Music

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

Robert Wheaton

M.I.A. speaks about the cultural politics of immigration, her role as an artist, and the global sound of London.

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."

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