The United Colors of M.I.A.

This Sri Lanka-born, London-based MC knocks down more walls than our global village can even think to put up

Dangling off the edge of a note, Maya Arulpragasam -- aka M.I.A. -- offers a seemingly innocent salutation on "Amazon," a track from her desperately anticipated debut release, Arular. "Hello/ This is M.I.A./ Could you please/ Come get me," she intones, her voice a curious, captivating mix of affectless monotone and Madonna-esque squeal. Her vocals reverberate off every stone and branch of the sonic landscape, a thick jungle of jingly, rippling layers of sound that the producer/MC has carefully constructed to tell a story of (her own) abduction.

The U.K.'s grime scene, with its gritty streets and sparse, rat-a-tat soundtrack, has become a permanent fixture on the hip hop family tree. M.I.A. is the latest outgrowth. But while this artist has (as she says on "Pull Up the People") "the bombs to make you blow ... the beats to make you bang," she's dropping those grenades from a slightly different perspective.

At once a cult figure whose name is on the lips of every major label and publication, a stunningly gorgeous tomboy of a girl in a boys' club, and a glaring threat to the dangerously limited black/white binary through which we view pop music, M.I.A. is doing a nail-biting balancing act that's left the world, not to mention herself, breathless.

M.I.A.: "If they think this is exotic, well, I really feel like 
they haven't seen anything yet."
David Titlow
M.I.A.: "If they think this is exotic, well, I really feel like they haven't seen anything yet."

"I feel like, 'Let's just get through the next two weeks.' And then you get to the next two weeks, and you're like, 'Fuck, how did this happen?' I never thought I was capable. I feel like I'm really pushing the limitations of being a human being -- it's like, 'How much more can you take on?'"

That, exactly, is what M.I.A. is about to find out.

The lightning-quick ascendance of M.I.A. -- an alias that stands for "Missing in Acton," which references both her London neighborhood and her politically tumultuous youth -- is yet another example of the cyber-grass-roots community flexing its musical muscles. She set her sights on writing and producing in 2002, holing up with a Roland MC-505 Groovebox (a rudimentary drum machine) and banging out an appetite-whetting single, "Galang." That song and its companion piece, "Sunshowers," were soon found frequenting the hottest blogs and hippest MP3 players, driving everyone who came into contact with their fetchingly concave dance-floor thumps and scorching, globe-trotting slang to make a fast break for his closest file-sharing system.

M.I.A. responded not with her promised debut, but with an even more grass-roots mash-up of her forthcoming album's tracks, Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1, a mix that sounded as if M.I.A., in collaboration with Philly DJ/producer Diplo, had assembled it from the castoff beats and bytes of a transglobal underground club circuit. The bootleg release spread like a virus, and music hipsterdom was left beside itself in a tizzy of expectation for the wonders that the always-just-out-of-reach debut might hold.

So, just what is so titillating about M.I.A.'s sound? Judging by the press, much of its appeal seems to lie in the opportunity it offers journalists to throw as many descriptors at its originator as she can catch: dancehall, baile funk, Dizzee Rascal, grime, ragga, garage, dub, Neneh Cherry, crunk.


Put simply, M.I.A.'s aesthetic is nothing more than the mishmashed genre-fuck of a 28-year-old artist familiar with the ins and outs of the London streets and scenes. As M.I.A. says, she's "a walking mix tape" creating music that is "a bit refugee for the moment, it doesn't have a home."

Perhaps this isn't so surprising, considering that M.I.A. herself was once a refugee. Her childhood was spent weathering civil war in Sri Lanka, where her father was involved with the Tamil movement for independence from the Sinhalese majority. After repeatedly trying to flee the country, even as Tamils were being shot at border-crossing points, M.I.A. and her family finally escaped to London, eventually finding a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. Arular, with its name taken from M.I.A.'s father's nom de guerre, teems with themes of political unrest, persecution, and revolution, all of which are articulated for club relevance: "Pull up the people/ Pull up the poor," she singsongs over skipping-stone beats and slithering synths, calling for both literal and figurative head-spinning.

The tragic relevancy of her turbulent youth combined with her white-hot penchant for pastiche and the buzz of the underground has catapulted M.I.A. to an almost mythic cult status -- and planted her rather precariously on the tightrope-thin border between the West and the "Other," politics and partying, hype and reality.

Arular will be thrust onto a pop music scene that is still very rigidly divided into black and white (i.e., black music is X, white musicians make Y). Artists from both camps cross over and even sometimes play in the realm of sounds that exists outside of this binary -- see: bhangra-infused hip hop, reggae-meets-Asian-dub-meets-electro-punk -- but a self-reliant brown voice is still uncommon.

M.I.A. is well aware that timing is everything. "Any kind of music," she says by phone from the U.K., "even pop and stuff -- there's so many Indian influences in it all the time ... [but] there was no Asian person representing the vocal side, you know what I mean? ... And I was like, 'Well, shit, Dr. Dre and Truth Hurts have got, like, you know, this amazing Indian sound going on and why can't I do something over a hip hop beat or a dancehall beat? Because it's a fair exchange, you know?'"

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