They came by the hundreds, packing the Commodore, Vancouver’s big-band-era ballroom, with leopard-print leggings and neon arm bands to see the socially conscious rapper, M.I.A. Known for her political lyrics, her eclectic personal style and her culture-mashing sound – a raw fusion of dancehall reggae, favela funk and electro – M.I.A. has recently taken up the role of brash envoy for the Third World.
Born Mathangi (“Maya”) Arulpragasam, the nomadic, Brooklyn-based rapper grew up in a northern Sri Lankan village; her family was part of the country’s Tamil minority. At age nine, with her mother and two siblings, Maya fled the increasingly violent ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the ruling Sinhalese majority. (Her father, a founder of a radical student group that merged with the militant LTTE, stayed behind.) Landing as refugees in the U.K., they ended up at Phipps Bridge Estate, a bleak, south London housing project. There, Maya learned to speak English and acquired a taste for reggae and hip-hop. After art school at Central St. Martins College of Art & Design, she began making music of her own, experimenting with a beat machine.
At the Commodore in November, the tiny art-school grad kept her fans waiting until 11:00 p.m. before taking the stage in sunglasses, white short shorts and a blinding gold hoodie. Without a pause, she launched into the Bollywood-sampling “Bamboo Banga” – the title track to Kala, one of the year’s most talked-about albums – bragging that she was “coming back with power! Power!!”
Kala, recorded in India, Trinidad, Australia, Jamaica, Japan and the U.S. has sold modestly, like her 2005 debut, Arular (named after her father, while Kala takes her mother’s name). While her first album drew on her experience of living in a war zone, M.I.A.’s sophomore release recounts the struggle of displaced people, tackling issues of identity, upheaval and poverty. “We do it cheap, hide our money in a heap/ Send it home and make ‘em study,” she chants in a whisper in “Hussel.”
“When I was making the record, I really felt frustrated that there was a thousand songs about one-night stands, shaking your dick,” she recently told film-maker Spike Jonze. Meanwhile, “there’s a whole section of the planet that hasn’t been digested.” She’s trying to create a bridge, she says, between the developed and developing worlds.
“She’s not talking about Gucci and Prada and make-up,” says Kash Suri, a 23-year-old concert-goer of Indian descent. “She talks about hopping borders; the boats and planes my parents took to get here; the struggle they face. She’s explaining their fight.”
Music critics have gone gaga for M.I.A. and her dance-heavy beats, but MTV, which routinely airs misogynist rap and videos of writhing, half-dressed pop stars, has balked. Last month the network, which banned her hit single, “Sunshowers,” until she removed a reference to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (“Like P-L-O, I don’t surrend-o!”), released a censored version of the video for “Paper Planes” – which M.I.A. neither saw nor approved before its airing. Her performance on the Late Show with David Letterman, last fall, was similarly cleaned up, the song’s gunfire refrain replaced with ambiguous popping sounds, leaving M.I.A., who briefly stopped singing, visibly shaken.
Sure, her lyrics, delivered in a slang-rich, Cockney accent are littered with a few glib lines. (In “Jimmy,” a love song, she inexplicably rhymes off “genocide tour” with “Darfur.”) Still, buried within, there’s a fiercely independent message rarely heard in music’s mainstream.
Plus, she’s got the medium nailed. In Vancouver, her super-sized, gold peace chain swung manically around her neck as she bounced across the stage, slowing, just once, to pull wide-eyed female fans on-stage for an impromptu, girls-only dance party to “Bird Flu,” a song spiked with dhol drums, children’s shouts and chickens’ caws. Her shades stayed on.
This article appeared in the Indigenous Lands and Rights issue of Canadian Dimension .