18 September 2007
Not since the days of Punk have we seen commercially successful music feature accents reflecting the actual country and cities in England where artists are from, rather than copying US accents, a trend that has been rejected by cultural genres that have been sprung up spontaneously from the grassroots here such as Jungle/Drum & Bass, Garage and Grime. Artists like Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Skinnyman, and Lady Sovereign have succeeded in representing British, mainly London urban working class youth. But Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam aka M.I.A’s (Missing in Action/Acton) new album Kala, named after her mother (the first album Arular named after her father) has brought the closest thing in modern urban music that has so ingeniously fused many international influences into modern urban dance music, with a definite tilt towards South Asian sounds. Asian Dub Foundation, and FunDaMental, especially on the amazing There Shall Be Love album have tried to do this and continue to, but M.I.A. has taken this all to a whole new, sophisticated and yet still beat-banging level.
For so many different reasons, London might as well be a different country to the rest of England, not least because of the seemingly endless amount of different ethnic communities who live side by side with each other. London youth grow up listening to sounds from countries from which their friends, parents and possibly themselves have lived, as well as Western sounds in the form of Rap, R’n’B, Ragga and Dancehall and ‘our own’ London sounds such as Garage, Grime, Drum and Bass and Dub Step. The last genres have come about after having fused together other musical and cultural influences with our own London spin on things. But not many could have foreseen that a former refugee in London from the brutal war between the Tamil people and the Sri Lankan state would have produced one of the most exciting and pioneering Urban music sounds that has come onto the scene to date, and an artist who is as lucid in her political beliefs as she is confident in her talents in music and art having done the artwork for her two albums and who has had a massive artistic input into her music videos.
The sound on Kala doesn’t betray its identification with the London sounds or with the traditions of the London rave and dance culture as elaborated on Kala‘s more upbeat track XR2 which opens with her asking “where were you in ’92?”, rapping in a sulky-drone tone about the rave scene back in 1992. Kala also shows influences of B-More and Brazilian Baile Funk sound, largely as a result of producer and Diplo who produced tracks on Kala as well as the first album. Kala is layered with a multitude of different cultural influences and as the title says on one of the album tracks, she is truly representing the World Town.
M.I.A is not a product of any privileged art scene like so many other commercial successes in the entertainment industry. Once you get into her music you can hear how her life story and experiences have profoundly influenced her creativity. She fled Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka via a refugee camp in India to London at the age of around 12, ending up with her single parent mother in a working class housing estate in Hounslow, West London. She witnessed the bombing of her community and the horrific repression of the Tamil people. Like the other refugees in the camp in India where she stayed in for a year, she lived in poverty of which she has said “we were drinking loads of contaminated water, we had no medicine, I had no hair and scabs all over my head.”
Her experience of the struggle of the Tamil people, her father’s involvement as a Marxist activist in it and subsequent punishment for it by the Sri Lankan authorities, has made her passionately vocal in her music about the way peoples struggles are demonised. In an interview with Fact Magazine she explained “I haven’t heard one proper thing that talks about what the problem is. All I want is a shot of one kid in Palestine who actually says what the fuck is going on. I want one Al-Qaeda dude for every one they’ve shot and killed and arrested and put in Camp X-Ray to be filmed for five minutes and asked, ‘What the fuck is your problem, really, for you to give your life up for it? Why don’t you just tell the world exactly how you feel?’ You have to have a sense of what the other side feels and how they think. The media is too busy portraying the cartoon-character, the dehumanized animal. I’m willing to say things if [they] provoke discussion and thinking.”
M.I.A.’s first album Arular succeeded in catapulting her into the industry limelight, which is maybe surprising if one considers the politically-charged nature of her lyrics that forthrightly and controversially addressed issues such as war, resistance and oppression. Kala in comparison may seem hardly political at all, but closer listening shows that although it is less extrovertly politically, the lyrical content still expresses lyrics about immigration, war and life on the hustle as a first generation third-world kid in London. M.I.A claims her new album, “is also about being a woman in the world and finding your own place within it”.
The track Jimmy, the closest to a conventional song on the album, heavily samples a song from Bollywood movie Disco Dancer in 1982, but still manages to remark on genocide in Rwanda, Congo and Darfur on what appears to be a bubble-gum love song. Confounding sexual and racial stereotypes doesnâ€™t end there on Kala. On the track Boyz, M.I.A. got a hundred male dancers from Jamaica dancing on it. She didnâ€™t want the usual sexist booty-shaking video. At a well-known club in Jamaica, Ragga super-star Beenie Man took the track off M.I.A., and played it in the dance re-winding it for 45 minutes while everyone was going crazy over it. Like so many other tracks on the album Boyz has cut-up samples of South Asian singers, and Asian and African percussion, which gives the album a cohesion and continuity throughout.
Given the opportunity by her record label to spend quite a bit of money in Kala, on which she has produced or co-produced 7 of the 12 tracks, she decided that instead of spending her budget on expensive producers she’d rather spend the money on going to villages in India, Liberia, Trinidad, Australia and Jamaica to find the vocals and percussion for the album. She has argued that we need to hear and be influenced by the sounds from youth around the world on which the Western music industry is pushing dubious cultural commodities such as the rapper 50-Cent.
On the subject of crass lyrics, the last track Come Around is produced by Timbaland, one of the pre-eminent Rap and R’n’B producers around. Although the track is excellent, unfortunately like so many Timbalandâ€™s recent tracks, he has taken the tragic route of supposedly’rapping’ on it, at least he hadnâ€™t tried on this track to attempt to sing like he has on his other recent tracks with tragic consequences. His rapping wouldn’t even have been so bad if the lyrics weren’t the sleaze-ball lyrics that they are: “I don’t wanna be in love with you I’ma just break you off and say goodbye”, you get the picture. To M.I.A.’s credit she doesn’t entertain Timbaland’s rubbish, who just comes across a juvenile idiot. She has said that she has no interest in becoming the next Nelly Furtado, whose “promiscuity” is promoted by Timbaland’s production. One cam imagine that the pressure on her to become a no-brained bimbo performer must be considerable; just being in the decadent and superficial cultural context of the entertainment industry in which she works must present enough pressure to sell-out.
The Timbaland episode on the album is an exception. The other vocal artists she has featured on the album are far away from the music industry manufactured bling culture. One such example on the album is South-East London based Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy featured on the track Hussel, about working the struggle of working class immigrant life in London,
I’m illegal I don’t pay tax tax,
EMA yes I’m claiming that that,
police I try to avoid them,
they catch me hustling they say deport them,
Then the amazing track Mango Pickle Down River produced by M.I.A. and Australian based producer Morganics features crew of ten year old Black Australian/Aboriginal youths called ‘Wilcannia Mob’ rapping alongside M.I.A. who are a part of Morganics outreach project. The kids sound great, and the minimalist track has a didgeridoo bassline. Timbaland was so impressed with the beat that he later took it and featured it on Snoop’s new album. M.I.A. explained about Wilcannia Mob and the racism against Black Australians; “even to get them into the after party, me and my brother practically had to get into a fight with people to get them in “just the amount of segregation between black and white Australia is really crazy”
From promoting cultural ‘Third World democracy’, as she states in The Clash-sampling track and one of the most catchy tracks Paper Planes, she comes straight back down to London on the bass heavy Grime and Dub-Step style 20 Dollar, the follow up from 10 Dollar from the first album. The only sign of the Third World sounds on this track are her vocoded singing which starts the track in South Asianesque semi-tone harmonies. For the rest M.I.A raps in her characteristic blistering sarcastic bad-attitude sulky drones, i.e., not dissimilar to a London rude girl!
Kala takes the listener on a unique journey through the latest break-beat sounds of modern western urban music via number of Third World cities and villages. That in itself would make Kala an incredible album, but such an exercise could easily result in something more like a ‘World Music’ fusion project gone horribly wrong. But M.I.A has pulled off something which rests comfortably between her combined identities of Western underground dance music along with a close loyalty and identification with the international sounds of people across Asia, Africa and Australasia. Kala shows that there doesn’t necessarily have to be cultural divisions in the music industry, and that these cultures when ground against each other can, if done by those involved in them on a grassroots level, become the future sounds of which Kala is definitely a pioneering contribution. In an industry which encourages cultural and political separation from the masses, M.I.A is unlikely to succumb to this pressure; her loyalties are firmly and graphically expressed through her music.
Sukant Chandan is London-based writer on current affairs and cultural issues. He was for ten years a Garage and Jungle/Drum&Bass MC with the DubNeg crew playing at clubs and on London pirate radios. He runs two blogs ouraim.blogspot.com/ and sonsofmalcolm.blogspot.com/ and can be contacted at email@example.com