M.I.A. was very nearly that: missing in action from her first real US gig supporting the much-anticipated Arular. Of course there was the SXSW Festival three days prior, but there she was just another name on a stacked roster of amusements. Her headlining slot at Philadelphia’s glorious Ukrainian American Citizens Association: now this was the Big Time. To miss it would be tragedy.
But would it happen? The same day that M.I.A. was non-violently galang-a-langing down in Austin, it was reported that her visa had been held up indefinitely by the American immigration office. As I stood at the end of the line snaking down North Franklin Street, the looming possibility of missing out on the next great hype sent the whole cabal of Philly hipsters into fits.
Of course, we were safe. R5 Productions, the event organizer, having been hit up with demands for refunds had sent out a patient reply assuring everyone that the show would still go on. Thank god, Philly’s cred would remain unscathed.
I was 15 minutes late, but of course the Main Event couldn’t get underway with all these people on the street. What really disturbed me was the line in the confirmation email preceding the stern reinforcement of the 9 p.m. start time: “We’ll be letting a small amount of people in w/o tickets.” Creeping Jesus! I paid $12 apiece for two, and was left with one I couldn’t even use. How was I supposed to scalp it when undercutting the vendor was an impossibility? After I unsuccessfully solicited nearly everyone in line, including the bouncers at the door, I had to let the damn thing go to waste.
For consolation, I hit the bar. The U.A.C.A. is a pretty unlikely place to see a show, let alone one with a gorgeous Sri-Lankan spitfire as its star. The wooden picnic benches and strings of lights give the subterranean meeting place the appearance of a ski lodge.
There’s no telling what crude acts of debauchery those Ukrainians engage in when congregating here, but chances are it’s with bottles of the native brew Obolon in hand. I washed down my disgust for R5’s cruel ticket monopoly and plunged into the crowd, which was slowly thickening in front of the stage.
This was like no rock show I’d ever attended. Instead of standing around with sullen looks, glaring at people who talked too loud, everyone was dancing. It was hard not to. Hollertronix DJs Diplo and Low Budget took turns spinning great hip-hop, underground and lesser known stuff. I’m the dork who’s always running up to the DJ shouting “What is this?” over the din of the set, but here I was too caught up to bother, dancing alone, surrounded by total strangers.
The segue into “Big Pimpin” was the giveaway. Sure enough, minutes later M.I.A. hit the stage to deliver a blistering rendition of “Bingo”. I prefer the pulsating electro beat on Arular, but this sample-backed version from the Piracy Funds Terrorism mix still got everyone to raise their hands and salute with a forest of green Obolon bottles.
M.I.A. probably would have gotten the same response if she’d busted out the 1-800-SAFE-AUTO song. The rapper exudes an undeniable magnetism. No one could stop staring at her. The Indian kids next to me kept screaming, “Beautiful!” And unlike most female rappers, she doesn’t have to behave like a stripper or expose a lot of flesh to receive attention. M.I.A. was clad in matching, glossy, light blue Capri pants and jacket. Underneath was one of those baggy t-shirts with a slogan, like the one you see her wearing in pretty much every press photo in circulation. On her feet were white Nike sneakers.
The most captivating feature, though, was the way the rapper moved; every part of her body was completely in tune with the music, responding unfailingly on cue as she hopped around the stage. She was entrancing.
That presence is her greatest strength because, really, M.I.A. is not a superb rapper. Don’t get me wrong, she fires off some great lines (my favorite: “Is your daddy dealer, ‘cause you’re dope to me!”), but her delivery is more dancehall ragga than pure rap. But it doesn’t matter; her music is a perfect combination of Diplo beats backing a ridiculously charismatic MC, and for forty-five minutes M.I.A. rocked the mic and the room. The way she mixes serious with silly (see above) keeps the whole expand-your-world-view message from becoming overly preachy. You just dance, sweat, and feel.
At the end of her set, M.I.A. did give in to a little selfishness, urging everyone to buy her album so she won’t have to stay poor. I doubt she’ll have a problem there. Even if MTV won’t play her “Sunshowers” video because she refuses to edit out the line, “Like P.L.O., we don’t surrendo,” it’s going to be hard for word-of-mouth to be contained. Case in point.