Essays — April 30, 2015 11:04 — 0 Comments

M.I.A.’s Aesthetical Warfare – Ahsan Butt

I.

Bucky Done Gun blitzed The Wedge on MuchMusic. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing or hearing. The trumpets sounded out into a memory though. That brown girl with the trumpets, I remembered, almost a year later.

I heard Galang in my dorm room, under deadline, on my Toshiba. Galang crashed through and kept moving like a getaway. Synths patrolled amid lo-fi explosions and non-stop tips from West London hustler hearsay. My google searches abandoned assignment questions for three letters: M.I.A.

Arular, by then two years old, trickled in track by track, introducing me to this gully Zadie Smith—a dyslexic refugee version with lines as vivid, but dizzier and radical. I stand by my choices that night. Ten years since its release, Arular’s aesthetic is still fresh. No one remembers that assignment though.

 

II.

M.I.A. is obsessable. Sifting through her music and interviews, deciphering lyrics—time goes missing. She does complex things simply. She sees circuits built on binaries—Good vs. Evil, Us vs. Them/Immigrants/Terrorists—and supercharges them until they blow. Her lyrics are striking but sparse. She sketches outlines of manifestos and narratives, hiding meaning in negative space. Her visuals are loud, subversive. Most crucially, her “foreign” beats bang—that’s the currency with which she fucks up the market. The fact that she exists in pop culture on her own terms is itself a mode of political, artistic, and personal resistance.

 

III.

The boy in the dorm room—by then he was done with the news. A Muslim boy, he had kept newspaper clippings in his wallet since the sixth grade. In case someone wanted to argue. That was pre-9/11 even. Can you imagine a sixth grader watching CNN every day, watching his father argue with the TV? He kept the newspaper clippings in case someone didn’t believe him. Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Look—a white guy said it.

He gave up somewhere around Bush II invading Iraq. He can’t remember because it was too much. That’s why he gave up. He disengaged, but you can’t really. The news still happens. It floats around you wirelessly. Bits settle into the psychosphere.

You wonder why the boy takes the news so—

 

IV.

— personal favorite, adding, “if you watch only one of my videos, please try Sunshowers.”

Sunshowers settles into the consciousness, looping there with a dreamy chorus and a video of a lush jungle utopia. This packaging provides cover for what it is: a charged polemic on the Good vs. Evil framing of terrorism.

 

 

The video came out July 2004. Bush and Blair’s Axis of Evil Etc. had already rendered masses of black and brown people murderable. M.I.A.’s own views were nuanced by her closeness to war and armed struggle.

Her family escaped civil war in Sri Lanka in the early eighties. Her father, Arul, who was already living underground, stayed to continue the fight for Tamil independence. For two decades, the family had almost no contact with him. M.I.A. named Arular after him, partly in hopes that he would hear of it and reach out. He did—to ask her to change the name. She said no, “the name was all he had given her.”

At the time, M.I.A. thought her father was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group fighting a brutal asymmetric war against the state.[1] Sri Lanka, as well as 31 other countries including the US, listed LTTE as a terrorist organization. Officially—as official as any black site or killing field—her father was Evil.

In the video, M.I.A. performs to the camera surrounded by young girls. The girls, uniformly dressed, fix radios and walkie-talkies and often walk in ranks. At 1:09, two girls swap clothing quickly before M.I.A. splits them, smirking to the camera. At 2:08, in a close-up of legs slipping off pants, a gasoline can takes up the right side of the frame. In several shots, M.I.A. raps beside a tiger. This utopia of serene girls is actually a guerilla camp. The young girls are meant to evoke Freedom Birds, an infamous all-female combat regiment of the LTTE.

A sugar sweet chorus of love and longing, originally performed by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, is tweaked into a warning of retribution:

 

            The sunshowers that fall on my troubles

            Are over you, my baby

            And sunshowers I’ll be aiming at you

            Cause I’m watching you, my baby

 

But here is the sly shift. M.I.A. piques the conversation, so she can re-frame it. The violence that is promised, aimed sunshowers, is contextualized as a response to troubles—created or exacerbated by prior sunshowers. History, however biased, is a better framing for dialogue than inherent Evil.

The third verse lashes out with her best flow of the song:

 

            Semi-9 and snipered him

            On the wall they posted him

            They cornered him

            And then just murdered him

 

            He told them he didn’t know them

            He wasn’t there they didn’t know him

            They showed him a picture then

            Ain’t that you with the Muslims?

 

This is state violence—cold and callous. Arrest was possible, but execution preferred. Circumstantial evidence was provided, but only as an unneeded corollary to the act.

 

            He had colgate on his teeth

            And Reebok classics on his feet

            At a factory he does Nike

            And then helps him family

 

            Beat heart beat

            He’s made it to the Newsweek

            Sweetheart seen it

            He’s done it for the peeps’ peace.

 

The guilt of the murdered is left ambiguous, de-centered in favor of his circumstances—poverty, a sweatshop life, a mourning sweetheart and family, and some vague collective dream of peace.

Instead of a conversation that begins and ends with Good vs. Evil, M.I.A. is asking why we don’t ask why?

Of course, describing state violence, referencing the PLO (“like the PLO / I don’t surrender”), and asking why was too radical for mainstream media. The video was banned from MTV US after M.I.A. refused to censor the lyrics or run a disclaimer disavowing them.

 

V.

Showbox SoDo had been packed for two hours, The Cool Kids set over for forty-five minutes. I refused to pee.

When the DJ finally crossed the stage to hunker behind his long table and laptop, the space between people sucked out in a vacuum of delirium. Sujee and I surged forward. Timid bodies receded politely.

A Japanese man appeared above us—Big Brother big, his vampire-white head bulging out of his black shirt. We screamed for him. We didn’t know who he was.

 

 

Toyama Koichi laid out his platform of anarchy and government dissolution in two minutes of the unedited TV time guaranteed to every candidate running for Governor of Tokyo. “If you want to join in a terrifying conspiracy to overthrow the government…now is your chance.” We screamed. We didn’t know what this was.

“Elections won’t change anything anyway!” He shook his fist, leaving his middle finger extended for a moment. Then he cracked his neck on both sides. The image cut out to: Bamboo Banger drums. M.I.A. shook onto the stage. Mayhem.

The bass line kicked in with the sound of cars whipping by. Now the crowd was moving. Pockets of space opened up and we danced into them imperfectly, shoulders bumping backs, arms swiping elbows. I craned my head sideways into a lane of shorter people to see M.I.A. It was the first time I had seen her in person. She was a blur, but the impression came off after enough focus: wind-breaker buttoned at the top like a cape; video-game-level, rainbow-tiered leggings; dictator-from-the-future shades; short. She swung her mic carelessly when it wasn’t tilted at her mouth. The music overtook her uneven vocals.

Kala­—soundtrack to endless soul-sucking trips down the 405 to the Renton IKEA. I knelt low, hand on head, swinging my elbow like a window with a busted hinge.

Strike match, light fire/Who’s that girl called Maya/M.I.A. comin back with power power…”

The beat took off and we all lifted. The Tamil sample shattered into high-pitched distortion behind the pounding chorus. Job was gone. Seattle was gone. Sujee was back—the one from before plants and IKEA, the one that used to get thrown out of clubs in college—swaying and tilting, nodding to himself.

M.I.A. stalked the stage, her presence beginning to menace.

“Yeah I’m knockin on the doors of your hummer hummer/And we hungry like the wolves huntin dinner dinner…”

Track after track, resistance leaked from M.I.A.’s mouth out the speakers, spreading kinetically, amplified by bass and gun cocks.

Don’t be callin me desperate when I’m knockin on the door/Every wall you build I’ll knock it down to the floor/See me see me bubblin quietly/See me see me actin like you ain’t met me/See me see me bubblin quietly/See me see me actin like you ain’t met me/Hands up/Guns out/Represent/That World Town…”

For two hours, I re-took stances that were atrophying inside me—stances seemingly distant to my new life with consistent money. World Town anthems flexed away apathy, at least for the moment. Financial comfort didn’t have to be an anesthetic and cynicism didn’t justify indifference or inaction. Fuck irony as pacification too. Racism, inequality, war were real, regardless of my place in the system. My success was my parent’s anyway. They struggled for me and now their immigrant dreams didn’t have to frame my engagement with the world. I could ask more of myself and my choices. The ‘how’ beyond that would only come if I looked for it.

I nearly blacked out to clucking chickens and banging urumees.

 

 

When it was over and the lights came on, I saw an elderly couple in matching tie-dye t-shirts soaked through with sweat. They filed out holding hands, exhausted but connected. I imagined them as the two halves of my brain.

Outside, it was dark except for the sidewalk light of the venue. My voice was gone. Sujee’s was fine. He’s a dancer not a singer. He drove home and I described my favorite parts in full detail, sounding like a shitty whistle. Kala played in the background.

At home, in bed, I watched M.I.A. clips on my phone until I fell asleep. The whole night, I never peed.

 

VI.

Her music didn’t stop genocide at the close of a twenty-five year civil war—not the corralling of Tamil civilians into state-promised “No Strike Zones”, which were shelled, re-located, shrunk and shelled—makeshift hospitals and camps shelled, moved, and shelled—not the smart-phone recorded executions, the concentration of hundreds of thousands of civilians into seven-mile strips of land, the shootings of Tamils trying to flee, even by the LTTE—and it didn’t keep UN workers, whose safety the state refused to guarantee, from leaving as Tamils begged, not for protection, but for witnesses—and when /\/\ /\ Y /\ came out a year later, the state hegemony of the Internet and information in general was clear to her, but not her detractors who claimed conspiracy theories made her political lyrics cheap and unserious—admonitions that she take better precaution to not seem ridiculous, as her linking of Google to government surveillance was obviously ridiculous—an issue that, for her, so clearly pointed to the control of what we know, what we’re allowed to talk about, and why—questions that come to the essence of M.I.A.’s relation to pop media and political discourse—ones she addressed at times defiantly and despondently, with exhaustion, throughout /\/\ /\ Y /\, asking how could these injustices happen and the world not talk about it, how could she explain to her new-born son that this was possible when a supposedly democratic tool existed that made all facts of life discoverable, and what was the role of adversarial art in all this—were there small victories to be won, what was the worth of what—questions that confuse and complicate an album not without excellent moments, from its soul shuddering opening track, to the haunting ambient vocals and re-statement of purpose in Story To Be Told, to the effortless pop mockery of XXXO, the minute and a half breakdown at the end of Teqkilla, and the ten seconds of M.I.A.’s most beautiful and pained singing at the sunset of Tell Me Why—an album aimless and despairing, defiant and honest, soaring in sadness, and overall—a flawed expression of an artist trying to stretch, and ask, what music is capable of.

 

VII.

He is naïve in many ways. The company he works for treats him well, so he imagines it does the thousands of others. He doesn’t see it at first, and then he doesn’t see his complicity. He learns to justify and rationalize—he’s smart enough to do so. But if he’s being honest, it’s his justifications and rationalizations that make him naïve. He hasn’t figured out how to deal with this. In the meantime, he judges himself, which is—

 

VIII.

—fairly flawless forty minutes of music cut with Wikileaks footage. It’s on Vicki Leekx that Bad Girls first appeared.

The video for Bad Girls was shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, a Hollywood favorite for manufacturing images of generic Middle Eastern sandiness.[2] Against the desert backdrop, Arabs drift and women in niqab do bhangra with rifles. Somehow, the shot of M.I.A. filing her nails on a moving car as it leans on two wheels is not the most memorable one in the video.

 

 

The first image, after a panning shot of desert, shows Arab men clinging to and sitting atop a van, not as a stunt, but as a means of transportation for too many men and one vehicle. The image fits comfortably in the notion of a primitive desert people. Once the music starts though, driving evolves into a performative act, an art form.

The foregrounding of the Middle East’s drift subculture presents a reckless cool. Cars spin, tilt, and men “skate.” It’s almost surreal to see Arab men in keffiyehs having fun doing something cool on western media—and the simple truth of that fact is itself surreal.

The “bad girls” in the video confuse orientalism’s dichotomy of Arab women as harem-ized objects of sex or niqab-ified objects of oppression. Their niqabs are gaudy, leopard-printed camouflage. Their eyes hide behind shades or pierce through thick mascara and eyeliner. They vamp, grind, do bhangra for some reason[3]. Then there’s the rifles.

What sounds like market-ready sex-talk isn’t—it never is with M.I.A. The bridge provides the hint:

 

            Get back, get down

            Pull me closer if you think you can hang

            Hands up, hands tied

            Don’t go screaming if I blow you with a bang

 

As the bridge ends for the first time, the women pull out their rifles synced with the line—“…if I blow you with a bang.” When the bridge ends for the third time, the line is synced with M.I.A. thrusting her chest out, as if blown forward.

The three verses tell a loose narrative in three acts with sexual entendres covering the literal story: gunning a Cherokee towards a destination that will leave the passenger (us) “trembling”; having to back the jeep up, getting “cover” to switch lanes; accelerating to the destination, unstoppable, and posing a final question—“But if I go to bed, baby, can I take you?”

If the narrative does allude to some sort of violent mission, then “bed” could mean death, and orientalists not only have to deal with images of Arab women reveling in power, but dancing to a hook—“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well”—that takes on a whole Other meaning. The sultry tongue is firmly in cheek.

 

IX.

Matangi was inspired by incidental googling. An errant query unearthed her namesake—the Hindu goddess of spoken word, daughter of an enlightened untouchable.

The first two tracks of the album make up the best stretch of M.I.A. music since Galang and the hidden track that close out Arular.

The opening track, Karmageddon, “starts in the mountains.” It’s the calm word before the ruckus. It’s assured, as the word should be. It explains as much as 5,000-year-old concepts can be explained, and then clears out for Matangi—the “arrival”, the “procession track.”

 

 

The title track is fluid, like the album, always building towards the next ecstasy, the next dance-aided transcendence. The call “it’s so simple, get to the floor” gets louder, riling the drums, which then thunder under the invocation of world nations—at 2:20, a devastating dose of trap escalates the proceedings until everything falls away to synthesized pipes and a celebratory bhangra.

There is an authority to the track. It’s assertive. The list of countries is incomplete and non-alphabetical—curated:

 

            Somalia, Bosnia, Cuba, Colombia,

            Ecuador, Mexico, Bhutan, Morocco

            Botswana, Ghana, India, Serbia

            Libya, Lebanon, Gambia, Namibia

            Bali, Mali, Chile, Malawi

            Bequia, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Norway

            China, Canada, U.S.A., and UK

            Nepal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, North K.

            Myanmar, Panama, Philippines, Nicaragua

            Palestine and Greece, Peru and France

 

The US and UK fall somewhere in the mix, neither first nor last nor excluded. As it is, there is nothing to contend or resist. It’s simply a list of countries—a slick flow of mostly Global South countries to dance and rhyme to.

What’s attempted isn’t a dialogue. What’s dialogue worth in a political climate in which Fear trumps everything? In which Tamil means terrorist, Somalia means Al-Shabaab, and ISIS means scrutiny of all Muslims rather than reflection of decades of invasions, colonial and autocratic oppression? What’s attempted instead is an assertion of a different paradigm—one built on unapologetic Pride—in which there’s no point to argue and nothing to ban. I only wish Pakistan could ricochet as wicked as “Bali/Mali/Chile/Malawi.”

Commodity culture can attempt to clone a version of M.I.A. stripped of meaning, simulate her sound to create something safe to consume, but what’s M.I.A. without the audacity of a manifesto? What’s the point of a big sound with nothing to say?

 

X.

I have listened to no song—by any artist—more than Galang. It never goes away. Every few years, I YouTube the video and the song ends up on repeat again.

 

It’s infectious and its effect has deepened over time.

I got it viscerally at first—the beat, her flow, the “yah-yah-heeeeeeey” calls. I watched the video to watch her face, to find the minutest expressions, any clue to what she was thinking.

The stress dream lyrics came next—her story of a paranoid youth, the relentless advice and bleak options for survival. It’s bleak without bleakness, still vital and vibrant.

Then the visuals broke through—phallic tanks, tigers, a young Freedom Bird’s face (taken from a frame of VHS), the guy throwing a stone, fuse-lit dynamite, burning toddy trees, jets dropping bombs, and fists forming out of the explosions. She danced in front of this, daring us to notice.

Then the beat’s articulation became clearer, as if I was learning its language—how its polyrhythmic stagger created crevices for rhymes to fall into or inflections to hop over. The “yah-yah-heeey” became clear too for the statement it was—“I’m here now and I do this a little different.”

And then there’s the thing I noticed first, but wasn’t ready to think about. The thing about numbness is it’s a survival mechanism. You lose a part of you because you need to at that time. A young kid is shamed by his skin, so he ceases to identify. The part of him associated with paki-ness is stripped off and tossed into the dryer to kill the smell.

Un-numbing doesn’t happen for everyone, but if it does, that part of you comes back raw. The thing that helps is a feeling that counters the original hurt, the shame.

She wasn’t Pakistani, but she’d be a paki to the people who use the word, and that was close enough. I noticed the feeling, felt it, and then it went away before I understood it. For years though, I kept listening to the song.

 

[1] In reality, her father, while allied with some of the LTTE leadership, had worked for more ideologically focused organizations in the Tamil independence movement—before the LTTE wiped all rivals out.

[2] Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Prince of Persia etc.

[3] Bhangra is south Asian, not Arab.

Bio:

Ahsan Butt is a Canadian of Pakistani heritage. He's a regular contributor to The Monarch Review and an improv actor with impeccable timing.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney