Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Hold that Tiger- M.I.A. as musical terrorist

Much has already been made over up-and-coming dancehall singer M.I.A. even before she's had anything more than a single officially released. The mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism has already become an underground legend and her debut album Arular leaked out enough so that people were able to chant along with her new songs during recent gigs.

All of this would be noteworthy alone for coverage of the newest hot young star but there's more to the title of her mixtape than many fans think- most fans know about her connections to Elastica and Peaches but not about her family per se. Maya Arulpragasam originally hails from Sri Lanka, where her father was a member of the rebel group Tamil Tigers, fighting the government there and infamous for recruiting children for their cause. When the rest of her family fled to London, Maya didn't disavow her background, instead using it to fuel her own art. Though schoolmates would ridicule her strange tongue, Maya was smart enough to exploit her uniqueness to land a place in art school and eventually the music industry.

By now, most people know her bouncy single from last year "Galang" but so far, there's little talk of her political side. That's probably because her album isn't out yet but expect that to change once it's released. In a Club LK interview, she makes no bones about her politics, attacking American foreign policy, giving a shout-out to the PLO and defending the Tigers' actions.

The Sri Lanka conflict is still pretty obscure here in the West but I don't doubt that when her album comes out, various wing nuts will brand her some kind of terrorist and demand a boycott. Of course, such a thing may just boost her sales since it'll paint her as being "dangerous" and give her extra hip cache. As far as she's concerned, I'm sure she'll be gratified that she's helping to get some attention for the Tigers and I don't doubt that she's sincere in her support of them and other similar groups.

What will be most fascinating will be to see if the deafening buzz that's surrounded her single and mixtape will lead to bigger commercial success even with her edgy political views. It didn't hurt Rage Against the Machine or Billy Bragg or (probably) Steve Earle but the rock, folk and country fields aren't the same as the dance realm. Hip-hop and reggae have had long histories of politicos so it's not much of a stretch to find social commentary there but M.I.A. isn't wholy in those worlds. Larger publications will undoubtedly feel compelled to chronicle her and even if they don't do their homework about her background, she'll no doubt bring it up: in an interview with the Independent last year, she likened mixtapes to guerilla action, which I'm sure warms the hearts of the RIAA. Even with the hype, she's still a cult figure at the moment and it will be interesting to see if she can get past that level despite of or thanks in part to her politics.

I have to say that I'm not entirely comfortable with what I've read about the Tigers' tactics so far (see this BBC report), no matter how admirable their cause might be. If you want to see their side of the story, the Tigers themselves have their own website. To be honest, I'm up in the air as to how I feel about M.I.A.'s art in relation to this though I like to think I can sometimes separate politics from music (i.e. Richard Wagner, Guns N' Roses). I hope to give her album a fair hearing in more ways than one.


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