M.I.A. @ Coachella
QUET DOWN FOR HER SOUND
Nowadays, Maya Arulpragasam is anything but M.I.A. In fact, some would argue that the Sri Lankan rapper/performer seems to be everywhere, having appeared on magazine covers almost a half year before her debut album Arular had even been released, performing to the Blackberry-inclined at Austin’s SXSW, taking the Coachella audience hostage from the reunion-heavy headlining fair. Much to the despair of vinyl junkies and the music trendsteratti, M.I.A. was no longer their secret and would go on to get write-ups in publications ranging from the New Yorker to Seventeen Magazine.
Major labels even delayed the album from its initial release so they could buy out Arular from the smaller label, XL/Beggars therein making it an indie/major label co-release. After a persistent import of British-flavored hip-hop promising to be the next mainstream sensation, it seemed that Arulpragasam was actually delivering the quids.
“New Yah, qwie-it duwn, I need ta’ make a sowwhn.”
The buzz was deafening. You could hear it like the trumpeting horn samples blaring throughout her defiant song “Bucky Done Gun.” M.I.A. was to play her first show in New York at downtown's Knitting Factory and the atmosphere was electric. It’s hard to imagine that the now-dismissive cynics were once the then-bananas crowd mouthing every lyric to every song that had yet to be released to the public. “I don’t understand how people know my album already,” said M.I.A. incredulously, “it isn’t even out yet.”
M.I.A.'s skin is coffee dark. Her exotic presence straddles the cusp between accessibly cute and dangerously sexy. The slight bags under her eyes suggest that she is not used to the demanding touring schedule, conducting interviews, posing for photo shoots, and taking a few moments to be an actual human being (as she inhales the plate of sushi that is set before her). M.I.A. is a 27 year-old art school graduate who never intended to make music, never mind the aforementioned buzz. Her back story is very familiar to those in-the-know -- with one Google search, you'll find out that Arulpragasam's father is a wanted Tamil Tiger terrorist/commando (whom she named the album after), that her politics are slightly and perhaps unintentionally controversial, and that she is dating the dj du jour, Diplo. There is a gold machine gun charm hanging from the chain around her neck. I ask her about her military aesthetic, her reported political involvement. She passionately responds, "politics doesn't belong to Bono. That's naft. Politics belongs to the little kid skipping along to school and his whole world changes when a bomb drops on him in the street or when his father is shot while shopping in an open market.
"It seems that people my age don't want to talk about politics," M.I.A. continues, "and when I do talk about it, it's such a bloody big deal. Should it be so abnormal for a pop artist to talk about the state of the world she lives in?"
"Qwit beatin' me like you Ringo/You wanna go? You wanna win a wahr? Like P.L.O. I don't surrendo."
Arular is perhaps one of the oddest and most original albums in recent memory. Rife with nearly indecipherable lyrics, the thirteen songs found on M.I.A.'s debut are spastic, challenging and confrontational. They are arcade game soundtracks punching holes in the air, sometimes sounding as innocent as the work of a child who had just discovered an electric keyboard, while at other times, the songs pound from the speakers like a remix collection of third-world battle chants (like the one heard on "Hombre"). Laser gunshots thrust out from the background while the beats stumble like xeroxed copies of live percussion. M.I.A. sing/raps defiantly from the corner of her boxing ring; "I'm a fighta/Nice, nice fighta/I'm a solja underworld ("Pull Up The People")." Arulpragasam sees herself as a champion for controversial causes and she's not even hesitant in embracing that role.
I ask her, we live in a post-9/11 world. Do you feel that Muslims are being oppressed in our current climate?
"No. I just think the story needs to be told from both perspectives. I think I've managed to do that. If you want people to talk and communicate, then you have to inspire the dialogue. Of course the initial reaction is to jump on a suicide bomber and say, that's so wrong. But that's not what it's about. I know it's wrong. You know it's wrong. But why do people go to these desperate measures? If someone is going that far, that they want to die to get heard, well, then it seems obvious that they're not being heard. That's it.
"Terrorism is a method. We can't fight it. Ultimately, it's about getting heard. Not everyone has the freedom of speech and the media in the West is so much more sophisticated. We have the advantage to inspire communication and we hardly use it."
M.I.A. then leans forward and reveals to me that a few years back, her cousin had killed himself as a suicide bomber. Needless to say, I am caught off guard. This is not the typical backstory you hear during an interview with a musician. "He was so clever and so sweet. Just a normal kid. It blew my mind when he did what he did. And I couldn't understand it living in London, surrounded by people who couldn't think of the world as a whole, obsessed with their own depressions. My friends would say, I don't have any opinions because it's not my place to comment. And I'm like, of course you should have an opinion. This is your world. And this apathy--their apathy--inspired my lyrics."
“Ya ya heeey, woy oy ee he hay yo.”
M.I.A. chants from the stage and the crowd joins in, waving their hands in unison. A huge grin bursts forward from her face as she realizes that her propoganda has penetrated the most difficult of audiences. With only a back-up dancer (Cherrie) and a dj behnd her (Diplo), M.I.A. commands the stage with a seasoned MC's presence. The video screens above flash images of tanks, machine guns (like the her necklace) and grenades. M.I.A. is here to present her revolution.
And while it can be argued that her message is misguided and dangerous, one thing is for certain: M.I.A. is everywhere.