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

by Robert Wheaton

6 May 2005


Ruben Fleischer, who directed “Galang”, thinks “the principle idea behind M.I.A.‘s artwork is to have pretty heavy/political ideas, but to present them in a poppy candy-coated wrapper. So someone might buy her painting because it is pretty to the eye, and not necessarily consider that it is a rebellious image that she is presenting. However, after they’ve had it for a while, they might start to think—why do I have a pink tank on my wall? … I think that [“Galang”] is a very successful video in that we have true images of revolution playing on MTV. However, because there’s lots of pretty colors and a pretty girl dancing, no one blinks an eye. Hopefully we have succeeded in subconsciously starting the revolution.”

The superficiality of M.I.A.‘s chosen media—graffiti stencil art and popular music—makes politics a risky business. Her approach is the opposite of that of radical artists like Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino, who followed Franz Fanon in calling for an art that documented resistance while breaking down the barriers between spectator and artist. They called for artistic processes—and exhibition—that involved the audience directly, making them reexamine their role and forge a new, collective, identity. M.I.A.‘s art and music, by contrast, are all spectacle. The two-dimensional stencils and the catchy hooks can only subvert the audience’s role after their immediate appeal has worn off, and they lack the breadth to contain a full alternative program. What’s more, the distance that comes from rendering real-world political conflicts in such a stylized, vibrant medium feels very much like the distance afforded by nostalgia, hero-worship, and romanticism. Graffiti—like hip-hop—is a superficial, ephemeral medium, with its own set of artistic risks.

But the realm of the image is what M.I.A. is most determined to contest: the media role models, the conformity of mainstream popular culture. “When [XL] first signed me, they sat me down and they were like, ‘You know we only sign artists that are like “fuck you.”’ I was like, ‘Hmm. What part of “fuck you” don’t you get about me? Me being on MTV is way more “fuck you” than me not being on MTV.’ Because of where I come from. I haven’t seen anyone like me on there before. And that’s what would be really fun to do.”

The narrow range of images presented by “the commercial media” appalls her. “There’s only so much controlled generic brainwashing you can do. And the thing is it would be fine if the audience weren’t reduced to being so dumb. I feel like they constantly think that we’re just stupid and that all we can handle is more songs about champagne and Bentleys ... We don’t all have access to millions of pounds and Bentleys and £50,000 diamond necklaces. Where do those people go to be content with how they live, if constantly we’re being fed images of ‘this is what you need to aspire to be; this is what you need to aspire to be?’”

There’s a common thread that runs from her concern with racism to the assumptions made about audiences. It’s prejudice, the ugly side of London’s cosmopolitan mosaic, and the DNA of Sri Lanka’s remorseless conflict. “What I want to say is, just be careful how you judge people, because you never know. And I’m a living proof of that. Every step of the way, people thought I was shittier than I actually was, or people thought I was worse than I was, or people thought I exist as something bad on the planet. Politics shaped that in the beginning for me. But right now it’s just a messy situation. All I want to do is exist as a voice for the other people that you don’t get to hear from. That’s all.”

Note to readers: This article was republished in Da Capo’s Best of Music Writing: 2006


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