have found her views unpalatable and she’s been called everything from a ‘cheerleader for terrorists’ who is ‘spreading blatant terrorist propaganda” to ‘a naïve, unintelligent, hypocritical manipulator using radical politics for personal gain’. [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]M.I.A proudly stands in the company of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and dare I say, Bob Dylan[/pullquote]

This is the classic right of centre argument that has been used to discredit artists who dare to sing about more than ‘achy breaky hearts’ and in that sense M.I.A proudly stands in the company of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and dare I say, Bob Dylan- all artists who have had their work and politics viewed through a narrow and reactionary prism. For her part, M.I.A has continued to engage with social issues and if after the backlash she received for ‘Born Free’ she still has the gumption to release ‘Borders’ then ‘hypocritical’ she is not.

Of course, there is a brattish side to her that is revealed once in a while, like in the Lynn Hirschberg episode. After an uncomplimentary article by the said journalist (yes, it was a bit of a hatchet job), MIA exposed her to abuse by leaking the journalist’s personal phone number to her fans. Thankfully not much abuse ensued but M.I.A has fallen down such pitfalls of celebrity.

Rather more enjoyable are her put downs and she does like a good put down with Lady Gaga being a favourite , “She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza music,” and on being asked about the importance of visuals to music, “Very. But it’s not like ‘Haus of Gaga’. Me blindfolded with naked men feeding me apples and shit.” When asked about the violence depicted in her Born Free video she said, “If I’m honest, I find the new Justin Bieber video more violent and more of an assault to my eyes and senses than what I’ve made” and finally this one, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to become a suicide bomber and fly into Chase Tower. That’d be aiming low. It’d be the Federal Reserve bank”.

MIA has sold over a million copies of her albums and god knows how many more downloads and in contrast to Bollywood actresses attempting crossovers, hers is really the story of a girl from south Asia making it big in the west. The fact that she made it by rapping about issues that most pop stars wouldn’t touch with a barge pole is all the more remarkable.



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K Mark Swer Written by:

K Mark Swer is a filmmaker, writer and a radio artist. He is a resident rock critic for raiot. He is Executive Producer of BigFM, Shillong

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