Maya Arulpragasam, who goes by the moniker of "M.I.A." (for Missing In Action,) is a seminal example of a post-millennial hip hop artist that blurs the line between the underground and mainstream, and who stages provocative symbolic border crossings within her performance art. According to M.I.A., "It's not a war between the mainstream and underground... It's about polluting the mainstream, or hacking into it" (SPIN). As such, her particular form of "agitprop pop" is an eclectic mix of Madonna-esque sensibility, hip hop gangsta troping, and militant third world slogans serendipitously packaged as a first world pop commodity. M.I.A.'s mash up functions as the monstrous/chimeric return of the becoming-global Other into the first world's sterile signifying space of the Spectacle, in which nothing is supposed to "happen" until it is represented as such (Marcus 98). Her aesthetic functions as a symbolically disruptive crossing-over of genres and discursive genealogies which is appropriately reflective of contemporary events, in which the the decline of the United States as dominant economic hegemon are disrupting the taken-for-granted discursive ideologies of the neo-liberal/terror stricken "global" as such.
Before becoming a musician, M.I.A. began her career as a graffiti based visual artist at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where she earned a degree in fine-arts and film production (SPIN, VIBE). While shooting a documentary of fellow graduate electroclash artist Peaches, Maya was introduced to the Roland MC-505 sequencer/drum machine. Out of boredom, she began producing demo recordings in her studio apartment, developing into the singles “M.I.A.” and “Galang” (SPIN Magazine).
Her sample-heavy bricolage is a tribute to Public Enemy, whom Maya grew up listening to in the U.K. after she fled Sri Lanka with her family as a refugee during the intensification of the ethnic Civil War there in 1986. Public Enemy is a cornerstone in the political rap genre, known for their 300+ sample sonic collages (courtesy of Terminator X) and their consciously infused lyricism (via Chuck D), which champions black nationalism and an ideology of systemic justice for the disenfranchised (Chang 318). It is thus that M.I.A.'s Chuck D/Terminator X inspired music is one that champions resistance and solidarity on behalf of people at the global ‘margins,’ with the aim of causing ideological and aesthetic tension in the American mainstream through a concoction of provocative signifiers and styles.
M.I.A.'s aesthetics, made up of catchy electronic pop beats infused with politically cryptic messages designed to "hack into the mainstream" and to "give war a chance," presents an ideological challenge to first world discourses on nationalism, particularly with how nations such as the United States define themselves against the generalized 'Other' of "terrorism.” In 2004-2005, M.I.A. created a "near hysterical buzz" on the blogosphere with the sardonically titled mixtape "Piracy Funds Terrorism," the title of which pokes fun at American policies on intellectual property theft, and specifically how the entertainment industry's lost profits from illegal peer-to-peer file sharing is in current reactionary discourse mutually linked to the destruction of American ideals and safety in a post-9/11 age. The tape contains sneak peek remixes of songs from her first full length album Arular, named after her father's code name in the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), a separatist movement in Sri Lanka that fought for an independent Tamil state from the ruling Sinhalese population in the 1980's. (SPIN Magazine).
M.I.A. has received major flak from music critics and Sri Lankans alike regarding both her father's militant Tamil ties and references/images of tigers in her cover art and music. Some, including fellow Sri Lankan artist named DeLon, have accused her of proliferating support for the Tamil Tigers, "one of the top terrorists groups on the FBI's most wanted list":
These people try to link me to the Tamil Tigers, then link them to Al Qaeda, which is ridiculous. It sounds small, but I'm pretty sure DeLon has made it so I can never go to Sri Lanka again. And If I can be called a terrorist for just saying what I say, I feel for the people in Sri Lanka who don't have a name or a lawyer or who aren't a British citizen. If you live in a village there and get called a terrorist, you're dead. (M.I.A., Interview with Papermag 29, Nov 2007)
The song "Sunshowers" on Arular functions as a self-conscious rejoinder to M.I.A.'s critics who accuse her of being a terrorist, and is a larger critique of how "you can't separate the world into two parts like that, good and evil," particularly with reference to the Orientalist fashion in which "America has successfully tied all these pockets of independence struggles, revolutions and extremists into one big notion of terrorism" (web.archive.org). The song begins with the lines "To Congo / To Columbo / Can't stereotype my thing yo," which is self-referential in the sense that this song can't be stereotyped, either as a pop song or as advocating a stance "for" or "against" terrorism. Though there are references to terrorist tropes that play into her critics' expectations ("You wanna win a war? / Like P.L.O. I don't surrendo"), she also subverts these expectations by humanizing the narrative which turns the 'Other' into monsters, taking the perspective of a man who was killed for simply associating with people who fit terrorist profiles:
He told them he didn't know them
He wasn't there they didn't know him
They showed him a picture then
Ain't that you with the muslims? (M.I.A., “Sunshowers”)
The chorus, sampled from a pop song by Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, transforms the terrorist's enmity born from injustice into sugary disco-cliche, rendering it's searing malice present in it's seeming absence:
The sunshowers that fall on my troubles
Are over you my baby
And some showers I'll be aiming at you
'Cos I'm watching you my baby. (M.I.A., “Sunshowers”)
To complicate the discourse of terror further, the man who was killed for looking like a terrorist is described as having "colgate on his teeth / and Reebok Classic on his feet,” who also works “at a factory” where “he does Nike / and then helps the family” (M.I.A., “Sunshowers”). These subversions and détournements of terrorist sentiments into and out of tropes signifying American capitalist production problematizes the ties between first world and third world discursive ideologies, bringing a sense of personal depth and historical complexity to political issues which have otherwise been "stereotyped," categorized, and "made into good and evil."
The political potency of M.I.A.'s aesthetics is part and parcel to the multifaceted nature of her work, which borrows, remixes, and represents sounds and concepts from several global localities. Her sonic collage can best be described as world music with a vengeance, a kind of ambivalent pop toting hip hop's stylistic vigilance, resulting in a mix that invokes political integrity in the face of many seeming contradictions. In an interview with the website Papermag, M.I.A. defends herself against critics who say she’s “sold out” by framing her corporate-sponsored mash up music as social experiment:
Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked. It sounds like a pop song, but if you really listen to the lyrics, it’s about what I see on the telly and news and what’s going on. (M.I.A., Interview with Papermag 29, Nov 2007.).
Over the years, M.I.A. has been branded as "world music" by various music critics. I want to go further and suggest that M.I.A.’s remixes represent a kind of "worlding" music which symbolically refracts how various subjects within the globalized world filter information, culture, and economics, re-defining themselves according to "the crossroads, the space of convergence and endless possibility; the place where we put down and discard the unnecessary in order to pick up that which is necessary" (Weems 180). The prime example of M.I.A.'s "worlded" music is found in her sophomore album, Kala. Though originally set to work on Kala in Virginia with hip hop super producer Timbaland in 2005, she was denied a U.S. working visa due to “immigration issues,” which some suspect have to do with her references to the P.L.O in “Sunshowers”.
Fortunately, as a result of this denial of entry onto American soil, "the recording of Kala brought M.I.A. to Trinidad, Liberia, India, Jamaica, Australia, and Japan," the album’s multilayered composition reflecting M.I.A.'s pamimpcestual journey through these lands:
"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." Kala thus samples and remixes musical and cultural influences from around the globe, with intricate urumee drums from Tamil culture patterned over Baltimore club hits (“Bird Flu”), Sri Lankan temple music mashed up with electronic hi-hats and breakbeats (“World Town”), and Australian didgeridoos (“Mango Pickle Down River”) dancing alongside revamped disco hits (“Jimmy”) and British warehouse rave throwbacks (“XR2”).
To do the work of "crossing over" linguistically as well as sonically, M.I.A. takes the hip hop trickster figure of the "style chameleon," incorporating it's conceptual dynamism into the highly territorialized symbolic discourses of terrorism, pop music, gangsta rap, and the third world, so as to unmoor the ideological "point de capitons" that keeps these terms situated within their Americanized perspective of the global (Slavoj Zizek, “Key Ideas”). In the Americanized view of the global, economic and political disparity locate the globally marginalized as a voiceless "Other" to be exploited/"freed" through neo-liberal globalization, or dominated through force (the "with or against us" discourse that labels people as terrorists, via the image-event of 9/11). What is at stake in M.I.A.'s chimeric aesthetic is how the global "Other," which in its broad ideological solidarity encompasses a wide range of political and ethnic groups (aboriginal Australians, immigrant Africans, girls in the Amazon, "Boyz" from Jamaica,) functions and negotiates within and against the forces of first-world privatization, the Spectacle, commodity fetishism, and neo-colonial domination.
For example, in the song "World Town," M.I.A. lyrics draw attention to the economic exploitation of third world countries by the first world's "corporate jackals," who exploit and privatize the third world's national assets under the guise of benevolent philanthropy (John Perkins, Speaking Freely). Over militant Indian drums and flat vocal affect, M.I.A. enters into the persona of a disenfranchised third world citizen "Dead from the waist down" and "Sick of all the shit that's keeping me down" (M.I.A., “World Town”). When she raps, "Look at what you did, you done it before / Every little dollar just keeps me down more," it is a reference to the economic disparity that is masqueraded over in "charitable donations" and "plans for building infrastructure" from the same first-world corporations that plunder and privatize national assets in the first place, causing widespread poverty in the name of quarterly profits. With sampled click-clacks of semi-automatic weapons being loaded, the song posits an ideological solidarity among child soldiers that "represent the World Town," with their "Hands up / Guns out," who as a product of first world abuse simply won't take it anymore. The song "Bucky Done Gun" has similar sentiments of armed resistance against the first world:
Can I get control
Do you like me vulnerable
I 'm armed and I'm equal
More fun for the people. (M.I.A., “Bucky Done Gun”)
Coupled with lines like ""I'll hard drive your bit / I'm battered by your sumo grip,” and Lucky I like feeling shit / My stamina can take it,” as well as"Heavy weight wrestler / Fight me in your comforter / Let you be superior / I'm filthy with the fury ya," what makes “Bucky Done Gun” particularly complex is that these rebellious sentiments are framed in sexual tropes of rough sex, signifying the relationship between the first world and the third world as mutually complicit in the same system of domination, with both first-world dominators and third-world dissidents gaining a form of pleasure or fulfillment through it (the former through exploitation, the latter through unerring righteousness born in fire).
In the song "Hussel," M.I.A. takes gangsta rap tropes that have been "shopworn, depleted, and theatricalized" in American media and reterritorializes these emptied signifiers into a worlded signified, where African immigrants as well as African Americans have to "Hussel" in order to live (Jonah Weiner, “Do Real Rappers Rap?”). Taken in an international context, the "Hussel" takes on various forms, ranging from professional dentistry (“We do it cheap, hide our money in a heap / Send it home and make 'em study fixing teeth”) to selling bootlegged media (“Buy one song, get one free / Maybe me, a bootleg CD, colour TV”) to human smuggling [“We got barrels in the sea / It's big enough to take a whole family”) [M.I.A., “Hussel”]. These polysemous forms of viable exchange are a testament to the liquidity of capitalism and it's ruthless desire/drive towards endless accumulation and distribution, with anything and everything caught in-between capital's global crossfire considered fair game for trade .
M.I.A.’s most popular single “Paper Planes” serves as the primary example of how her politicized aesthetics intentionally muddles the binary discourses that categorizes the first and third worlds, particularly with regard to the way in which immigrants and refugees in America are seen as people that do not “contribute to culture in any way. That they're just leeches that suck from whatever.” Commenting further on “Paper Planes”, which samples abrasive gun shots and cash registers in the chorus (“All I want to do is BANG BANG BANG BANG! / And KA-CHING! /And take your money,”) Maya is quoted as saying that “It’s up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it" (M.IA., Interview with The Fader, 7 September 2010).
Although the revitalized gangsta rap troping in “Paper Planes” can easily be read as a satiric representation of stereotypes against third world refugees and immigrants, the lyrics are ambivalent enough to leave room open for the opposite interpretation, in that this song may really be about the neo-liberal discourse of late capitalism that comes from the first world. References to being “high like planes,” having “visas in my name”, and “sitting on trains” conditions the ambivalent prehension of this song as one of various border crossings, with actors from both first and third worlds included. In addition, there are some lines in the first verses about “pirate skulls and bones” and “lethal poison through their system” that are subversive enough to suggest that the song represents an ideological solidarity amongst the globally marginalized (M.I.A., “Paper Planes”). However, this solidarity is problematized in the next verse, which references the United States' ill-fated obsession over oil, lucrative drug deals and it's role as the globalized center of exchange for fetishized commodities :
No one on the corner has swagger like us
Hit me on my burner prepaid wireless
We pack and deliver like UPS trucks
Already going to hell just pumping that gas. (M.I.A. “Paper Planes”)
The ideological ambivalence behind “Paper Planes” seems to posit the suggestion that actors from both sides of the first/third world divide contribute to the perpetuation of globalization as a dysfunctional and exploitative system. Thus, when M.I.A. proclaims “Third World Democracy” in the middle of the song, it is not definite what she is signifying to: does she mean to represent the kind of third world democracy we know today as neo-liberal globalization, in which the marginalized are given a false democracy through capitalism? Or does she mean to posit a new kind of third world democracy, a militant one born from the bottom up, which genuinely represents the economic and political interests of the disenfranchised?