Onstage, M.I.A. can be hit or miss: The two times I've seen her perform, at
the South by Southwest Music Festival last March and opening for LCD
Soundsystem at Metro in May, her energy and enthusiasm were more impressive
than her rapping.
Nevertheless, there is no denying the power of the artist's Interscope
debut "Arular" and its indelible hit "Galang," or the fact that these
recordings mark the Sri Lankan MC as one of the most inspiring new voices in
Born in London, Maya Arulpragasam returned to her native Sri Lanka as a
child just as the civil war was beginning to escalate there. She lost
several family members in the conflict, and was separated from her father, a
separatist activist who sided with the Tamils fighting for independence from
the Sinhalese majority.
Eventually, Arulpragasam's family reunited and returned to England, and
there she first made her mark as a visual artist, working with photography
and computer graphics, and initially entering the music world by
contributing the art work for Elastica's second album and subsequent tour.
Metro, 3730 N.
In the process, Elastica leader Justine Frischmann encouraged
Arulpragasam to try her hand at making music herself, and the tour's opening
act, the outspoken electroclash artist Peaches, introduced her to the joys
of work with a Roland MC-505 sequencer. A short time later, she adopted the
moniker M.I.A. (her father's code name during the Tamil rebellion), linked
up with DJ Diplo and began crafting her high-energy mix of hip-hop, electro,
dancehall, grime and baile funk.
"It seems like I just stumbled into it," M.I.A. said recently, when we
spoke the day after she'd been lauded at the Mercury Awards, the U.K.
equivalent of the Grammys. "When I walk into these events, it's like they
all look at me funny, because I am a weird thing for the music industry.
It's like when you go to school the first day and you feel like everyone
knows everything but you!"
The artist overcame those feelings by observing the inspiring examples of
her musical mentors. "When I saw what Justine did musically and what Peaches
did musically, working together in a room, that is when I went, 'Oh, there
is a spectrum to music and the way you make it, and you don't have to know
everything.' That gave me an insight into thinking about how to do it
M.I.A.'s raps include a mix of carefree exhortations to party hard, dance
and celebrate and sharper, acid-tongued criticisms of societal problems such
as poverty, war, sexism, consumerism and teenage prostitution. But she
didn't set out to be a "political rapper."
"I didn't want to make huge political statements; in fact, I hate preachy
s--- and people saying, 'This is good; this is bad.' I talk about how I see
things as an everyday person in England. I was saying things that were a bit
controversial, and I wanted to say that there are some opinions that aren't
black and white. Things are confusing and complex. If you really want to be
a good person, you understand things from all points of view and you are
empathetic towards every opinion and every voice.
"I was like, 'I'm going to make an album about how it's difficult to make
sense of living today, and that is added to by the television and the media,
the person at my bank and the person at my mobile phone company.' I want to
make sense of all those people and what is going on, and that is what I
tried to do lyrically, and not provide a manifesto."
Nevertheless, as she gears up to begin work on hreer second album, M.I.A.
is thinking in broader feminist terms regarding her potential subject
"I feel like there are so many questions and situations I'm going through
as a woman when it comes to music and success or money and men. Just seeing
all that has made me think about how hard it is for a generation of women
who have had a kid and fallen in love and went for the dream, and now
they're quite worn down with everyday life. Who is speaking for them? All
our media and magazines and music are all so obsessed with sex and sexuality
and hot pants and fake s--- that we train all these men to want that. Those
are some of the things I'd like to talk about."
And she maintains that she isn't unduly worried about topping the
accomplishments of her debut.
I don't judge what I do from the pressures of the outside world. I am a
person that needs to be doing something: I'm quite restless, and I learned
at a young age that making work is the only thing I have. I've lost my home,
I've lost my family, where I live, my community, my society -- I've lost all
those things before, and you'll never catch me fighting for them. But one
thing I know is I can't lose my ability to pick up a tool and make something
or use my brain. If I don't have a pot to p--- in, I'll make a pot."
REASONS FOR LIVING
Seeking to "create spaces where women can cultivate their talents in all
creative areas," Chicago's third annual Estrojam Festival shifts into
high gear tonight and Saturday night.
This evening's activities start at 8 with a film festival highlighting
the work of female moviemakers such as Maria Gigante, Paula Durette, Anneka
Herre and Anne T. Hanson. Admission to the all-ages event is $10 at the door
of Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark. A 21+over after-party follows at
Circuit, 3641 N. Halsted, with performances by the Girlie-Q Variety Hour,
which promises "devilish drag, vampy vixens and bodacious burlesque," and
the similarly themed Hellcat Hussies. Admission is $8.
Saturday afternoon offers panels on women in the arts and the music
business and activism from 4 to 6 p.m. at DePaul University, 2250 N.
Sheffield, with speakers including Stacey Singer of Daemon Records, Misty
McElroy of Portland's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, and Dana Powell, former
manager and political liaison for the Indigo Girls. A workshop on break
dancing and DJing follows at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, from 6 to 8 p.m.;
admission for each is $10.
Estrojam concludes on Saturday with two diverse musical bills, one at
Metro starting at 8 p.m. and featuring Scream Club, Brazilian Girls, Anna
Oxygen and Breakbone DanceCo. (admission is $15, 18+over) and another
all-ages lineup at Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark, with Alina Simone,
Kristin Shout, the Sisters Obrien, Shelley Miller and Emily White.
For more information on the festival, visit www.estrojam.org.