New World Order: MIA Adopts the Feisty Sound of the Slums, but She Is Strongest When Closer to Home

By Trilling, Daniel | New Statesman (1996), August 27, 2007 | Go to article overview

New World Order: MIA Adopts the Feisty Sound of the Slums, but She Is Strongest When Closer to Home


Trilling, Daniel, New Statesman (1996)


Set against the current crop of British pop stars, the Sri Lankan-British rapper MIA (real name Mathangi Arulpragasam) cuts an awkward figure. While the likes of Kate Nash, Jack Penate or Lily Allen exude a cheeky but unthreatening image, Arulpragasam has no such easy charm: she is a hip art-school graduate who mixes political posturing with childlike, brightly coloured designer clothing and sample-based electronic dance music that openly steals from an array of sources. While you could easily spend a quiet evening in the pub with Kate Nash, MIA would probably insist on a round of gallery launches, followed by an all-night rave in a fashionably derelict warehouse. Pop music in 2007 is often delivered with a nudge and a wink; Arulpragasam takes the whole business seriously.

Her 2005 debut album, Arular, was a genre-hopping mix of off-kilter dance rhythms and playful, almost nonsensical rapping. She has a magpie approach to music, mixing familiar elements of hip-hop and reggae with sounds drawn from outside the usual boundaries of western pop: Brazilian baile-funk, Angolan kuduro. With her frequent collaborator, the Philadelphia-based DJ Diplo, Arulpragasam has helped pave the way for Brazilian bands such as Cansei de Ser Sexy and Bonde do Role or the Portuguese-Angolan group Buraka Som Sistema to enter the British pop market.

In interviews, Arulpragasam has often talked about the impact of her past as a refugee from the civil war in Sri Lanka. Her father fought for a Tamil separatist group ("Arular" was his political pseudonym) and Arulpragasam spent her early childhood flitting between Sri Lanka and London with her mother. Her artwork, which adorns her record sleeves and was published as a book in 2002, features kitsch spray paint-stencilled images of tanks, guns and revolutionary symbols. Along with her lyrics, which namecheck various armed struggles throughout the world, this has provoked minor bouts of controversy throughout her career--MTV refused to play the video for her song "Sunshowers" until a line referencing the Palestine Liberation Organisation was cut, and in recent months she has had trouble getting a visa to tour the United States.

On her new album, Kala, Arulpragasam casts the musical net even wider. It was written and recorded in a list of countries that reads like a gap-year student's tour itinerary: India, Trinidad, Jamaica, Australia, Japan and the United States. Her internationalist approach is laid out on the opening track, "Bamboo Banga". In a deadpan drawl, Arulpragasam intones the words "Somalia, Angola, Ghana Ghana Ghana" over a minimal, moody drumbeat. "Boyz", the first single to be taken from the album, is a collage of tribal drumming and vocal samples recorded in Chennai, India, while the track "Mango Pickle Down River" features a didgeridoo loop and vocals by a group of teenage Aboriginal rappers. …

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