The first words out of M.I.A,’s mouth on ‘Bamboo Banga’, the first song on her second record, Kala, are “Roadrunner, roadrunner; going hundred miles per hour.” It’s perhaps a sly comment on the incongruity of a Brit-Asian rapper finding herself enveloped in the corduroy embrace of the predominantly white hip urbanites and music geeks that constitute a large part of her fan base. it’s also a statement of purpose from an artist known for her omnivorous appropriation of musical genres: like some monster-movie beast, Maya Arulpragasam reaches hungrily for hip-hop, grime, trance, Bollywood themes, house, dub, disco, traditional Southeast Asian music, afrobeat, reggae, baile funk, and indie rock (aside from the Modern Lovers lift, the chorus of ‘$20’ finds her drawling the refrain from ‘Where Is My Mind?’), and churns them up with blaring horns and strings, sirens, squawks, hand claps and hyperactive percussion, both native and machine-made; and expels them onto discs with garish day-glo graffiti covers. Kala, which was recorded nomadically — in several different studios, with several different producers, as M.I.A. waited out visa limbo — is a more varied record than its predecessor Arular, less aggressively catchy front-to-back, but with M.I.A.’s already signature politicized lyrics and blenderized beats. (M.I.A. has recently spoken out about disputes over credit for her sound, angrily suggesting in a Pitchfork interview that people consider her “a puppet” for her male, white producers, especially ex-boyfriend Diplo. She needn’t worry: two albums and several collaborators into her career, her authorial thumbprint is sharply defined.) Much has been made of M.I.A.’s multi-culti voraciousness, with some even positing her as the prototypical artist of this new century: her synthesis of disparate styles and her aggressive welding of popular and traditional ethnic forms emblematize a world where widespread access to new technology enables the endless recombination of heretofore isolated cultural products. It’s not too much of a stretch to call the interconnected world of M.I.A.’s music the soundtrack to our ever more globalized economical and political spheres.
This is especially true because of M.I.A.’s own heritage and history (her stage name is apparently a reference to her father, a member of the Sri Lankan separatist guerilla movement the Tamil Tigers), as well as her provocative lyrics (famously, from Arular’s ‘Pull Up the People’, “I got the bombs to make you blow, I got the beats to make you bang”). One wonders how much of this is posturing — street cred on a global scale — but debates about “authenticity,” which have been going on since the first time a form of music placed itself opposite some allegedly synthetic mainstream, miss the point: when she says “Hands up, guns out, represent the world town” (in ‘World Town’), she’s dramatizing the fraught dynamic between a first world and a third world that have never, not even in the days of colonialism, rubbed up against each other so closely.
Which brings us back to arguments of M.I.A.’s metaphorical significance in a world with all its windows flung open. The pan-everything culture that M.I.A. theoretically represents is founded on the myth of universal access: to technology, to media access — heck, to basic necessities. The cultural exchange rate is skewed.
M.I.A. seems to know this: she boasts, in ‘$20’ (the song with the Pixies lift), “I put people on the map who have never seen a map.” For Kala, she collaborated with club DJs and hip-hop producers, most notably Timbaland — but (as previously noted by the Village Voice’s Tom Breihan) the only guest rappers on the album are the London-based Nigerian émigré Afrikan Boy (his guest verse in ‘Hussel’ begins, “You think it’s tough now? You should come to Africa”) and the Wilcanna Mob (a group of preteens who support M.I.A. in the revelry ‘Mango Pickle Down River’). So songs like ‘Paper Planes’ — a Trojan horse of a track, it’s built on a sample from The Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” starts out in a triumphant mid-tempo mode that could almost pass for mainstream American hip-hop, and then drops a chorus that sees M.I.A.’s declaration that “All I wanna do is… take your money” punctuated by the sound of a gun shooting off a clip — play up the violent subtext of cultural appropriation. The unimpeded flow of information on which mash-up culture is founded is a one-way street, with all traditional forms of music moving toward those with access to them; a fearsome amalgamator herself, M.I.A. is trying to alter the current. She is, as she also says in ‘Bamboo Banga’, “knocking on the door of your Hummer Hummer.” And while the people in the Hummer probably aren’t listening to Jonathan Richman in there, the message is unmistakable: it’s me coming for your culture, and not the other way around.