Is the world ready for M.I.A.’s ferocity?

by Keri Carlson

Gwen Stefani, always ahead of the fashion curve, has given up on glitzy cell phone ringtones, catwalks and outrageous clothing for a style more, well, revolutionary. She has replaced the Harajuku girls with the Tamil Tiger girls.

OK, so the Hollaback Girl hasn’t really embraced the Sri Lankan rebel group some label as terrorist. But Stefani will bring Maya Arulpragasam, known as M.I.A., as her opening act in November.

Arulpragasam is not a Tamil Tiger. But her father is.

The Tamil Tigers are a separatist group in Sri Lanka that seeks an independent state, and since the 1980s, has used suicide bombings as a means to get its point across.

Arulpragasam moved from Sri Lanka to London at the age of 11, but the influence of the Tigers is obvious in M.I.A.’s music. Her mixtape with DJ Diplo was titled “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” and on her debut album “Arular,” the cover is sprinkled with bright colored collages of bombs, tanks, guns and even planes.

“I feel comfortable representing a Third World aesthetic,” Arulpragasam said.

For Stefani, with a large fan base of suburban teens who no doubt get concert ticket money from their pro-Bush parents, bringing M.I.A. on tour is a daring move. Or maybe it just seems bizarre how quickly M.I.A. has moved up from the underground.

She released her first album only six months ago and didn’t perform live until the beginning of this year. Now she has a guest spot on the new Missy Elliot record.

But before we can try to comprehend how M.I.A. went from blogs to stadiums and what this says about pop culture, first we have to understand M.I.A..

The first time you hear M.I.A. compares to the first time you read Malcolm X. Or see the film “The Battle of Algiers.” Or listen to Public Enemy. It sounds exactly like what you’ve been waiting for.

M.I.A. sounds new even though a lot of the music isn’t really. Instead, it’s the combination of music that makes it seem so exciting. But, it’s more complex than simply taking different influences.

Perhaps more than any artist, M.I.A.’s music encapsulates a sense of a boundary-less world.

On the song “Bucky Done Gun” she samples baile funk taken from the ghettos of Rio de Janeiro that originally came from bass music in Miami. There’s dancehall influence too – not from Jamaica, but from her neighbors in West London.

The pounds of steel drums found all over “Arular” symbolize sounds associated with “world music” (whatever that means), but the steel drum sound comes not from an actual drum, but from a Roland MC-505.

“I tried to do music where I was,” Arulpragasam said. So where was she? England? Sri Lanka?

On “Bucky” M.I.A. tells New York, Brazil and Kingston all to quiet down. She needs to make her own sound.

“Arular” is not just a clash of First World electronics against Third World rhythms. The music is a constant give and take, a circle.

This makes it hard to define M.I.A.. Is it electro? Is it world? Is it hip-hop?

“I made something that doesn’t fit,” Arulpragasam said. “In England, that was a negative thing. They didn’t know where to put it; how to market it.”

M.I.A. says it best in “Sunshowers” when she raps, “From Congo to Colombo/Can’t stereotype my thing, yo.”

Before, genres and marketability played significant roles in music careers. Not so much anymore, or at least there’s an alternative – the Internet.

Here borders, boundaries and genres have dissolved and become irrelevant. And it makes sense that here is where M.I.A.’s buzz began. There was talk of “Arular” being the best album of the year before it even came out.

“On the Internet, there’s a whole breed of people into a load of different stuff. And if this stuff couldn’t find a place before, we’ve found another way. I believed in that,” Arulpragasam said.

M.I.A.’s popularity on the Web did not come solely from traditional music journal sites. A lot of the talk came from blogs and message boards where thousands of different voices could dissect M.I.A..

“It added to what a musician is to me,” Arulpragasam said. “The Internet is really a platform, and it’s a different way of existing as an artist.”

While most of what is found on M.I.A. on the Web is positive, there are plenty of detractors. Arguments have broken out on message boards about M.I.A.’s content.

For example: “Quit bending all my fingo/Quit beating me like you’re Ringo/You wanna go?/You wanna winna war?/Like PLO I don’t surrendo.”

Should she be saying these things? Should we be listening?

Those angered by M.I.A.’s lyrics, believe Arulpragasam means it. They think she is a terrorist. Or, at least a terrorist sympathizer, which in these color-coded terror alert days, means basically the same thing.

And perhaps M.I.A.’s lyrics seem real because of her brown skin.

We weren’t afraid of Johnny Cash even though he told us he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, right?

And yet we wouldn’t want to cross paths with Ice Cube in Compton, right?

“This is what is happening,” Arulpragasam explained. “I’m just pointing it out and it’s all right to be that person. It’s not like I’m the person doing crazy shit.”

As an artist, Arulpragasam says she believes she has an obligation to speak for those whose voices have been ignored.

“I’m here to point out the other side, to say look at what’s going on over here,” she said.

But has mainstream America built a strong enough tolerance post-9/11 where we can now listen to the other side?

Arulpragasam says it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the teenyboppers at the Stefani concert are ready for her.

“As artists, our mission is to get what we think out there as far as possible,” she said. “It’s a good thing if I can penetrate the media and present some thoughts to people who have never heard them. It might hit someone who gets it. We’ll see what happens.”

She added, “No matter what, we do have to try and fuck shit up.”