MIA’s Embarrassment of Riches

4 06 2010

One of the problems with approaching MIA’s lack of authenticity as a flaw is ignoring the relativity of authenticity’s importance, for instance, if MIA’s father was a Tamil Tiger and she was actually raised in Sri Lanka would that be more desirable than a thought out, considerately nuanced approach to world/Sri Lankan politics? I’m not saying it doesn’t matter where you come from, I’m saying it does, but not in the sense that MIA is harangued for (though considering some of her thematic content it’s more than deserved).

Joe Strummer of The Clash faced a similar problem when he attempted hiding his upbringing as a prep-schooled son of a diplomat. His attempt to other himself as not just one with the people but also of the people, Avatar style, inadvertently gave legitimacy to something whose arbitrariness he railed against, birthright. If assorted rulers (monarchs, prime ministers, etc.) and their blue-blooded ilk in the upper class have been handed down their wealth, achieved via a combination of privilege, the military means it affords and the environmental conditions which favored some regions more than others, it doesn’t mean that their worth/social standing was a manifestation of innate superiority, right? Then why pretend like it did and ignore that you came from it if it holds minimal bearing on your character?

Like that M.I.A.-sampling Vampire Weekend song about him, “Diplomat’s Son,” the relation of which I completely missed out on during the first go-round, Strummer might have been afforded the luxury of being able to pull out of exotic locations without having to face the consequences of becoming entangled in them, but it’s not a monarchial throne to inherit, he obviously was able to get a menial job for shit pay and live in poverty with the downtrodden before getting rich again singing about them.

Rappers, too, are not always from the hood when they’re on that “street shit”, but simultaneously have family that are (like Maya, who has roots/family in Sri Lanka) and know that regardless of where they’re from, even if they tried to separate themselves from country or ghetto kin, they’d still be inextricably linked when confronting outsiders (to an illogical degree, like MIA’s kinda proudly relayed anecdote about being called a Paki by skinheads).

Yet, the problems put out by, say, Outkast in Return of the “G” or Kanye West in We Don’t Care show an understanding of how poor blacks, and up from poor blacks are recieved/percieved in society at large, and switch between a “fuck ’em, they judge from comfort and will never know from experience, so do what you do” attitude to a serious grappling with the issues that, regardless of detached aspersions, still negatively affect the community.

Hirschberg’s article has some choice quotes suggesting that, for all of MIA’s huffing and puffing about acknowledging world problems, she herself doesn’t even bother consulting the people in her own country attempting to solve them, or how her good Tiger/bad government dichotomy is a false one that ignores the cruelties meted out by the rebel group on innocent civilians they’re supposed to be liberating.

Hirschberg’s “child-of-Godard” line is exceedingly astute and it’s funny the whole thing happened the same week as that Breathless re-release, primarily because MIA’s art-school informed revolutionary posturing has historical precedent in the French new wave auteur’s own political awakening. M.I.A.’s M.O., like Godard’s, developed only after she began working in the medium it’s expressed in.

True, Godard was an academic film writer before he became a filmmaker, but he was both before he became an activist, and most of the rest of his career has been spent lamenting his inability to reconcile the ultimately bourgeois character of his chosen medium with the revolutionary movement he spent subverting his medium on behalf of, starting with Maoism in the 60’s, never actually being able to synthesize his ideas and his art into a compellingly straightforward film. For anyone who’s put on/been to an art installation, her pop-political pastiche is recognizably art school, not academic, thus isn’t beholden to any logic as it rests on attention-grabbing symbolism.

When Godard gets called a fool, it’s usually under the pretense that he once had intellectual integrity that he slowly worked at sabotaging for the rest of his career, ignoring how his flaws were front and center from the start. Unlike Godard, though, MIA maintains a link to her club kid, art school upbringing by not trying to dissociate her politics from culture, the latter of which more often than not holds the blueprint for sustainable pre-and post-revolutionary lifestyle, feeding into a celebratory desire whose removal would result in the excruciatingly drab dogmatism of a Maoist work camp. The problem is she plays into that authenticity game by attempting to up the ante on what’s “hood,” what’s “gangsta” and what’s “real” with an Orientalism-informed spin on east-west-north-south regional feuds.

Not that Diplo’s a reliable source, but his statement on how Paper Planes was a joke on what American rappers view as Gangsta only corroborates some of the thematically exotic posturing of Kala, in which guns, robbery, and violence are only hip, sexy and marketable when they’re done by rebel groups. It’s a regressive, third-world authenticity of poverty that is worth the jabs of Hirschberg’s somewhat self-righteous article.

But to leave it at that ignores the strides made by Bun B’s verse on the Paper Planes remix in which he overtly attempts to connect the third world with the first with some uncharacteristically practical (for MIA) advice about how to “start with your head, then use you hand, if you start it in reverse, you don’t even have a chance.” MIA’s “give war a chance” politics are a-historical and uninformed, they read like a redux of third world solidarity movements circa Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in which anti-bourgeois bourgeois university students took a cue from Sartre’s preface and rhetorically out-Fanon’d Fanon with a first-world detachment that only took the allure of revolutionary violence without taking into account the scarring psychological complexity of committing oneself to any such action.

Said action generally exacerbates polarization between the liberated and the liberating, delineating “collaborators with the enemy” in a way that generally reinforces top-down “with us or against”  us” rhetoric and the “snitches in ditches”/”dead finks don’t talk” bylaws of criminal activity.

Maya admits in the article to feeling disconnected, saying that a lot of great art comes out of feeling disconnected. I’m not entirely sure what she means by that, but in this context it might have some weight to it. If, say, an artist is concerned with a) globalization; b) their part in the negative aspects of globalization; c) how they benefit off of their part in the negative aspects of globalization; then they should also be concerned with d) how they can still have fun/be interesting/aurally and aesthetically engaging in simultaneity with all that. Striving for incompatibility with the society you live/grew up in (shitting where you eat as if you don’t eat there) is besides the point.

A lot of the dialogue in rap, like when its rags to riches (for instance, Rich Boy’s “my mouth is my moneymaker” line after his vivid rendering of a one-foot-in-the-grave upbringing), reps where it comes from while simultaneously displaying the doors it opens, acknowledging both the drawbacks of wealth as well as honestly copping to its allure. But with Maya, and with Strummer, and with a lot of radicals who proclaim their voices for the voiceless, sometimes the ideological trajectory doesn’t overlap with the biographical one, which generally leads into a statement about the whys and wherefores but not what can happen in spite of.

Instead of pre-emptively othering oneself when your background doesn’t match your chosen favored subject, it would be far more beneficial to acknowledge and thus illuminate the process by which that disconnection both renders you alien and, despite globalization’s polarizing way of functioning, also allows you to explore that disconnection intimately sometimes in the one-way, privileged manner suggested in Diplomat’s Son, but also the other way, in which you don’t “duck out behind them.”

Other stuff:

“MIA’s Agitprop Pop” by Lynn HirschbergWhy We Fight #4: The Trouble With Maya by Nitsuh AbebeThe Trouble With M.I.A.: No Sense of Humor by Judy Berman, Notes on Otherness, Part Two: M.I.A. by Brandon Soderberg, Army of Shadows by Jean-Pierre Melville, J. Hoberman on Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, some parts of Hannah Arendt’s On Violence about Sartre, Fanon and student movements


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