By way of background, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (Tamil: மாதங்கி ‘மாயா’ அருள்பிரகாசம்; born 18 July 1975), better known by her stage name M.I.A., is a British songwriter, record producer, singer, rapper, fashion designer, visual artist, political activist, and artist of Tamil Sri Lankan origin. She’s released two albums in the U.S.: Arular (2005) and Kala (2007). She’s been nominated for two Grammy awards and an Academy Award for her song on the soundtrack of the movie Slumdog Millionaire. She started her record label, N.E.E.T. in 2008, and she continues to make visual art, clothing, and videos. She’s releasing another (sort of eponymous) album soon–the date is now July 13, 2010.
The title of her first album (Arular) comes from the name her father adopted once he became a member of Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), a political Tamil group that worked to establish an independent Tamil Eelam.
Born in Sri Lanka, M.I.A. and her family (sans papa) re-located to a council estate in London (via India) and lived as political refugees. She earned an art degree, and embarked upon a career as a fine artist (working in a graffiti-inspired style) and fashion designer. After a commission to provide art work for an album by Elastica, M.I.A. video-documented the band’s tour. According to one account, the awesome electroclash artist Peaches encouraged her to tinker around with music and she produced a demo tape with many of the songs that would later appear on Arular (M.I.A. has said she was tinkering around on a synthesiser during a vacation in the Caribbean). She promoted the first album with an exhausting festival tour, halted in 2006 by censorship efforts and U.S. visa issues. Before the release of her second album, Kala (named after her mother), M.I.A. did an interview with Pitchfork in which she addressed her frustration with media coverage of her art. She essentially hijacked the interview and directed it toward a preconceived argument.
If you read the interview–and it is compelling–she focuses on a few issues that are pretty important, and the tin ear of the interviewer is a little shocking. First, she focuses on the patriarchical approach of music journalists, whereby women’s successes are credited to their male collaborators. In M.I.A.’s case, she’s upset that Diplo is getting the press attention. She says,
And if I can’t get credit because I’m a female and everything’s going to boil down to ‘everything has to be shot out of a man,’ then I much rather it go to Switch, who did actually give me the time and actually listened to what I was saying and actually came to India and Trinidad and all these places, and actually spent time on me and actually cared about what I was doing, and actually cared about the situation I was in with not being able to get into the country and not having access to things or, you know, being able to direct this album in a totally innovative direction.
The second issue she zeros in on is the fact that she’s from Sri Lanka. For example, she says:
And I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed.
The third, related issue is her experience as an immigrant. She makes the astute observation that much celebrated music (she notes hip-hop as an example) is the work of immigrants, but she argues they are typically third generation immigrants. As sociologists know, the third generation is a pretty interesting one–we typically find the loss of language and culture that accompanies the assimilationist tendency among second generation immigrants boomerangs into an attempt by third generation kids to recapture these traditions. In her mind, the fact that she managed to produce innovative music within her lifetime marks an achievement or difference with other immigrant styles. She says,
You know, hip-hop came out of having the right stuff, and you had to have a slavery and you had to have a war and you had to have all these things in order for Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs to be singing about fucking Bentleys. You had to have that journey. That takes a long time, and in America it took three generations for that to happen. And for me to come from a mud hut and to be here and shouting in front of a disco, it took me 15 years. And that’s all I represent. Everything boiled down is that, that’s all it is. If I get it back to Africa, this is what I’ve accomplished.
[Not to take away from her point, but it isn’t a fair summary of music history. Doing archival research for my book on Music Genres I discovered a fair number of examples of first-generation musical innovation, including a range of folks, from Cleveland polka players to Caribbean reggaeton artists.]
But the issue journalists have focused so much upon is her father’s participation in the so-called “terrorist” attempts to free the Tamil people from a genocide enacted against them by the Sri Lankan government. M.I.A. has sought to make it clear that she was raised without her father’s presence, and that it was only later and through a general engagement with the politics of poverty that she came to engage with the Tamil cause. (In this video with Tavis Smiley, she makes an excellent point about the conflation of “Tamil Tiger” (read: terrorists) and Tamil people (read: civilians). Such a conflation is often useful when seeking to perpetuate a genocide.) [I should also note that she has said her father actually works for the Sri Lankan government and has claimed an affiliation with the Tigers only to “talk crap about” M.I.A.]
The point she makes again and again is the value of art as a way to fight the politics of invisibility. And she means, as I’ve tried to point out above, the invisibility of women, of Africans, and of immigrants and the poor.
Her antagonism of the press certainly issues from these concerns. The Village Voice fed the flames in early 2009 by challenging the New York Times for not providing responsible coverage of the aid ship “Mercy Mission to Vanni”, which was blocked by the Sri Lankan government. From the Voice:
one hopes the New York Times, say, might actually write a story about this, clearing up the counter-allegations and perhaps using some of its vaunted access to inquire as to why the government won’t let aid through…instead of taking another set of chintzy, ad-hominem allegations.
Although there’s been a recent stir–which I’ll get to in a minute–M.I.A. has long faced challenges to her authenticity. She’s not “Tamil enough” because she became a refugee as a child and only returned in her adulthood. She’s not “poor enough” to speak for the poor. While such challenges have largely been confined to comments on Pitchfork pages and music blogs, the NYT Magazine has seen fit to publish them, in the form of a feature piece on the artist by journalist Lynn Hirschberg. In the piece, Hirschberg’s theme is M.I.A.’s hypocracies. Let me give you a few examples:
1. Three days later, her son, Ikhyd (pronounced I-kid) Edgar Arular Bronfman, was born. His father is Maya’s fiancé, Ben Bronfman, son of the Warner Music Group chief executive and Seagram’s heir Edgar Bronfman Jr. In one of many contradictions that seem to provide the narrative for Maya’s life and art, Ikhyd was not, as she had repeatedly announced he would be, born at home in a pool of water. As usual, she wanted to transform her personal life into a political statement. “You gotta embrace the pain, embrace the struggle,” she proclaimed weeks before Ikhyd was born. “And my giving birth is nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp.”
In fact, the baby was delivered at Cedars-Sinai hospital. The artist claims this was driven by the wishes of her Bronfman’s parents. Nevertheless, clearly, M.I.A. is a hypocrite. (?!?) You give me a dollar for every woman in America who wanted a natural childbirth but ultimately decided to deliver in a hospital using pain medication, and I’ll be able to retire. And while we’re on the topic…hasn’t the history of 20th century contentious politics shown all of us that the personal is political? Since when it is even possible to conceive of a “transformation” of the personal into the political? I mean, sweet minty jesus, we’re living in an age of “Ethical Consumerism.” Our water bottles and our dependence on fossil fuels and our fixation on reality TV–these are all personal, political issues, and widely seen as such. The Natural Childbirth movement started in the 1940s, and is now seen as not only a legitimate political and philosophical stance but one legitimated by personal dispositions toward medicine and childcare. And it isn’t a “contradiction” when we drive our car to the store, or buy a water bottle, it’s a compromise.
In the next paragraph, we hear M.I.A. detail the death threats made against her and the baby. She described the concern and warnings she’s received from her record company, her husband and his family. Then, the author writes,
2. Maya’s tirade, typical in the way it moved from the political to the personal and back again, was interrupted by a waiter, who offered her a variety of rolls. She chose the olive bread.
Oh. Olive bread. She must be exaggerating the seriousness of these death threats if she eats olive bread.
3. Even though her father was not a Tiger, she also used tigers on her Web site and her album artwork and she favored tiger-striped clothing. This was not an accident. By the time her first album came out, the Tamil cause was mostly synonymous with the cause of the Tamil Tigers. Maya, committed to the cause, allied herself with the group despite its consistent use of terror tactics, which included systematic massacres of Sinhalese villagers.
So her father was not a Tiger, and most Tamils are not Tigers, but M.I.A. is “allied with the cause” because she invokes the group using images, and this “alliance” makes her a terrorist. Hum. That’s…well, that’s stupid.
4. [This one’s my favorite] In the press, Maya was labeled a terrorist sympathizer by some; others charged her with being unsophisticated about the politics of Sri Lanka. “People in exile tend to be more nationalistic,” Kadirgamar said. “And Maya took a very simplistic explanation of the problems between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese government and the Tamils. It’s very unfair when you condemn one side of this conflict. The Tigers were killing people, and the government was killing people. It was a brutal war, and M.I.A. had a role in putting the Tigers on the map. She doesn’t seem to know the complexity of what these groups do.” But many of her fans didn’t listen too closely to her lyrics, concentrating instead on the beat, the newness of the sound and her own multiculti, many-layered appeal.
Kadirgamar works at the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum. He thinks M.I.A.’s understanding of politics is nationalistic because she’s in exile, and he thinks this nationalism causes M.I.A. to depict the genocide/war issue rather simplistically. The author makes no comment on this, then adds an additional critique of M.I.A.’s audience–they don’t listen to the lyrics, anyhow. No evidence is provided to support either claim. No lyrics are presented. No artwork described. No audience members interviewed. Even though the consequence of this narrative is to depict an artist as a terrorist sympathizer and her fans as dupes. Putting aside for a moment the shoddy journalistic chops at play, I think we can all agree that the burden of proof should be higher when one spends several thousand words in the Paper of Record to suggest an artist is a terrorist sympathiser. Also, I think you might be moved to document the massive appeal of her music, more than just attributing it to sensationalism and “innovation.” Without a careful attention to craft and intention, we’re left with the same cypher we get out of almost all news accounts of political dissenters–they’re style and no substance, they’re naive and uneducated, they’re driven by blinding religious commitments…none of these really illuminate the world we live in; they mainly serve to reassert the status quo, in a relatively violent dismissal of those who think differently.
Just in case you think M.I.A. was exaggerating the tendency of the press to credit men with women’s achievements, here’s one:
5. Like Madonna, Maya is not a trained musician but instead a brilliant editor, able to pick and choose and bend the talents of others to fit her goals.
Now she’s a terrorist and a thief and opportunist.
Also reaching back to the Pitchfork interview, let’s see how the journalist treats the Diplo collaboration:
Diplo said, “I made her sing.” He was a producer of her first album as well as “Paper Planes” and was also Maya’s boyfriend for several years. “Maya is a big pop star now, and pop stars sing,” he said. “For me, making this record wasn’t easy. In the past, we were a team. But Maya wanted to show us how much she didn’t need us. In the end, Maya is postmodern: she can’t really make music or art that well, but she’s better than anyone at putting crazy ideas into motion. She knows how to manipulate, how to withhold, how to get what she wants.”
Great, now she’s a shrew. “Manipulative bitch” is the sentiment here. No comment is made on Diplo’s comments.
So now we get to the heart of the matter; here’s the hypocrisy, as Hirschberg sees it:
What Maya wants is nearly impossible to achieve: she wants to balance outrageous political statements with a luxe lifestyle; to be supersuccessful yet remain controversial; for style to merge with substance. “If you want to be huge, you have to give up a lot,” Michelle Jubelirer, Maya’s longtime lawyer, told me. “Maya vacillates between wanting to be huge and maintaining her artistic integrity. That’s her dilemma.”
To any of you that read music criticism, this sort of sentiment should be old hat. Was it really all that long ago when the last round of “Bob Dylan is a plagiarist and a sell out” happened?
M.I.A. has claimed that it was a set up–that the author’s intention before writing the piece was to trap her into admitting her own privilege. Because the article included a mention of M.I.A. eating a “truffle-flavored french fry,” some have taken to describing the incident as “Trufflegate.” After an accusatory twitter post, M.I.A. posted an audio clip from the interview on her website, one which demonstrated the journalist had misquoted the artist in order to misrepresent the reasons why she lent her support to the Tamil people. The editor at the Magazine published a note, clarifying that two parts of the interview had been combined into a single statement. M.I.A. next posted a song (“I’m a Singer”) about the incident on her blog (“Lies equals power equals politics. I’m a singer. I never said anything else. I never lied to you.”). Although I can’t find evidence of it now, the word was the M.I.A. posted Hirschberg’s phone number on the internet. Hirschberg has responded to the incident in The New York Observer, calling it “infuriating and not surprising.” “It’s a fairly unethical thing to do,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s surprising. She’s a provocateur, and provocateurs want to be provocative.” New York Magazine got into the fray, siding with Hirschberg.
At the end of all this, what have we got? We’ve got a musical artist being accused of hypocrisies that issue from “our” sense of the right kind of blood to spill (real political artists don’t order truffle fries); from “our” sense that most successful women have a strong man doing the real work; and from “our” sense that terrorism shouldn’t be discussed in more nuanced terms, and never subject to parody. I have to admit, I think M.I.A. is on to something.