Music for Rebels & Revels
M.I.A.'s cheeky radical-chic rhythms move the (m)asses
It's always frustrating when an artist to be interviewed goes missing in action, but at least in this instance, it's unintentionally apropos. The interviewee in question is producer/MC M.I.A.—Sri Lanka-born, London-bred Maya Arulpragasam, whose globalized rhythms balance the politically knotty and socially naughty—and at the 11th hour, she has been forced to pull out of a phoner because of illness.
What's left is anxiety and the shell of an idea. Taking a cue from the "Invisible Jukebox" feature of The Wire—a highbrow U.K. monthly music mag, not the HBO series—the format of the aborted session was to be a blindfold test of precursors and imitators, an exchange in which audio snippets are played and impressions are recorded. The stress, of course, isn't in pushing play; it's in what to play.
This pressure threatens to go particularly pear-shaped with a subject such as M.I.A., who will perform at the appropriately multicultural Coachella on April 26. Since emerging in 2004, M.I.A. has raised issues of social accountability set to militarized street music, pulling from Miami bass, Bollywood, Brazilian baile funk and Baltimore club music, among other forms.
In the past, M.I.A. has drawn from Rocky theme composer Bill Conti via Rio de Janeiro's funk-carioca performer Deize Tigrona, and on Kala, her most recent album, she samples everything from the Clash to Hindi disco producer Bappi Lahiri. The common thread pulled from this rhythmic diaspora is music for rebels and revels. So, with influences charted across at least five continents, where should the game have been played? What mix of contemporaries and classics—some of both also appearing at Coachella—would have offered the fiercest jump-off? Or shown how M.I.A.'s whole persona is grounded, not in world music, but in worldly music?
The first instinct would be to open with something familiar. And since Bhangra bangers and Angolan Kuduro tracks aren't handy in this case, that would be some throw-ya-gunz-in-tha-air beats. The pitch of Baltimore club music hammers throughout the same style of post-industrial abscesses that play home to many of M.I.A.'s ghetto-tech influences, which use music to purge aggression. The question is, do you drop her a track by an originator, such as Rod Lee, who aims to turn reality into melody, or an impersonator, such as New York-based "gutter music" peddler Aaron LaCrate? Authenticity versus appropriation has been a cornerstone of the M.I.A. discussion—of music in general—since Elvis. (To hear more of King Tut to Cajmere, Mantronix to M.A.N.D.Y., check out M.I.A.'s former DJ/flame Diplo, who plays Coachella April 25.)
Then again, maybe the best place to begin is the beginning, which for M.I.A.'s recording career would be London. So it would be right to open with "London Is the Place for Me" by Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener. The Caribbean islands have played a major part in the music of the British Isles since at least the 1940s (and continue to cross-pollinate through contemporary post-punk, drum-and-bass, and more). Then again, there's also a way to bridge the eras by dropping a track from Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaican dub poet raised in Brixton (and performing at Coachella April 27). Johnson's late-'70s/early-'80s output was charged with racial politics and class warfare.
Again, though, is it too obvious? Why not challenge her? "I was born in a welfare state/Ruled by bureaucracy/Controlled by civil servants/And people dressed in gray/Got no privacy, got no liberty/'Cos the 20th-century people/Took it all away from me." These lyrics are from the Kinks' "20th Century Man," a cut from 1971. What does a white male know about lost liberties, M.I.A.? Wouldn't we like to know? . . .
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Could she vibe to that? And what if the next track was a bootleg outtake of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" featuring Eric Clapton on guitar? Why? Well, it's pure fire; but also, it could be a solid instigator, raising questions of the industry's long-running phallocentric culture and the degradation of women in song.
Maybe the better track would be some earthy, vintage-style funk by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Tones (playing Coachella on April 25). Or, more in line with M.I.A.'s flamboyant visual aesthetic, why not some straight Minneapolis pop from Apollonia 6, Sheena Easton or Sheila E, but only because Prince is the latest addition to Coachella's April 26 lineup.
But with no interview, let's just enjoy the view. Experiencing M.I.A. live promises bass dips to head trips, a shantytown riot of sounds that push air by the kilo. One for the cerebral critic's fantasy file on record, and a hedonist's cream dream onstage, M.I.A.'s music satisfies whether you analyze or fantasize.
M.I.A. performs April 26.