Music for Rebels and Revels 

M.I.A.’s cheeky radical-chic rhythms move the (m)asses

by Tony WareIt’s always frustrating when an artist to be interviewed goes missing in action, but at least in this instance it’s unintentionally apropos.
It’s always frustrating when an artist to be interviewed goes missing in action, but at least in this instance it’s unintentionally apropos. The interviewee in question is producer/MC M.I.A.—Sri Lanka-born, London-bred Maya Arulpragasam, whose globalized rhythms balance the politically knotty and socially naughty—and at the 11th hour she has been forced to pull out of a phoner because of illness.

What’s left is anxiety and the shell of an idea. Taking a cue from U.K. music mag The Wire’s “Invisible Jukebox,” the format of the aborted session was to be an exchange where audio snippets are played and impressions are recorded. The stress, of course, isn’t in pushing “play”; it’s in what to play.

This pressure threatens to go particularly pear-shaped with a subject such as M.I.A. Emerging in 2004, M.I.A. has raised issues of social accountability set to militarized street music pulling from Miami bass, Bollywood, Brazilian baile funk and Baltimore club music, among other forms.

On Kala, her most recent album, she samples everything from The Clash to Hindi disco producer Bappi Lahiri, while in the past she has drawn from Rocky theme composer Bill Conti via Rio de Janeiro’s funk-carioca performer Deize Tigrona. The common theme pulled from this rhythmic diaspora is music for rebels and revels. So with influences charted across at least five continents, what mix of contemporaries and classics would have offered the fiercest jump-off, shown how M.I.A.’s whole persona is grounded not in world music but in worldly music?

The first instinct is to open with something familiar. And since Bhangra bangers and Angolan Kuduro tracks aren’t handy in this case, that would be some throw-ya-gunz-in-tha-air beats. The pitch of Baltimore club music hammers throughout the same style of post-industrial abscesses that play home to many of M.I.A.’s ghetto-tech influences, which use music to purge aggression. The question is, do you drop her a track by an originator, such as Rod Lee, who aims to turn reality into melody, or an impersonator, such as New York-based “gutter music” peddler Aaron LaCrate? Authenticity vs. appropriation has been a cornerstone of the M.I.A. discussion, and of music in general, since Elvis.

Then again, maybe the best place to begin is the beginning, which for M.I.A.’s recording career would be London. So maybe it would be right to open with “London Is the Place for Me,” by Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener. The Caribbean Islands have played a major part in the music of the British Isles since at least the ’40s (and continue to cross-pollinate through contemporary post-punk, drum ’n’ bass and more). Then again, there’s also a way to bridge the eras, by dropping a track from Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaican dub poet raised in Brixton. Johnson’s late-’70s/early-’80s output was charged with racial politics and class warfare.

Again, though, is it too obvious? Why not challenge her? “I was born in a welfare state / Ruled by bureaucracy / Controlled by civil servants / And people dressed in grey / Got no privacy got no liberty / ’Cause the 20th century people / Took it all away from me.” These lyrics are from The Kinks’ “20th Century Man,” a cut from 1971. What does a white male know about lost liberties, M.I.A.? Wouldn’t we like to know.

Could she vibe to that? And what if the next track was a bootleg outtake of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. Why? Well, it’s pure fire; but also it could be a solid instigator, raising questions of the industry’s long-running phallocentric culture, and the degradation of women in song.

But with no interview, let’s just enjoy experiencing M.I.A. live, which promises bass dips to head trips, a shanty-town riot of sounds that push air by the kilo. One for the cerebral critic’s fantasy file on record, and a hedonist’s cream dream onstage, M.I.A.’s music satisfies whether you analyze or fantasize.

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