London Calling—For Congo, Columbo, Sri Lanka….

[6 May 2005]

By Robert Wheaton

Senior Producer

In 1976, Cory Daye recorded a song called “Sunshower” with Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. She was 24. The band were well outside a recording deadline from RCA; when the album was eventually released, the label failed to notify the band.

“Sunshower” has been sampled for almost 20 years now; there’s a snatch of its warped Hawaiian guitars and splintered percussion towards the end of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”, but like attempts by De La Soul and Doug E. Fresh, it’s just dressing. The appropriations always seem piecemeal and placeless: Busta Rhymes’ “Take It Off” is slick, but not convincing. Ghostface Killah’s “Ghost Showers” attempts to wholly inhabit the song; it swallows him whole. There’s simply too much in the original: swooping Hawaiian guitars, child-like chants, ambient noise, guitar barely recognizable in a flood of in reverb. The percussion is so richly syncopated, so densely layered, that it leaves Daye’s vocal somehow isolated, exposed, as if shimmering in a cloud of dust. The melody itself sounds free and ungrounded, and takes on an almost atonal quality. The groove is woodlike, organic, pulmonary. Nobody has done anything as remotely convincing, assured, or unique with the same materials. Until M.I.A.‘s “Sunshowers”.

The difference between the original and M.I.A.‘s second single, produced last year by Steve Mackey and Ross Orton, is more than one of genre or period; it is a difference in aesthetics, a difference in the place given to popular culture. The original material itself is gutted. The slightly adrenaline bliss of Davy’s chorus sounds highly phased, over-exposed, washed-out at the edges. A percussive bass glissandi, which in the original gracefully eases the song into a final elaboration of the chorus, is ripped out and looped throughout the piece. The groove is a relentless throb that hammers its way throughout the entire song, rattling and lurching between violence and grace. “Sunshowers” erases the spirit of the original as it goes along.

Where Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band brought a wispy lyricism to disco, a feeling of dreamy nostalgia wrapped in their elaborate big band arrangements, M.I.A.‘s use of the song is—like the rest of her material—a blend of hard unsentimentally and poplike glee. It’s a striking contrast: strident political stances sit alongside made-for-ringtone hooks. There’s no middle ground on Arular, her debut album. Even the wordplay is taken to a level of abstraction, with playground chants in place of intimacy and wit. There is very little that deals with the minutiae of personal relationships; even “URAQT”, a song about betrayal, revolves more around the exchange of postures than of emotions. Relationships are almost transactions. There is no trust in this music.

It’s a stance that echoes the details of her life: M.I.A. witnessed at first hand the violence of Sri Lanka’s civil war, followed by an abrupt relocation to a neglected council estate on the outskirts of London.

London shapes much of her music. The touch of gleeful—almost naive—joy in her sound recalls early British experiments with hip-hop. It is the sound of the Wild Bunch, of Fresh Four’s “Wishing on a Star”, of Carlton’s forgotten The Call Is Strong, where the sing-song lilt of Lovers Rock met the swallowed aggression of dub, where the structure and confidence of American hip-hop met the residual brashness of punk and ska. Though those influences have been replaced in the contemporary sound of London by dancehall, crunk, grime, and American R&B, the aesthetic is the same—and one unique to London. “The thing that I’m a part of,” M.I.A. agrees, “is that I listen to everything. And so do the grime kids. There are grime tunes where Lethal B could rap over a Kylie Minogue backing, because he knows it—he hears it: he’s on a bus, he’s in a cab, he’s in a Chinese takeaway.”

The vocal cadence that is a part of her singing voice—the rise in intonation at the end of almost every line—is now near-ubiquitous among Londoners of a certain age. It is not, curiously, part of her speaking voice, which is a fairly cool and unremarkable London accent. “Everybody has access to all kinds of genres of music every day when you wake up. So why not reflect that? It’s way more realistic than me saying ‘I only hear dancehall when I walk down the street. I only hear dancehall for eight years of my life walking around in this city.’ That’s wrong. Because that’s not the case. Every day I wake up in this city, the cosmopolitan Westernized fast first-world amazing foreign land that’s got amazing technology, amazing information access, speedway, highway—let’s not kid ourselves: we do hear everything at once, so whether it’s through television, on the radio, on people’s CDs, people’s cars going past you—so why not reflect that in what you do?”

While race relations over the last two decades in London have hardly been exemplary—something M.I.A. knows about at first hand—the capital’s density and diversity have made possible a mixture of cultures that sets it apart from most other Western cities. Even so, M.I.A. sees this process as increasingly under threat. “I knew someone like me could never come out of America, and I knew that I couldn’t come out of Sri Lanka either. It was really important to be in Britain to come out the way I did. But at the same time, I just think it’s really, really sad that I’m the only person here, when there could be a damn lot more. There could be more people making a crossbreed sound and referencing each other’s communities. But there isn’t. The Asians do stick to the Asians. The Somalians stick to the Somalians. The Palestinians stick to the Palestianians. The Moroccans stick to the Moroccans. The white kids stick to the white kids. The black kids stick to the black kids. And that’s only a new thing that’s happening.”

Since the late ‘90s, concerns have been voiced that “economic migrants” are using the UK’s asylum system as a backdoor. This argument has increasingly come to drive British political debate (not to mention newspaper sales), intensifying around election cycles despite a fall in the number of people seeking asylum. Since 2001, the debate has taken on an additional overtone of paranoia and “racial profiling” amid fears about international terrorism. Local community workers admit to noticing a correlation between incidents of racial harassment and the intensity of the national debate. Steve Griffin, Deputy Director of Groundwork Merton, a local regeneration agency covering the area in which M.I.A. grew up, notes that, “You get Islamophobia going. There’s been more attacks on Asians and more problems for Asians since 9/11 in this country.”

M.I.A. is outraged by this situation—and the smothering effect it is having on cultural interaction in London. “I’ve followed British culture, the underground culture, and musically I feel like I’ve been a part of different movements that have happened. But for the first time, everything is kinda just quiet, you know? Back when I was sort of walking around there seemed to be more of an identity amongst young people, and there was just stuff happening, and it was real sort of energetic and colorful. And then, it seems like everybody’s bogged down by all this immigration stuff, and newspapers are like ‘Immigrants go back home!’, and for the first time they can say it on the front page without it being politically incorrect. And then with all this terrorism stuff where they’re like ‘Muslim kids are bad’. There’s some weird atmosphere going on. Girls have started wearing yashmacs, and there’s divides amongst communities and stuff. And that’s when I decided to go, ‘Look: the only thing that Britain always ever goes on about, and is proud of going on about, is that it’s a cosmopolitan city, and it’s multicultural.’ So unless everybody starts waking up in England and starts shouting about it, and saying that’s a really great thing, you’re not even doing what you said you’re good at doing in the first place.”

Maya Arulpragasam was born in London in 1976. Her father moved to London in 1971 after graduating in Moscow with a master’s degree in engineering. His name is sometimes rendered A.R. Arudpragasam, sometimes Arul Pragasam; his nom de guerre is Arular. In January 1975, he was instrumental in founding the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) in Wandsworth. In June of that year, EROS staged demonstrations at the inaugural cricket World Cup, prompting clashes between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese supporters, and bringing the conflict in Sri Lanka to international attention for the first time. In March 1976 he was one of three EROS members selected to train for six months in Lebanon with Palestinian militants associated with the Fatah wing of the PLO. He left after three months of training, returning to Sri Lanka with his family. Maya was six months old.

By 1976, Sri Lanka was well on its way to the internecine ethnic violence that would erupt in full a few years later. Following the withdrawal of the British in 1948, and the electoral triumph of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in 1956, the island’s Tamil minority was gradually coerced into a position of second-class status; economic discrimination went hand-in-hand with a gradual displacement of Tamils from the education and administrative institutions. A handful of bloody incidents—on both sides—eventually tipped the balance in favor of militancy: land grabs, armed attacks, mob violence, and the destruction of symbolic and cultural treasures, sometimes with official connivance. By the early 1980s, more than thirty Tamil militant groups had emerged, of which EROS was one.

In Sri Lanka, Maya and her siblings rarely saw their father. He was introduced to them as an uncle. They temporarily relocated to the outskirts of Chennai (then Madras), where they lived in a derelict house. Her sister contracted typhoid. They returned to Sri Lanka, and remained constantly on the move. She remembers a childhood “inundated with violence”: the convent at which she attended school was destroyed during one of the government’s aerial bombing campaigns. She watched as some of her friends died. Family members were incarcerated.

In 1986, they fled. Her father remained in Sri Lanka; the rest of the family made it to London. Maya was 11.

They were allocated an apartment in Phipps Bridge Housing Estate, a development in the borough of Merton, which sits the middle of the vast band of conurban sprawl that constitutes outer London. At the time Phipps Bridge consisted of five high-rise tower blocks and ten low-rise buildings. Of the 4,000 residents, about 65 percent were on income support. It was built in 1976, when institutional inertia and hamstrung development budgets continued to license the building of high-rise estates, despite mounting evidence that they anchored social deprivation and institutional neglect.

By the mid-1980s, life on Phipps Bridge was an experience in misery. Sue Johns, a local resident, wrote in a poem of “the piss-filled lift” and “the shells of wrecked cars”, of “Fifties design faults holding on / By the skin of their teeth in the eighties”. She pictured residents waiting for a long-promised redevelopment “Behind Chubb locks and net curtains”. Television cop shows used the estate to film scenes depicting the most run-down, graffiti-stained dead-end estates in the country. It was hardly the perfect environment for an refugee family; Donna Neblett, a longtime resident and now a manager in the community center, remembers: “Police would not come onto the estate; they’d never come by themselves. They’d always be in cars, they’d never get out and walk. It was a very notorious estate. Everything: drug dealers, needles on the floor. Worse things than you can imagine was Phipps Bridge twenty years ago.” Maya was placed in special needs education to improve her English. Her mother worked from home as a seamstress. Maya remembers watching as their home was burgled. When her radio was stolen by crack-addicted neighbors, Maya listened to hip-hop from the teenage boy who lived next door.

Maya’s family was one of only two Asian families on Phipps Bridge in 1986. The mid-1980s were hardly a golden period in British race relations. Steve Shanley, until recently a housing officer for the estate, insists that despite Phipps Bridge’s reputation as a “a fairly tough estate”, there were not “any racial tensions or any great problems.” The local council records a relatively low number of reported racist incidents. By contrast, Donna Neblett remembers an estate rife with racist sentiment “There were people [living on the estate] that were the leaders of the National Front, so this is where they had their offices and their meetings, in the houses on the estate.” The statistics may reflect the tiny proportion of black and ethnic minority residents at the time. “People knew not to come on Phipps if you were from the [black and ethnic minority] community”.

Racial tensions—conditions in general—have eased considerably on Phipps Bridge over the last few years. But the obvious question is how an Asian family might have been placed—in near-isolation—in such an environment in the fist place. Local authorities are adamant that they are not in the business of social engineering. According to Steve Shanley, individual requests for location tend to be accommodated, but “one thing that councils make sure of is that they don’t proactively put people together. It wouldn’t be seen as ‘equal opportunities’ to find out people’s nationalities and think, ‘Right, well we’ll put them there.’”

One resident guardedly confided a suspicion that “I think basically what they tend to do—in my experience—is that’s where they’ll put [black and ethnic minority residents] anyway. It’s normally run-down, notorious, them sort of estates. That’s how it used to be. I’m not going to say it’s like that now, but I know back then it was. And that’s when you… That’s all I’m going to say on that.”

Maya used the aesthetic template of hip-hop to pull together her range of influences and interests—at first in the field of visual art. She graduated from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, and a book of her graffiti-influenced artwork was published by independent label Pocko. It caught the eye of Nick Hackworth, who in 2002 established the Alternative Turner Prize to critique the narrow criteria of Britain’s leading art prize. Maya was among the six artists shortlisted. Hackworth—Arts Editor of Dazed and Confused—was immediately impressed by “the combination of the political content from her Sri Lankan background through the Tamil Tigers, with the kind of street aesthetic.” He remembers a boldness of vision that fused well with the improvisational nature of her technique: “She was just spray painting on bits of board, so it was pretty DIY kind of stuff with the actual media, tying in with the spraycan-type aesthetic. So it’s kind of rough, ready, and graphically quite powerful, because she doesn’t use too many elements; she repeats some of the elements; she keeps it visually quite clean, she doesn’t overload the images ... It’s about graphic boldness. That was the best thing about it.” The work attracted the attention of Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who commissioned an album cover and a tour documentary. It was on tour that she met electro-revivalist Peaches, who first showed her around a Roland 505.

Her visual style is on display on the video for “Galang”, her first single. The video was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who notes that “using her artwork as a way to define her and inform people is very important. I mean how many other beautiful singers are performing in front of tanks, burning palm trees, bombs, Molotov cocktails, and helicopters? All of the stencils we made were completely based on her aesthetic, and were meant to be an extension of her. Many of them she either helped us make or made herself.”

The video’s imagery—alongside the lyrical content of “Sunshowers”—has attracted some criticism of her political stance. There are the brightly-colored burning trees, bombs, tanks, Molotov cocktails, London housing estates, and cell phones—and the video is punctuated by images of a racing tiger, a motif that recurs in her concert visuals and designs. A portrait of a Tamil militant leader appears at one moment.

For some critics, this is simply revolutionary chic: an attempt to commercialize the color and exoticism of distant struggles while safely draining it of any real-world political context. Nick Hackworth is aware of that tendency. “I think it was that unusual combination which I hadn’t really seen before in too much stuff. And also—I suppose it sounds potentially pejorative—it was slightly exotic, seeing something that dealt with non-English or non-European political problems in that kind of way, visually.” There are long-standing European traditions of seeing the “orient” as repository of color, creativity, and vibrancy—as a nest of cultures alien enough not to have to be inspected for political markers. Other critics are more troubled, arguing from her father’s biography and a handful of details (for instance, for a brief period after the December 26 tsunami, her website carried links to an aid organization closely associated with Tamil militants) that she is a closet supporter of terrorism—in particular, of the Tamil Tigers.

From the early-1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) quickly became the dominant body in Tamil militancy, and Tamil nationalism in general, not least because of the viciousness with which they dispatched rival groups. In April 1986, for example, hundreds of members of rivals TELO (the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation) were killed in a sequence of attacks, despite their being armed, trained, and supported by the Indian government. From 1987 the “Black Tigers” developed suicide bombing as a tactic, their victims including former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandi. UNICEF and Amnsety International have censured them for the forced conscription of child soldiers, including 40 since the December 26 tsunami. They have been accused of murdering civilians in border areas to induce population displacement. The Sri Lankan government, meanwhile, has continued a series of depredations, including extensive—and sometimes apparently indiscriminate—aerial bombing campaigns. Over 65,000 people have died; at one point up to 30 percent of the Tamil population was estimated to have fled the island, with over a million people—from all ethnic groups—temporarily or permanently displaced. A 1991 report estimated that perhaps ten percent of the population had been displaced. Sri Lanka is one of the most heavily landmined countries in the world.

This is a far cry from the revolutionary panache suggested by M.I.A.‘s work. Some of the associative imagery of “Galang” and “Sunshowers” implies a connection to the Palestinian Intifada, the Zapatistas, the Black Panthers, and the anti-Apartheid movement. Some see these as a valid comparisons; Dr. Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam notes, “The LTTE also fights against linguistic, ethnic and class/caste discrimination and oppression. The methods might be open to question, the aim is certainly not.” M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of Inside an Elusive Mind, the first biography of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, disagrees, citing the LTTE’s murderous reputation. “This does not mean that LTTE has no support; on the contrary it does. It controls vast areas in Sri Lanka’s north and rules a de facto Tamil Eelam. But it will be very difficult to say how much of the support it enjoys comes out of genuine respect or genuine fear. The support is real, and so is the fear.”

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.

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

.

RJ Wheaton's book on Portishead's Dummy is out now.

You should follow @rjwheaton on Twitter.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/mia-050506/