M.I.A.’s Attempt To Decolonize Pop

On March 25th 2021 » By Tara Joshi

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In the 1950s, American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term “third culture kid.” Back then, it was intended as a descriptor for the children of Americans who had moved abroad. In the years since, however, the phrase has become more broadly used as an umbrella for the kids of migrants, caught in a tussle between the cultures of “home” and “host.”

Studies showed that those who fall within this group might struggle with forming their own cultural identity, which could lead to disorientation and low self-esteem. Indeed, former British Prime Minister Theresa May famously said in a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 2016: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

But this isn’t exactly true: Third culture kids are often found to be especially adept at building relationships with other cultures. With a wide worldview, magpie-like, we pick out things that please us. We thread throughlines between our similarities, rather than exaggerating our differences, creating nests out of joyous hybrids and fusions.

Born in London and then raised in Sri Lanka, India and back in the U.K., Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, known best as M.I.A., epitomizes what it means to be a citizen of the world. Her music basks in the abundance of the globe, and on no album is that clearer than her vivid, technicolor second full-length, 2007’s Kala.

In a famous essay from 1999, “I Hate World Music,” David Byrne wrote: “The term [world music] is a catchall that commonly refers to non-Western music of any and all sorts, popular music, traditional music and even classical music. It’s a marketing as well as a pseudo-musical term — and a name for a bin in the record store signifying stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere else in the store […] It’s a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of Western pop culture. It ghettoizes most of the world’s music.”

Kala is an album that pushed against that hegemony: It was “world music” in a literal sense, recorded while traveling from country to country, picking up sounds wherever M.I.A. went, working on each song again and again in each new location (Trinidad, Jamaica, India, Angola, Liberia, Australia). “Every song has a layer of some other country on it. It’s like making a big old marble cake with lots of different countries and influences. Then you slice it up and call each slice a song,” she told The Fader in 2007. It is difficult to think of any other revered album that marries global north and south with such ease — a record that can boast flourishes of Sri Lankan gaana, Bollywood, Tamil film music, soca, zouk, dancehall, funk carioca, indigenous Australian rap alongside nods to ’90s U.K. rave, hip-hop, Baltimore club and legacy white rock bands (The Modern Lovers, Pixies, The Clash, The Slits). And all topped with that distinctive childlike, sing-song drawl that at times feels almost gratingly out of tune.

This mish-mash of sounds makes sense in the context of Arulpragasam’s life, flitting between worlds and cultures.

In MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., the 2018 documentary about the artist’s life, we see footage of a very young Arulpragasam dancing to pop music (both Western and South Asian) and learn about her falling in love with Public Enemy through the walls of her London council estate home. Visual art had always interested her, and even as a teen, she would film conversations with her family, asking them pressing questions. This took her to art school at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins, where in 2001 she would graduate with a degree in video, film and fine art. According to Dazed, it was around the time of her studies that she met and befriended Justine Frischmann of Britpop group Elastica at an Air concert, while Pitchfork claims they met when Frischmann saw some of Arulpragasam’s stencilled graffiti art depicting the civil unrest in Sri Lanka.

However they crossed paths, Arulpragasam wound up on tour with Elastica as their documentarian — though with the exception of Frischmann, none of the band seemed especially happy to have her on board. It was during this time she would meet electroclash artist Peaches, one of the support acts on said tour. After one particular afterparty during which Arulpragasam grabbed the mic and sang the lyrics to “Fuck the Pain Away,” Peaches encouraged Arulpragasam to experiment on a Roland MC-505.

And so she did, borrowing Frischmann’s 505 on their Caribbean holiday. Shortly thereafter in 2002, Arulpragasam started uploading music to her MySpace. Glowing reception quickly met her with each release: a first single, 2003’s “Galang” (initially intended for Frischmann), then Piracy Funds Terrorism (a mash-up mixtape made with her producer and then-boyfriend, a man from Florida named Wesley, also known as Diplo) and, eventually, her astonishing debut album, 2005’s Arular.

“Politics swam through all of M.I.A.’s work, but many argued that it was often performative. But on ‘Kala,’ maybe her politics are innate in what she is doing sonically: As Simran Hans argued in the same Noisey essay, ‘Kala’ is the artist’s attempt at decolonizing pop.”

Partially as a result of her experiences touring with Elastica, and partly due to budget restraints, her early work was relatively sparse on collaborations and guest features. “I learned not to have a band because Justine had so many band issues. I thought I couldn’t be in a band because bands break up — if you just rely on yourself you’ll be alright,” Arulpragasam said at the premiere of her documentary in 2018.

But by the time she started making her second album, M.I.A. was a bonafide darling of the underground. All-gold lamé leggings, Pitchfork-approval, brightly coloured hair and frequent new demos up on MySpace, she even got the (very rare) co-sign of being called back for an encore during her Coachella set.

In fact, such was her growing celebrity, that none other than Timbaland was set to produce her second album. The snag, as M.I.A. tells it, was that the U.S. wouldn’t grant her a visa due to her family’s connections with guerilla groups in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was in a period of civil war between 1983 and 2009, with Tamil groups fighting against the predominantly Sinhalese government, who had long discriminated against the minority Tamil group. Arulpragasam’s father, Arul (after whom her first album was named) was an activist among the Tamils. In interviews, the artist has recounted being shot at during her childhood, and described how she spent those years between Sri Lanka and India. When her father visited, she and her siblings were told he was an uncle, in order to keep them safe. The family, aside from their father, returned to the U.K. as refugees in 1986, among many other Tamils fleeing the war. It was not an entirely welcoming environment — indeed, the following year, many Tamil asylum seekers in the U.K. were deported. Evidently, M.I.A.’s status as something of an outsider existed even throughout her childhood.

And so it was that Arulpragasam took that “outsider pride,” as Simran Hans wrote for Noisey in a 2017 essay about Kala, and turned it into something special. If M.I.A. couldn’t produce with Timbaland, she would travel the world, working with her go-to producers Diplo and Switch to create something that was very much her own instead. The result was something much richer in its textures than Arular had been.

Kala is frequently listed among the best albums of the 2000s for a reason. From the very opening, it’s clear the album is drinking up the sounds from at least a dozen different cultures and spitting them back out. “Bamboo Banga” interpolates The Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner,” while using the rushing whir of engines to evoke a car on the road with the song’s narrator running alongside (“I’m knocking on the door of your Hummer, Hummer”), while splashing in licks of Tamil film music. In 2017, Vulture would write: “If she was indeed knocking on the doors of the Hummer, it was unclear which side of the door she was doing it from.” It’s an insightful look at the dichotomy M.I.A.’s rise seemed to present in the years that followed Kala: Wasn’t she, too, now a rich person in the global north? Was her work platforming unheard voices, or was it tourism?

To suggest the latter entirely is to erase her past and arguably to erase the context of 2007, where language around appropriation and identity had not yet entered the mainstream. In that moment, at least, she represented the reality of Third Culture existence; and, frankly, as a lone brown woman cutting through to the Western mainstream, she represented something especially special for the South Asian diaspora.

Of her time recording in Sri Lanka for the album, she says in the documentary: “It was like going back to meet the kid I was.” And indeed, there is a sense of childish wonder in parts of Kala — the children doing a handclap on “Bird Flu” bring to mind that universal playground joy.

“‘Kala’ is frequently listed among the best albums of the 2000s for a reason. From the very opening, it’s clear the album is drinking up the sounds from at least a dozen different cultures and spitting them back out.”

Single “Boyz” is all celebratory horns, heat and swagger, channelling the carnival atmosphere of Trinidad and Jamaica, while “Jimmy” is essentially a cover of a Bappi Lahiri-composed Bollywood disco classic that she used to sing to her mum as a child, with glossy strings and a Hindi call to come hither.

“Hussel” imagines a boat of refugees. As she told The Fader, “The idea for the song was that you have the bottom deck of a boat: two hundred people getting smuggled in boats, coming over as refugees. If they banged that beat on the side of a boat, what would it sound like? That’s why it’s all echo-y and submarine-y.” If you listen carefully, you can hear the recordings of fishermen in Kerala pulling in their boats. It also features a punchy guest verse from East London MC Afrikan Boy, someone whom she selected because of his immigrant status — he was born in Nigeria, and hollers the line “You think it’s tough now? Come to Africa!”

“Mango Pickle Down River” sees her adding a guest verse to a track by aboriginal Australian teen rap group Wilcannia Mob, replete with the ebb and flow of didgeridoo. “20 Dollar” is the sound of cultures rubbing up against one another. New Order-sampling, Pixies-interpolating, it’s all club heat while she raps about being a voice for the voiceless (“I put people on the map who ain’t never seen a map!”). This is the push and pull between “home” and “host.”

M.I.A.’s sound certainly owes a lot to boisterous Baltimore club music: “World Town” uses parts of Blaqstarr’s “Hands Up Thumbs Down” melded with recordings of Sri Lankan temple music, creating a glorious cacophony. Blaqstarr also produced the mysterious ballad “The Turn,” which winds like a snakecharmer. It’s followed by another nod to the club, albeit this time the U.K. hardcore rave scene; “XR2” celebrates early ’90s secret parties in London, drinking fortified wine, Lucozade and taking pills.

It is, of course, impossible to discuss Kala without talking about “Paper Planes,” which remains her mightiest song. It feels odd to recall the mainstream success of such a weird pop song, not least when that fame largely came via its feature in the Pineapple Express trailer. Strangely downtempo, M.I.A. teases the listener about the fearful perceptions of what immigrants are capable of in that childlike singsong — “All I wanna do is (gunshots, gun reloading, cash register opening) and take your money.” She told The Fader in 2007, “People don’t really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they’re just leeches that suck from whatever […] It’s up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it.” The way that Clash sample from “Straight to Hell” floats through the air, recalling another track that decried the alienation of non-English speaking immigrants, is remarkable: It shuffles here with warm intensity that feels more brash than the original song.

The album caps off with Timbaland, who offers a guest verse on “Come Around,” which naturally means we get a few “baby girls” from the super-producer as well as a synth line that coils like plumes of smoke at an afterparty. A sparse thud of beats, it samples the male vocal line from Italian group Shamur’s “Let the Music Play,” a song which in itself finds the melding of Punjabi sonics with old school European dance beats. M.I.A. raps about “the faraway land,” alongside references to being out partying (“text the address, I’ll see you later, baby come down!”). Even her flow is referencing a track from the 2005 Tamil film Anniyan — “Andangkaka” is a folk-y song which has that same cascade-style she uses in the chorus: “run make a run make a run down.”

In present day discourse, questions of appropriation are rife in cultural conversation — and certainly, it feels telling that working with M.I.A. was year zero for the formation of Major Lazer. At the time, Guardian critic Alexis Petridis wrote, “M.I.A.’s attitude towards making music seems to have begun mirroring Angelina Jolie’s attitude towards starting a family: you can just order in the constituent bits from various far-flung corners of the world.” Politics swam through all of M.I.A.’s work, but many argued that it was often performative. But on Kala, maybe her politics are innate in what she is doing sonically: As Simran Hans argued in the same Noisey essay, Kala is the artist’s attempt at decolonizing pop.

M.I.A. was at the forefront of the colorful clutter of electropop that was rising up around the time — often, she was framed in the same vein as artists like Santigold and CSS. But in 2018, M.I.A. compared herself to Kanye West — and it wasn’t way off base: a boundary-pushing, outspoken creator (for better or worse — even her most adoring fans would have trouble denying some of her more problematic moments), whose work pushed aesthetic as much as it did sound. When she was touring Kala in 2008, she even put out a clothing line replete with suitably garish prints: Okley Run. Indeed, writing in 2017 for Kala’s 10th anniversary, Frank Guan at Vulture wrote, “It’s rap as fashion, the ‘look’ as both content and form, and M.I.A. […] looks like a precursor for the various fashion-rap acts (Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and above all A$AP Rocky) that between them have constituted the house style for rap in 2017.”

In many ways, M.I.A. is really the precursor to music in the age of streaming. She was one of the first artists to understand how to build a following online: her glittery graphics so often recall the early days of the internet, and her ability to meld together all number of sonics on this album is arguably prescient of an era where music is innately so accessible that genres are beginning to dissolve. She tried to decolonize that Western hegemony over what was pop and what was so-called “world music.”

To that end, on Kala, the arbitrary delineations of borders are dissolved too. For third culture kids, the brash neon of this album cemented something we always knew: that the world is so much bigger than our backyards, and we are all infinitely richer for it.

Tara Joshi

Born in India, raised on the Isle of Wight then educated in Ireland, Tara Joshi is a freelance music and culture journalist currently based in London who has written for a variety of publications. Her work has featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, VICE, the Financial Times, Crack and more. She also works as the music editor for gal-dem, a U.K. magazine that centres the voices of BPOC from marginalised genders.

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