“brown girl brown girl/ turn ya shit down/ you know America don’t wanna hear ya sound”
It was late Halloween night when the long-awaited album Matangi leaked and permeated throughout the Internet, particularly through Tumblr. By 11 pm, I had reblogged more than half of the entire album; the same could be said for hundreds of other Tumblr users. However, as I casually scrolled through the website the next morning, I noticed that one track in particular garnered a significant amount of attention from M.I.A. fans and general music-fans alike. “Boom Skit,” a one-minute-and-fifteen-second song that bluntly details M.I.A.’s reflection on her experience in America, was being re-blogged by Yemeni-American girls, Indian-American girls, Bosnian-American girls, Jamaican-American girls, Palestinian-American girls. It had garnered over 5000 notes in 8 hours. On all of these blogs, the aforementioned quote was bolded; it’s what these girls felt was the focal point of the song, and what they related to most.
All of these women, spanning a variety of cultures and backgrounds and continents, felt their experiences being articulated through this simple skit. At that point it became clear to me that M.I.A. has become a necessary platform for women of color.
M.I.A. is fire. She is vivacious, she is provocative, and she is exactly what this new generation of young brown women needs. Her entire platform is built on the idea of WOC telling their own stories, growing from them, and using their voices to empower their own people.
Born Matangi Arulpragasam, M.I.A. has had no problem finding a story to tell. Her father, Arular, was an intellectual; he aided Sri Lankan Tamil separatists during the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). Being born into an ethnic minority and being the daughter of an internationally recognized terrorist forced Matangi into the grasp of prejudice and intolerance. Her dark skin put her in the back of the class with the rest of the presumably dumb kids and their tattered school supplies, whereas their light-skinned counterparts received the golden end of an education. During the war, Sinhalese soldiers would shoot through the windows of the Tamil school as a mere scare tactic. Her mother had to move the family (sans Arular) to Jaffna for their safety, but even there, Matangi’s primary school was destroyed during a government raid.
When the violence escalated geographically and reached the family’s safe home in Jaffna, mother Kala decided to relocate M.I.A. and her siblings Sugu and Kali to Mitcham, an ethnically diverse area of southwest London. Even there, Matangi found that she wasn’t free from misconceptions and stereotypes. To the English she was just another Indian immigrant, to the actual Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants, she was from some unfamiliar culture (Sri Lanka had not truly developed a strong diaspora prior to the civil war) with which they did not want to be associated. In the UK, “Maya” learned English, learned how to cultivate her unique brand of visual art, and slowly evolved into “M.I.A.”
When she started the project, she didn’t need to search for survivor stories to tell. M.I.A. was her own survivor story. She didn’t wait for a storyteller to make her the next poster child with their white savior syndrome. She became her own storyteller. And, as the mainstream media would soon come to find out, M.I.A. had a lot to say and had various ways of making people listen.
M.I.A. began as a visual artist, which is actually where her talents were most concentrated. Her penchant for creating unique and flavorful music would be put to work in the mid-2000s. But first, in the late 1990s, she used her chutzpah to talk her way into London’s most prestigious art school, Central St. Martins. While there, she reminded herself of her roots and what she knew was still happening in Sri Lanka, despite the overwhelming air of ignorance that radiated off of her blissfully unaware classmates. Thus, she used her talents to speak out about the atrocities that were being committed on the island. Two of her most identifiable works are a spray painting of a tiger (representing the leading separatists in Sri Lanka, the “Tamil Tigers”) and a female revolutionary who was a part of the all-women “Freedom Birds.”
In much of M.I.A.’s early work, one senses the ubiquity of Sri Lanka. M.I.A. is not a nationalist, but a realist, and knew the societal importance of ethnicity was attached to her wherever she went, whether she personally considered it a large part of her identity or not. Rather than detest it, ignore it, or allow its impact on her life to be decided by a white-crafted power structure, she accepts it with all of its flaws and blares it for the world to see. M.I.A. owns her identity, which is a tool that is essential to the WOC experience.
Every young girl wants an idol. But, it's difficult to find an idol who refuses to water down her message for the mainstream masses' approval. Even more difficult is finding someone to idolize that understands the various complexities of living as a second generation immigrant. But, there's M.I.A. M.I.A. who is unapologetic and frank in areas where I don't feel I can be. When I tip-toe around cultural appropriation and only twitch my eye when someone does their botched impression of a Rastafarian, M.I.A leaps to action with no apologies. She lives in her own skin, and will not allow her existence to become nothing but a prop. She is the voice that I felt I was not allowed to have. She is the voice of a generation of WOC that have been forced to live their lives through the mouths of others, and not their own.
M.I.A. has built her entire platform with people of color in mind; her entire sound revolves around the rhythms and synths that are considered “backwards” and “primitive” but are culturally appropriated daily. Her image is made with the “Third World” (or in her lingo the “World Town”) in mind. Everyone who has been silenced so that their stories and their histories can aid a white man’s success is encompassed into her sound and her journey.
M.I.A. is by WOC, for WOC. All that WOC are scorned for, she turns into art and a manifestation of the beauty and diversity of the “World Town.” From her first album Arular to her most recent release Matangi, M.I.A. is validating POC through her music.
The song “Hussel,” from her sophomore album Kala, finds its fulcrum on the answer to this question: “What would it sound like if Tamil fishermen created a beat on the side of their boats?” She takes the sounds from the rural village in which she grew up and molds them into something that people in Sri Lanka, Liberia, Jamaica, and the U.S. will absorb.
The 2007 hit “Paper Planes,” which put M.I.A. on the path to mainstream success, takes irrational and unavoidable immigrant stereotypes, applies them to an irresistible beat, and tosses them back into the mainstream way of thinking from which they came. Society can have their misconceptions, because immigrants definitely don’t need them. “All I wanna do is/*gunshot gunshot*/ and a *cash register noise*/and take ya money.”
But, she is not only an advocate for worldwide immigrants; the song “Mango Pickle Down River” is built on the sound of a didgeridoo and a group of aboriginal Aussie rappers. She helps to bring the forgotten culture of indigenous Australians to the musical forefront, and does it well.
In 2012, M.I.A. burst onto the music scene again with accompanied by the screech of tires and an entourage of gold-studded hijabis. “Bad Girls,” and all that comes with it, is overflowing with women’s empowerment. The music video re-humanizes the image of burqa-clad women in the Middle East, the song provides a mantra for the new era of confident, strong women (“Live fast/die young/bad girls do it well”), all while utilizing rhythms of the Middle Eastern and India.
Finally, there is what I believe to be M.I.A.’s crowning achievement: the aforementioned “Boom Skit.” It is a raw, succinct, and honest excerpt of the WOC experience and beings with a catchy Tamil skit. There’s no sugarcoating. No analysis. Just one minute and fifteen seconds of what it truly feels like to live as an eternal immigrant in America.
‘brown girl brown girl/turn ya shit down/you know america/don’t wanna hear ya sound.
But America has heard, and so long as M.I.A. is around, it will continue to do so.
The general public has more or less reached a consensus on M.I.A. She is provocative. She is beautiful. She is controversial. She is untamable and she is incredibly political. All of these things are true.
M.I.A. is rightfully pissed, and her rage resonates with WOC who share her passion and struggles. The mainstream media likes to shrug off the experiences of WOC as irrelevant unless being retold by a sympathetic white journalist. And that sentiment is nothing but alienating, teaching young women to keep quiet when their voices should be heard. WOC exist, they are powerful, and they have histories that are as relevant and important as anyone else’s. M.I.A. helps make to make that known.
An excerpt from the poetry of Palestinian-American poet and political activist Suheir Hammad accurately summarizes the feelings of aggressively progressive women such as M.I.A.
“which finger do i point with/and say look i know/women like me are called/bitter bitches/crazy even/ but rarely survivors”
With women like M.I.A. paving the way for a more inclusive future for WOC, there is no doubt that they will be redefining what it means to be a woman of color in America.