M.I.A. and the danceability of contradiction

in retrospect

Maya Arulpragasam, or M.I.A., has always been blatant and bold. She was a Tamil refugee to London whose rapid rise in fame and fortune found her in stuck in the crosshairs of power and privilege, where using her influence to effect change proved easier said than done. There’s this one clip in Steve Loveridge’s 2018 documentary “Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.” where M.I.A., teetering on the edge of resignation and defiance, forlornly looks into the camera and asks, “If you come from the struggle, how the f*** do you talk about the struggle without talking about the struggle?” 

It’s after the release of the controversial video for her 2010 single “Born Free,” in which M.I.A. transposes the lived experience of the Sri Lankan Civil War onto white male bodies, as they are beaten and dragged from their homes at gunpoint and forced to run through a minefield. It’s a mere few seconds of the video that arouse the most contention, in which a gun is held against the temple of a young boy and his brains are promptly blown out with barely a second reserved for the viewer to steel themselves.

It’s a video that can safely be classified as gratuitous, if not histrionic, but these are charges that M.I.A. is no stranger to and that have often been dropped so long as the music was good. M.I.A.’s work is ostensibly provocative — that’s what makes her M.I.A. — though the the artist definitively rejects such a label. Arguably, some of her work is specially curated to incite, even as M.I.A. has made a habit of feigning ignorance about the controversial nature of her work, arguing in one interview that the outrage in response to her flipping off the audience at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show — which she claims was merely a symbolization of the Hindu goddess Matangi — was an instance of cultural insensitivity on the part of the NFL. When the interviewer presses her further, asking, “Something tells me that there might have been another meaning in that,” her response is merely, “It's cultural! In my country, it's godly. Okay?” Although this kind of dishonesty comes off as quizzical and unnecessarily performative, it points to a cultural, political and racial relativity that M.I.A. has brought to salience again and again: What might be provocative to the Western viewer is reality for someone else. 

M.I.A. relevancy has waned in the past decade, and she’s never quite managed to regain the momentum of her sophomore album and its centerpiece single “Paper Planes.” The Loveridge documentary feels like emblem of this dissolution, a neat relocation of M.I.A. from the present to the past, where her work can now be considered retrospectively and, perhaps, nostalgically. Certainly, M.I.A. is historically important, having set a precedent for the politicality of the artist that she herself has alluded to. 

When asked by NPR about musicians getting political without facing punishment, M.I.A. said, “Before I came out, it was Dixie Chicks. And then after I came out, you had like Kesha, maybe, who was talking about sexual assault. But a lot of women in music didn't raise their voice. I mean, now it's changing. But during the time I was doing that, it just seemed like ... yeah, I can't really think of somebody who is constantly being punished for it, year after year after year, with a different group of people that was punishing you.” 

M.I.A.’s influence is undeniable, and although her brass and brashness may no longer have the bite it once did as political contexts have shifted, its stark originality deserves a due moment of nostalgic indulgence. When M.I.A. asked of pop musicians nearly 20 years ago, “You have access to a microphone and a thousand people every night. Please use it to say something,” it wasn’t banal, but bold. Loveridge’s documentary chronicles the often gendered dismissals and ostracizations she has faced for her forays into politics, her punishment duly metered out by the likes of Bill Maher and Jian Ghomeshi even as her perseverance ensured her historical staying power as an artist. M.I.A.’s brazen rage on “Kala” and her debut “Arular” was liberating in an pre-Trump era where shock value was still guaranteed, especially when that anger was encapsulated in the voice of a brown, immigrant woman. 

This is not to say that her work is wholly irrelevant today. The unbridled anger that was M.I.A.’s signature may not seize attention as it once did before, but the firm hand that she has had over her own career meant that her public image was always of her own choosing. The persona that she encapsulated then should inform how we make political music now. A refugee of the Sri Lankan Civil War who was raised in London and whose father was the founder of the militant Tamil Tigers, M.I.A.’s identity was an overlap of contradictions: between East and West, documenter and documented, artist and activist, victim and powerholder. How do you speak about living through conflict when you’re deemed too westernized by your own family, when you haven’t “had the war zone experience?” Why can’t even superstardom influence stave off others’ dismissal of the issues that you personally have stake in? These kinds of personal contradictions are what define her music.

Raised on equal parts Public Enemy, Taylor Deane, Wu-Tang Clan and Madonna, M.I.A.’s music has a danceability that lends it its subversiveness. “Paper Planes” — notorious for its distinctive gunshots that were famously censored on MTV and David Letterman — is hodgepodge of globalism, a mix of Trinidadian soca rhythm, Indian bhangra, Jamaican dancehall rap and a sample from The Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” Its catchy pop and dance rhythms infect a musical space that is frequently cordoned off from politicality, that is meant to be feel-good and reserved for leisure. Her violent satire of immigrant stereotyping is enveloped in corporal joy and thereby becomes its own kind of contradiction.

M.I.A. reminds you of your ignorance, privilege and power in even the safest of musical spaces. Her characteristic intertwining of dance and political commentary is arguably most relevant in the era we live in, certainly as innovative provocation and perhaps also as a coping mechanism. I would assert that it is no coincidence that Childish Gambino’s “This is America”— arguably the best political song of 2018 — subverts the ecstatic movement of dance to provide a harsh indictment of the contradictions in American society. Kinesthetic elation clashes with internal horror in a way that speaks to and through the haze of Western experience, and who better to straddle a line of contradiction than a woman whose lived experience embodies it? 


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