Politics and music have always been uneasy bedfellows. On one hand, there is something to be said for musicians who only provide entertainment and, in the process, an escape from the anxiety of politics. On the other hand, it is admirable when musicians use their platform as popular artists to bring awareness to the social injustices of the world.
Maya Arulpragasam falls into the latter category. Arulpragasam (which she shortens to Arul for Western pronunciation purposes) is of Sri Lankan descent. Her father is a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. For safety reasons, her family fled their homeland for Great Britain more than twenty years ago. Growing up in a South London council estate, not knowing where her father was, brought about a singular persona that she calls M.I.A.
Coming from the same urban wilderness that produced the Streets and Dizzee Rascal -- and putting those two to shame with her ballsy, up-front, unrestrained lyrics and delivery -- M.I.A.'s debut album, Arular (a play on her missing father's code name with the Tamil Tigers) is fearless and aggressive. She knocks listeners unconscious with her snarling, confrontational approach. Her vocal style is part Jamaican dancehall toaster, part dirty American rapper, part monastic Tibetan chanter, and part British jungle MC.
Discussing the things she feels are the most troublesome, which are usually ignored by the public, M.I.A. guises her serious messages in what sounds like borderline nonsense. Her topics range from teenage prostitution to war, which she spits rough and ready over punky electro rhythms. "London quieting down/I need to make a sound/New York quieting down/I need to make a sound/Kingston quieting down/I need to make a sound," she states over the trumpeting "Bucky Done Gun."
Even though M.I.A. contorts her lyrics, she gets the point across. She twists serious and uncomfortable topics into nursery rhyme babble, making it easier to listen to while the significance of her topics manages to sneak through. At times it's near impossible to understand her words, but as you sing along you realize you knew what she was saying all along.
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Sounding rough and unfinished, as if it never made it out of her bedroom before it was pressed up, Arular's raw qualities make it a bold statement. The many colors M.I.A. paints with bring to mind toys made of tin in crowded wholesale shops and Third World markets: noisy, manmade, harsh, discounted -- and difficult to ignore.