The plausible deniability of M.I.A.

Daughter of a Tamil revolutionary, witness to civil war, refugee, pioneer of “global ghetto funk”, outspoken creator of a politically-charged debut album and of an even more creative follow-up album that she recorded in locations around the world after being denied a visa to work in the U.S. — a rebel’s badge of honour if there ever was one — to many, M.I.A. is nothing less than the street-slanged spokesperson of the twenty-first century Global South.

Yet Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam is also the woman who flew to Los Angeles in February to perform at the Grammy Awards (heavily pregnant, she gave birth to a son a couple of days later) and who is engaged to Benjamin Bronfman, son of Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. (previously the man responsible for — to be diplomatic — misplacing his family’s Seagram liquor empire) — and who will soon become, in tying this particular knot, a part of the establishment. She’s no Che Guevara.

She’s no Britney Spears, either. M.I.A.’s politics are real enough, but they’re expressed differently depending on which of two channels she’s using to convey them. Through one channel she is outspoken, controversial — this is the M.I.A. you hear in interviews, like the one this past winter with PBS’s Tavis Smiley, in which she described the Sri Lankan military campaign against the Tamil Tigers as a “systematic genocide”. These are freighted words, for which she attracted a significant amount of criticism — not least from the Sri Lankan foreign minister, who duly appeared on a subsequent show to condescendingly opine that “M.I.A. is a great artist and we wish her well, but I’m sorry, I think she is misinformed and it’s best that she stay with what she’s good at, which is music — not politics.”

The second channel that M.I.A. has for getting her messages out is, of course, her lyrics. Given the popularity of her albums (Kala, her second, topped Billboard‘s Electronic Albums chart in 2007, and sold over 400,000 copies in the United States alone) and the number of times they’ll be played by each fan, one might expect that this would be by far the most effective way for her to encourage political and social change — a goal that she is quite specific about, by the way. “I wanted to become a musician and help, like, some sort of change,” she told Smiley in her interview, “or stand up for what I believe in, or use music for what it’s supposed to be for. And so it wasn’t really about getting fame and success and becoming a celebrity and selling records, it was more about bringing together an opinion or a point of view of the other that doesn’t usually get heard in the mainstream.”

I fly like paper, get high like planes
If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name
If you come around here, I make ’em all day
I get one down in a second if you wait

These lyrics come from M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”, a catchy song which features on the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire and 2007’s Kala. It’s an ironic take on the singer’s U.S. immigration problems and on the simplistic and stereotypical images too often applied to non-white immigrants in Western countries. As such, it articulates the perspective of the “other”, as M.I.A. is fond of saying. Likewise in “Sunshowers”, which she wrote for the more political Arular (2005), she seems to be telling the story of a man being persecuted by his government as an alleged terrorist — though precisely which government she’s singing about is impossible to tell.

Semi-9 and snipered him
On that wall they posted him
They cornered him
and then just murdered him

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?

Many of her songs are, in effect, vignettes of life that have political implications, and as such her kind of music can play a salutary role in raising global awareness of the kind of experiences that many people in the Third World must frequently endure. But it won’t spark a revolution. The hip hop urban world that M.I.A. belongs to and speaks to is fundamentally a bourgeois one — in spirit if not always in economic reality — in which everyone wants to strike it rich, drive a Hummer, and build a big mansion. Her songs may implicitly critique Western foreign policy, but they do not critique capitalism or wealth accumulation. The existing order has little to fear.

“Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs,” she told Nirali magazine in 2004. “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 certainly has. But not every group in recent musical history has found it necessary to obscure their politics with their music. The Australian band Midnight Oil, for example, wrote about something important and made it sound like something, too. 1986’s Diesel and Dust contained songs like “The Dead Heart”, which condemned the crushing of Australia’s aboriginal cultures under a Western political and corporate system:

We don’t serve your country
Don’t serve your king
Know your custom, don’t speak your tongue
White man came took everyone
Mining companies, pastoral companies
Uranium companies, collected companies

Got more right than people
Got more say than people

The most popular song on the album, “Beds are Burning”, took this critique even further with an unambiguous call to action on land rights. After Midnight Oil wound up in 2002, lead singer Peter Garrett followed his convictions into active politics, and is now Australia’s Minister for the Environment, Heritage, and the Arts. Politics, as Bismarck observed, being the art of the possible, it is almost certain that many of Garrett’s ideals have not yet been put into action, but even so he is a rare example of a musician who has combined a specific call for change with a tangible effort to lead it.

Likewise, one of the springs from which the rap and hip hop genre originally developed was the politically-articulate spoken word music of Gil Scott-Heron, who in the 1970s and 80s combined anger and poetry, conga and sax in strikingly pointed performances. In “Whitey on the Moon“, for example, he mordantly contrasts the deprivation of ghetto life with the hollow accomplishment of his country’s massively expensive space program, while “Johannesburg” (from his 1975 album From South Africa to South Carolina) is crystal clear in its expression of sympathy for the African National Congress’s political and armed resistance to white rule in South Africa — this at a time when the US administration saw the ANC as nothing more than a group of terrorists, communist ones at that.

They tell me that our brothers over there
are defyin’ the Man
We don’t know for sure because the news we
get is unreliable, man
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’
but I’m glad to see resistance growin’

Much closer to home and inescapable in its implications, Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” both names names and looks toward a new dispensation brought about by popular action. Music does not get much more political than this.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so god-damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally screwed
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.
(“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox)

All of which is not to say that M.I.A.’s own politics are not sincerely held, nor that she lacks some sort of authenticity that previous artists — nostalgically considered — possessed. M.I.A. has lived through a civil war, and has probably seen more violence than any of the gangsta rappers in New York or Los Angeles. But she also writes lyrics that can be taken in more than one way, which allows her an escape hatch if the pressure gets too intense. “It could be about gun corporations selling guns and making billions of dollars, or it could be about immigrants coming over and being the scary other that’s going to take everyone’s jobs,” she told Tavis Smiley about “Paper Planes”. “And I kind of want to leave it ambiguous for my fans.”

This ambiguity is precisely the problem. Were M.I.A. a dissident musician in a totalitarian state, her half-esoteric style would be entirely expected and quite laudable. But as a globally famous hip hop artist, she’s at vanishingly tiny risk of arrest for her political views — as she’s already experienced, about the worst that she can expect is some difficulty in obtaining working visas. Unlike Lenny Bruce, she would face neither persecution nor blacklisting if she were to write lyrics without the quality of plausible deniability. As far as changing the world goes, she has both motive and opportunity. But she’ll have to start performing without a net.

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