One of the most entertaining and frustrating things about being a fan of M.I.A has been watching white critics struggle to articulate her style while challenging her right to the aesthetic she cultivates. Artists of color aren’t often recognized for their sophistication or intent. Rather, they’re ascribed a “primitive rawness.”
With her synthesis of diverse but connected motifs M.I.A gets dubbed “cut and paste.” Words like “patchwork,” “slapped-together,” and “scotch tape” are regularly used, and that’s from positive reviews. American critics, unsure of the cacophony of identities and experiences M.I.A offers, commonly project their own uncertainties onto her.
The reception of her albums can be charted along her public perception, which took a hit in 2010. Her increasing success hadn’t changed the tone of her antiestablishment politics and the juxtaposition made scoffing at M.I.A as fashionable as dancing to Galang had been.
In her New York Times Magazine profile Lynn Hirschberg presented her inability to comprehend M.I.A as Maya’s own ignorance. On choosing Blackwater inspired uniforms for the "Born Free" video, Hirschberg miffed “The oddity of using a garment linked to mercenaries to convey a very different message seemed to elude Maya.” The “oddity” is called irony, a concept Hirschberg apparently didn’t think Maya would wield.
While reviewing a Kreayshawn track for Gawker Rich Juzwiak added, “M.I.A. also had the advantage of an other-worldly aesthetic, pulled from the bargain bin of a store too ethnic for the lion’s share of her eventual audience ever to have experienced firsthand."
In a review of M.I.A.’s debut Arular for the Village Voice, Simon Reynolds wrote that while “The record sounds great,” there’s “something ever so slightly off-putting about the whole phenomenon…don’t let M.I.A.'s brown skin throw you off: She's got no more real connection with the favela funksters than Prince Harry.” Those baffled by the range of M.I.A’s sources are eager to dismiss the collage as inauthentic and tellingly root their anxiety in her “ethnicness.”
Since she no longer lives in the projects of London and eats the occasional truffle fry, M.I.A garners skepticism for sampling all the nonwhiteness of her global south palate. She doesn’t just traffic in Otherness, she revels in it.
Instead of the gloomy faced oppression of “third worlders” waiting for first world sponsorship, she brings us their rhythms, colors, and slang. Instead of the stoic self-seriousness of pop stars with a cause, M.I.A. waxes ironic. And it confuses the hell out of people.
For pairing divergent geographies, both sonically and visually, Reynolds decided that Arular “comes from nowhere.” But M.I.A.’s multiplicity soundtracks a very specific experience—one that doesn’t stop existing just because a white person can’t validate it.
America has a sense of cultural blackness and a sense of cultural whiteness. M.I.A disrupts America’s nascent sense of South Asianess—one still orbiting just-happy-to-be-here spelling bee champions and accented sidekicks (Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling being exceptions not the rule).
M.I.A’s choice to borrow imagery from disparate groups and turn it into iconography isn’t appropriative; it’s the natural instinct of a diasporic identity. South Asians are already forced to invest in the panethnic “other” constructed by the West; we keep getting beat up for looking like Arabs slash Muslims slash terrorists. Called all three, M.I.A subverts the conflation to her advantage. Welcome to Worldtown.
Choruses of children evoking a crowded slum, humid jungles where Sri Lankan women bathe and wash their clothes, old Bimmers drifting in a Moroccan desert, the mutiple limbs of a Hindu goddess stretching behind her, the austerity of areas long occupied by military, a digital print burqa.
By lifting imagery associated with the global south and restyling it with an unapologetically gaudy insistence on its “otherness,” M.I.A empowers both herself and brown kids worldwide who had previously only been the subjects of Otherization, not the agents. Her reappropriation of the exotic kitsch brands subaltern struggle with dance-pop cool, while triumphantly avoiding privileging white consumption.
The video for the first single off Matangi, “Bring The Noize,” opens with a Sikh man slowly combing his long dark hair and wrapping it in a turban. The top comments on her “Bad Girls” video currently gripe about having to see “towelheads” to hear her song. The politics of an aesthetic with a retail value can’t be compromised when that aesthetic is both the means and the end. M.I.A’s countercultural potential fulfills itself through its context.
Through M.I.A we finally get to tell a joke we aren’t the butt of while mugging in front of confused white critics and YouTube commenters, agape at our jalabiyas, turbans, or armfuls of gold bangles flashing on brown skin. In a world where we’re still getting killed for looking different, it’s supremely satisfying to see M.I.A machine-gun the market with that difference.
All the while British Sri Lankan Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, despite her stunning beauty, resists the exotification of the white market by usurping that commodification. Her recontextualization of authentically mimics a decontextualized reality. The packaging doesn’t undermine the message; it is the message.
Like Kanye, the dissemination of Maya’s ideas unfairly suffers because she doesn’t speak with the slickness of an advertisement. But her disavowals of American imperialism are subsumed by her aesthetic. She is a visual artist turned dance musician, writing nursery rhymes for post-colonial angst. Racialized along post 9/11 orientalism, her music videos are sufficient manifesto. Those who can’t parse the iconography of diaspora assume the experience doesn’t exist. For the rest of us, M.I.A provides its soundtrack.
Ayesha A. Siddiqi is a writer and cultural critic. She tweets at @pushinghoops