Refugee Chic

The new album from the Sri Lankan sensation M.I.A.

Last month, Maya Arulpragasam, who records as M.I.A., embarked on her first American mini-tour, arriving in New York City to play at the Knitting Factory. The house was packed with a certain kind of fan: More so than any recent artist, M.I.A.’s fame has been cultivated online. So thick was the scene that one blogger, in a recap, provided a laundry list of about 20 of her peers in the audience. M.I.A presents a compelling package for the chattering classes. She has model looks, a Sri Lankan heritage, a Tamil Tiger father, and an au courant sound. But precisely because of her profile, she’s stepped into an uncomfortable limelight: the agitpop artist of the moment.

Fact is, there aren’t that many women of South Asian extraction making beat-driven music for the Western world. If M.I.A. were black and covering similar ground—lyrics about poverty and politics sprinkled amid dance-friendly chants—she’d be pigeonholed to a particular scene: dancehall, grime, hip-hop, etc. If she were white, she would be derided as a holdover from the electro renaissance of four years ago. If she were a man, she wouldn’t leave a fingerprint. Music criticism is still largely a male preserve—a publicist friend of mine avers that she’s about a dozen times more likely to receive a response to a press release for a female artist. The upshot for M.I.A. is that she’s the rare musician who can float freely among musical styles without raising eyebrows. That’s also why her songs are so appealing to the music cognoscenti.

M.I.A.’s first single, ” Galang,” which she released in 2003, has a breezy and chirpy sound, almost like an elementary-school recess. She speaks improvised slang over a beat that combines the syncopation of dancehall reggae with the piercing shrill of electro. The clash is surprisingly harmonious—a meeting of minds that were separated at birth. On her debut album, Arular (XL), M.I.A. provides more of the same. She chooses beats with a critic’s ear, siphoning off and repackaging sounds from a planet’s worth of hip-hop-influenced styles. ” Pull Up the People” meshes a clipped dancehall beat with vintage U.K. jungle music, while the excellent ” Bucky Done Gun” evokes the raw fervor of Brazilian baile funk. Not all of M.I.A.’s choices are so considered, though. The song “10 Dollar” lazily revisits the snappish drum machine work of the ‘80s dancefloor icon Arthur Baker, and the hook of “Sunshowers” is a direct rip from Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band’s “Sunshower.” Ghostface Killah did the same thing four years ago. M.I.A. appropriates imagery in the same scattershot way that she appropriates beats, only the results are more suspect. Her album cover, which she designed herself, shows bright-colored blocks with images of planes, tanks, guns, and bombs. The cover also has some crammed-in Arabic script. A friend of mine translated the three lines as, roughly, “God be your protector”; “Doubt in the glory of God”; and “The dignity of God.” Her publicist notes, though, that the meaning is incidental: “There is both Arabic and Tamil text. The Arabic is just random words she needed to find to represent Islam.”In a further nod to Islam, the first word uttered on the album is a chantlike “Inshallah,” a common Arabic phrase that means “God willing!” But this, like much of the album’s politics, feels more like an idle attempt at provocation than engaged expression.

Still, few will look beyond their own awe at M.I.A.’s perspective, and she seems to know that. Critics bowed down before her perceived political weight. In a four-star review, Rolling Stone celebrated Arular as “the sound of jumprope rhymes in a war zone,” while Spin proclaimed, “If this is the sound of revolution, we’re ready to posse up,” and gave the album an “A.”

True, M.I.A.’s life has been littered with roadblocks—at the age of 11, she relocated with her family from Sri Lanka to London to escape the violence in her home country. Yet in her songs she’s often vague about her past and her politics, referring to them in the occasional lyric: “I’ve got the bombs to make you blow.” But still, they polarize. On the music message board I Love Music, a debate arose over the depth and appropriateness of M.I.A.’s Tamil Tiger pride, followed by an extensive conversation about the history of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. For some, M.I.A.’s support, at whatever level, of the Tamil Tigers—the rebel group that is widely credited with inventing suicide bombing—is deplorable. For others, her engagement with this conflict, little understood in the West, is a noble act worth cheering. Both sides, though, seem to like M.I.A.’s music.

Away from the beats, however, M.I.A.’s politics begin to appear featherweight. She uses them in a way that feels calculated—a little bit of radical chic for the in-crowd. At the end of her set at the Knitting Factory, M.I.A. found a $20 bill on the floor of the stage. She picked it up, waved it at the audience, and said, “We’re refugees. We can make 20 dollars go a long way.” Although it was a delicious inversion of the familiar hip-hop practice of blithely throwing money into a crowd, it felt studied, more an idea of what the crowd might expect to hear than what she herself actually thought or felt. After de-arching her eyebrow, she closed her hand around the bill and quietly walked off stage.