Although London, England's Maya "M.I.A." Arulpragasam is not a particularly gifted singer or rapper, she might still be the most compelling artist to emerge this decade. In a medium dominated by machine-tooled precision, what's so fascinating about the 30-year-old Sri Lanka-born MC is how unkempt and unruly her songs are, and how powerfully they evoke the lives of people we usually only meet by getting on a plane and jetting off to faraway lands. A kind of audio travelogue of her visits to India, Angola, Liberia, and Trinidad, M.I.A.'s excellent new disc, Kala, succeeds not just musically it's one of the year's best records but as a powerful symbol of activism in an era of rampant political apathy and self-absorption.
What's most striking about Kala's politics is how subtly they're conveyed: not through sloganeering, but through the clever juxtaposition of sounds , like the pairing of a gunshot with a ringing cash register in the atmospheric "Paper Planes", which liberally samples the Clash's "Straight to Hell". Most importantly, Kala challenges our definition of world music, casting it as the delirious soundtrack to a global bazaar. With their hectic polyrhythms, tribal chants, and exotic tonal flavours, ramshackle songs like "Bamboo Banga" and "Bird Flu" are that rarest of postmodern artifacts: they are, in the best sense, genuinely shocking.
That's pretty heady talk for an album that, at first blush, just seems designed to get butts shaking. On that count, certainly, Kala is wildly successful, immersed as it is in the lurid street rhythms of the developing world's forms like bhangra, dancehall, and Brazilian funk. Her first album, Arular, drew from a similar palette, but where on that disc she hopscotched haphazardly from one genre to the next, on Kala M.I.A. not only samples, but engages the cultures that inspired her.
"With the Internet it's very easy to just take snippets of other people's music," says the singer, reached on tour in Houston, Texas. "It's another thing to actually work with the people whose ideas you're interested in."
While recording Kala, the Londoner hooked up with dancehall deejays in Kingston, Jamaica; collaborated with Aboriginal rappers in Wilcannia, Australia; and spent several weeks in the coastal Indian city of Chennai, where she interacted with musicians in the Tamil film industry, known as Kollywood. The album's nomadic spirit is summed up in "World Town", a call-to-arms for folks less attached to their immediate surroundings than to the virtual communities of the digital age. Where genres have traditionally been very site-specific think of Seattle and grunge, or the Bronx and hip-hop M.I.A.'s music suggests that future forms will arise not in isolation, but from many places at once.
"At the time hip-hop was born, that was like the pendulum swinging from that elite '70s glam rock and prog rock back to the kids with no money on the street corner," M.I.A. says. "Now hip-hop's become like Rod Stewart style rock 'n' roll: everyone's got limousines, and naked ladies and panthers on their album sleeves. And I think when the pendulum swings away from hip-hop, it will swing to some other place where kids are running around with no shoes on, with all this energy.
"Whether it's the Aborigine kids in Australia, or the Angolan kids, or the Liberian kids, or the Indian kids their ghettoes all have similarities," she continues. "It would be a great thing if all those places were seen as connected. With the open-minded music thing that's going now, where people are drawing their taste from so many different cultures there is a community based in that."
There may be no better figurehead for that movement than M.I.A. herself, who was barred entry to the United States in April of 2006 and placed on a list of banned persons by the Department of Homeland Security. The reasons for that banning have never come to light she was finally granted a visa in July 2007 but speculation surrounded her father's involvement with Sri Lanka rebel group the Tamil Tigers and the frequent, and sometimes flippant, references to terrorism in her music and sleeve art.
At the time, the immigration issue must have seemed like a Kafkaesque, bureaucratic nightmare, effectively torpedoing her plans to record her sophomore album with the Miami-based Timbaland. But because it forced her to cobble together Kala by other means, the ban might have been the best thing that ever happened to M.I.A., cementing her resolve and forcing her down the path less travelled. In the end, the only song she recorded with Timbaland, "Come Around", is Kala's weakest and most conservative track.
"The industry is at its weakest point in history; the machine is a bit confused and no one really knows what's going on," M.I.A. says, who is signed to the behemoth Interscope Records in the United States. "The people at the label here are always telling me, 'We don't know how to put you in the format. Your video doesn't sit nicely next to Rhianna and Beyoncé. You don't have enough lip gloss on.' I don't even know what to say to that.
"But if people just want to hear Fergie forever, I'm totally fine with that," she continues. "I've got better things to do in my life. Music's just a section of my life and I don't want to ever lose myself in it. I don't want that fight to make me ugly."
M.I.A.'s voice trails off at the end of that sentence, but within seconds she's back on fighting form, declaiming loudly and making it clear she's every bit the brash agitator she is on her records now and for years to come.
"I like being a spanner in the works," she says flatly. "I'm fine being an outsider who's just annoying to people. Sometimes it feels like all I'm doing is fighting with people, and it's not easy. But I guess I've come this far; I wouldn't want to give up now."
M.I.A. plays sold-out shows at the Commodore on Tuesday and Wednesday (November 13 and 14).
M.I.A. sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On working with Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine: "I know that Jimmy really believes in what I do, but I know how he views me at the same time: that I'm something really raw and untameable. So he'll just keep me on the side and all the screaming and energy that comes off my music, he'll take bits of it and sprinkle it wisely on all the other artists that he has, so it becomes palatable and he can end up making millions."
On pushing herself as a vocalist: "When I was writing this album, I was splitting up with someone [collaborator Wesley "Diplo" Pentz] and I felt like I didn't really have time to be pretty. I was in a weird, aggravated space when I made the album. Vocally, I think I experimented a lot with that. As a singer, I wish I could be better, of course, but I don't even know if that really matters anymore."
On starting her own vanity label, Zig-Zag Records: "Before I can really think about it too much, I need to settle down first. I need a city; I need a home. Right now, I'm in the thick of touring, but I have three months off to start next year and I'm going to think about it properly then."
Link: M.I.A. official site