The Trajectory of M.I.A.

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M.I.A. came out of nowhere with her Clash samplings and bleached bangs. It was like I had gone to sleep one night and woken up in a new world where she was playing in the school hallways off of Razor cell phones and classmates were catching me up to ask if I had heard of this ‘hardcore Indian chick.’ It didn’t matter to anyone that she was Sri Lankan, something she references often in her songs, just that she was brown and blowing their minds.

Since her emergence into our collective conscience with ‘Paper Planes’ M.I.A. has created a sort of church around herself, counting in rap moguls like Kanye West and Jay Z as her disciples. Her aesthetic was so strong and so strongly forwarded through her intermix of art and music that she was a completely unique entity in mainstream music. Her politics were obvious, she cursed out the New York Times and frowned in the background of Madonna music videos; she was a self-contained artistic movement. As Kanye said, she’s from the future and we’re just living in her past.

Besides the fact that she only had one hit in 2008, M.I.A. remains locked into our understanding of South Asia and the world. There is so much I and other diaspora brown folk interpret through her — when she flipped off the Superbowl audience in 2012, I justified it pretty quickly to myself and everyone around me: she was flipping off the establishment, corporations, the people that wanted to dilute her sound, us, you, me, the world, everything. I invested so much of my own aspirations for South Asian representation and domination in her, but with a consistent downward trend and only a few love-affirming spikes, it’s hard to keep an interest in Maya Arulpragasam.

Arular, her first album, came out in 2005 and was pretty much listened to only by critics. It was groundbreaking, they said, in the way it blended politics with dance tunes. Over the next two years it picked up speed in the UK and the US, preceding the massive explosion that was ‘Paper Planes’ in the hands of advertisers and teenagers.

The same raw energy, hyper-colored videos, and intensity of Arular came out with her second album Kala. Here was ‘Paper Planes,’ finally available with a cushion of other synth beats, keeping the promise of revolution going past the three and a half minutes of the central song. It was only after playing ‘Paper Planes’ the requisite fifteen times that we explored the rest of the album. It was like slipping the collar off a pet tiger. It was roaring and alive.

I only mention ‘Paper Planes’ so many times because it was, in every obvious way, the figurehead of M.I.A.’s musical career. Everything that came before it didn’t matter, except to the lo-fi taste-maker, and everything that came after only seemed to matter to people like me — brown, female, garage dwellers who told ourselves over and over that we aren’t like everybody else.

There was a sweet gap between Kala and the jaw-droppingly perfect ‘Bad Girls’ off her fourth album Matangi where M.I.A. was the sole propriety of the self-labeled hardcore ethnic suburbanites. Besides the brief upsets caused by her heavily pregnant appearance at the Grammys in 2009 and her video for ‘Born Free,’ in which she depicts a slow-motion genocide being carried out against red-headed youths, being pulled from Youtube, everyone had forgotten Maya Arulpragasam.

Here is where I reveled in her artistry; she embodied so much of what I wanted to be and so much of what I wanted to create. The cadences of ‘Sunshowers’ was constantly rejuvenating, the hook in ‘Jimmy’ spoke to me, ‘Galang’ was from another dimension. To me, she was like the louder, brasher sequel to Jasmine from the Disney movie Aladdin in terms of brown representation. I think she was revolution as I knew it.

‘Bad Girls’ was such a departure for M.I.A. for the people who had forgotten about her. She rose from the radio silence with printed burkas, joints rolled as cars drove on only two wheels, and explosions. Massive explosions that outlined her ageless face. The video was, according to everyone, a response to Saudi laws that forbid women to drive. It was about politics again. Then she faded into the background.

In March of this year, Rolling Stone published an interview with M.I.A. In it she talked about how her collaborator, Diplo, was controlling, violent, and angry over her mainstream success. It was eye-opening on its own but it also brought to the forefront the issue M.I.A. has always been dealing with — the dilution of going mainstream. Now, the jealous teenager that still lives in me will tell you that M.I.A.’s whole power was in not being mainstream because she could say what she wanted and she could be punk as hell. Of course, M.I.A. has fought back against the music industry by threatening to leak her album Matangi earlier than scheduled after it had been delayed over and over again. But the reality of the music industry is that anyone you can buy a CD of at Target isn’t punk as hell — I’m sure she wasn’t approved on everything and I’m sure, to some extent, her power was factory-made. If she was pure Maya Arulpragasam I probably would have never heard of her.

M.I.A.’s new video “Matahdatah Scroll 01 Broader Than a Border” premiered last week and featured her ethnic and musical origins strongly. With sword players from Sri Lanka to warrior dancers in the Côte d’Ivoire, it was an demonstration of the same multi-faceted self-expression we see in M.I.A.’s personal work. The video was well-aged M.I.A. — lo-def, minimalist, with her vocals as a disembodied voice that accompanies truthful performance.

This video almost got pulled by the executives at her record label over fears that the inclusion of an African dancer was somehow ‘cultural appropriation.’ Despite being a completely unfounded accusation when considering the actual music video, M.I.A. spiraled into an unnecessary Twitter rage where she asked her followers about appropriation. This innocuous start detoured as followers joined in with little to no context. She mishandled it by not adequately responding to what was happening around her tweets and everyone involved was left confused and soured on her. That was how she left it before the video came out. Then the video brought her back to the forefront of our affection.

2015 is both a full circle for M.I.A. and a renewal of the cycle — it’s been 10 years since Arular and though she may have just turned 40, Maya doesn’t look a day over 19. She has been consistently putting out albums for the last decade, like a well-behaved clock, with only the hint of rebellion (a middle finger at the Superbowl there, a curse out of The New York Times here). And I feel like I’ve grown up with her — as her volatility tempered, bursting through to lay down bass-heavy singles, my own politics have grown more refined. But it’s still upsetting to see an artist whose main aesthetic and identity are couched in Tamil Sri Lankan freedom fighting to be rolled over by record labels and industry ennui.

There is something ultimately tame about M.I.A. and she’s a product more of our own aspirations of her and her art than she is of her own action. “Broader Than A Border” is the freshest and least diluted thing we’ve seen from Maya in so long. Hopefully it’ll evolve into a massive subversive monster that brings the revolution to mainstream music.

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