London Calling -- For Congo, Columbo, Sri Lanka....

by Robert Wheaton

6 May 2005


M.I.A.‘s stance, inevitably, is more complicated—and conflicted—than critics suggest, not least because of family involvement. Her father’s group, EROS, reached a working arrangement with the LTTE as the other groups were being eliminated. When Arular returned to Sri Lanka in 1976, he was apparently in close contact with Prabhakaran; according to some sources, EROS established a training camp at a farm in Kannady which was used by the LTTE. Arular and Prabhakaran are reported to have shared bomb-making knowledge, equipment, and chemicals. According to M.R. Narayan Swamy, “Arular was never in LTTE. Yes, he was with EROS in the early stages, but he left it but kept in touch with most of the actors in the militancy scene.” Arular’s official biography—which is to say, the one that appears on the jackets of his books—insists that he now writes history, and has mediated between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. In any event, relations between M.I.A. and her father, whom she has referred to as “insane”, are not close. She has not seen him since 1995. Arular is titled in an apparent attempt to bait him, citing her mother’s complaint that “the only thing he ever gave you was your name”. She has doggedly refused his request to change it.

What’s more, if tiger imagery does predominate M.I.A.‘s vision of the world, it’s not necessarily advocacy. The overdominant LTTE imagery—if indeed it is that—does accurately reflect the totalitarian hegemony that the LTTE and Prabhakaran exercise over the northern part of the island, and Tamil nationalism as a whole. The tiger, as a symbol, has been associated with Tamil nationalism for centuries; her use of it does not necessarily signal support for LTTE, though the gesture may be somewhat naive.

But it’s an issue that goes to the heart of her identity as an artist. She sees herself not as a individual, but a spokesperson. “In the beginning they told me [in England] that being an artist was about being an individual and reflecting society. And in Sri Lanka I was brought up with a different value system, which was that you talk for other people, and it’s always ‘we’. It’s never ‘me’. You never think selfishly. Nobody cares, nobody wants to hear what your particular opinion is. It’s the opinions of thousands that count.” Hence the urgency: “It’s too soon for me to get censored before people know what I’m talking about. There’s so much confusion about what I stand for and what I’m saying that that’s the whole point: there have to be discussions; there has to be people talking, and there has to be young people talking about politics if they want. They have to have a chance to hear different opinions. And that’s really what it’s about.”

There’s a personal edge to this, of course: Maya was personally caught up in Sri Lanka’s violence, and she’s aware of the impetus that experience gave her. But the instinct is deeply intertwined with an instinct to represent others. “I feel the reason why I’m really like outspoken and stuff is because all of these things were inflicted upon me, and I never went and caused any trouble, you know? I just feel like I was kind of skipping along in some country and somebody decides to drop a bomb and shake up my life and then it’s all been survival from then on. And that’s the reality for thousands—and millions—of people today. Why should I get censored for talking about a life that half the time I didn’t choose to live?”

Given the extent to which her viewpoint is grounded in personal experience, what is impressive about the maturity of her songwriting is her ability to write convincingly in the third person. “Sunshowers”, for instance, outlines—with some economy—the fate of a victim of racial profiling who is not a clear stand-in for either herself or her father.

There’s a sense, too, that western critics (such as they are) are simply missing the point when they object to the sense of indiscriminate violence in her music. Violence is not often represented in Western popular music; where it is it tends to be—as in gangsta rap, say, or death metal—ritualized at source and translated into a marketable commodity. Violence in the western popular imagination is abstract, organized, refined. In much of the developing world, Sri Lanka in particular, the experience of the last few decades has been one of arbitrary, unannounced, and spectacular slaughter. M.I.A.‘s music and politics might sound like an assault without coherence or strategy; that doesn’t necessarily mean they lack realism.

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