When the Dead Kennedys recorded Holiday in Cambodia, they made a point of tourists having holidays in someone's hell. Sri Lankan wunderkind, Maya Arulpragasam, otherwise known as M.I.A., the latest in Asian dancehall and hip hop, has been accused of attaining pop stardom out of someone's hell too. In this case, it's global terrorism. But when you have neo-conservative governments that legislate for life support and the right to live and, on the other hand, wage pre-emptive war, then you know that M.I.A. is doing what art often does - mirror the world we live in. Philip Cheah reviews M.I.A.'s latest release, Arular (XL Recordings).

When the Dead Kennedys recorded Holiday in Cambodia, they made a point of tourists having holidays in someone's hell. Sri Lankan wunderkind, Maya Arulpragasam, otherwise known as M.I.A., the latest in Asian dancehall and hip hop, has been accused of attaining pop stardom out of someone's hell too. In this case, it's global terrorism. Her album artwork and music video are littered with references to bombs and bullets. The single, Sunshowers, has a reference to the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation): "You want to win the war like the PLO/well don't surrender." But when you have neo-conservative governments that legislate for life support and the right to live and, on the other hand, wage pre-emptive war, then you know that M.I.A. is doing what art often does - mirror the world we live in.

 

M.I.A. comes with a lot of baggage. The album's title, Arular, supposedly refers to her father's Tamil Tiger codename. On Pull Up the People, she sings: "Pull up the people/pull up the poor/...(or) I got the bombs to make you blow." But she does make interesting points. As she told Pitchfork e-zine: "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.

"And, at the same time, most of my cousins in Sri Lanka are dying as part of a group fighting for the independence of Tamil people. They were revolutionaries and freedom fighters, and people were celebrating them, yet here they're like, 'oh my God, they're terrorists, we need to kill them all.' I wanted to know what would put them in that situation; what would put someone like my Dad in a situation to be strong enough to take up a struggle. You don't wake up and go, 'Yeah, I can take on the world today.' Something has to drive you to that. The media is too busy portraying the cartoon character, the dehumanised animal. I'm willing to say things if (they) provoke discussion and thinking, and I'm willing to see everybody as a human being first and figure out what their politics are afterwards."

So if you're looking to find fault with the politics of this album, then you're really barking up the wrong tree. M.I.A. is really the voice/sound of the "other". And it's a voice that you don't hear much of. When was there ever a Sri Lankan pop act in the world charts? And ironically, despite the whole terrorist scare, M.I.A's dancehall, raggamuffin and hip hop fusion has made her a club favourite in the US, which is where the album will be released first, even though she is based in the UK.

However, M.I.A. has some way to go as an album artiste. The album, Arular, is stronger in parts than as a whole, even though she had production help from Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, Brit DJ producer Richard X and boyfriend DJ Diplo. The single, Sunshowers, and the club crowd-pleaser Galang, explain just why M.I.A. is making waves. There's a brash energy coupled with a curious intellect that pumps her music along. And sometimes she makes you stop and think just long enough...

Click here to order M.I.A.'s Arular.


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