No Roots Mean No Rules: The Triumph Of M.I.A.
“But coming out as the first Sri Lankan artist in the west, what the fuck am I supposed to sound like? There's no rules for me."
No roots mean no rules, as Mathangi 'Maya' Arulpragasam, M.I.A, told the Guardian in 2005, the year she dropped her seminal debut, 'Arular'.
Album reviews from that time understandably struggled to define the sound Arulpragasam was bringing; “invigorating distillation of the world's most thrilling music” spouted Pitchfork, while Rolling Stone attempted with a rather perplexing Bow Wow Wow reference before wisely settling on “unclassifiable”.
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Let’s forward thirteen years later to 2018. Although border-breaking genres like dancehall are enjoying mainstream popularity, Arulpragasam remains a singular force in the western music scene. She combines a mixture of music that only someone between cultures and worlds can envision and pioneer; a sound that challenges the confines of national frontiers as much as her own political philosophy does.
A British musician of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, arriving to London at 10 years old to escape the escalating conflict in her birthland, her background is often referred to by those trying to dissect her sound.
For those who are unfamiliar with her story, Clash’s 2010 interview (archived) with the Hounslow-raised star provides a solid account (“I repeat my story again and again because it’s interesting to see how many times it gets edited, and how much the right to tell your story doesn’t exist” she tells us).
She sets a fearless example in her ability to combine musical styles and beats from across the globe. She takes elements of dancehall, hip-hop, reggae, punk, and chews them up along with her Roland MC-505, spitting them back out in entirely different forms, crushing the boundaries of the very genres she herself was inspired by.
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Her lyrics are equally as disobedient to the norm, exploiting pop formulas by slewing out purposeful statements with a deliberate naivety. She’s unfazed by controversy — from her first single 'Sunshowers', "Like PLO, I don't surrender”— to the more recent 'Borders', “Love Wins: What’s up with that?”, she continuously tests the waters with how far she can go.
And, of course, this type of provocation is present in her music videos, concerts, and tweets. She has displeased record labels, peers and collaborators through her filterless opinions, what some perceive as a self-righteous attitude.
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But let’s not forget: Arulpragasam’s ingenuity comes down to the fact that there still isn’t anyone like her. She is still releasing hits that question issues of global importance and chronicle injustices.
The controversy here shouldn’t be with the artist who is disagreeing with standardized societal standards—it is that there still isn’t a broad enough platform for artists who feel outraged by what others accept as normal.
In a purportedly democratic society, the music we are delivered feels disconcertingly homogenous. Arulpragasam’s received backlash for her attitude and behaviour, but why should we care? No artist who brings this much originality, brashness, and purpose is going to play it safe.
Her music works because it leaves no one behind. She can perform with Madonna and write songs in slums. She is an advocate of equality and inclusivity and whatever she does represents that. She is exposing the world’s hypocrisies, and has proved to be right, time and time again.
...After all, she said fuck you to NFL long before Colin Kaepernick fronted a Nike commercial.
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New documentary MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. is out now.
Words: Charis McGowan
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