Real World Music

MIA’s Kala: Real World Music

The past twelve months have been anything but uneventful for MIA. Last year, she was planning on making her new album in the states. When US Customs denied her a visa, though, her plans were quickly scuttled. The reasons were never officially stated, but when your dealing with Maya Arulpragasam, an popular and radical MC, the daughter Tamil Tiger rebels, it’s pretty obvious why the US balked.

So, Maya took her show on the road. Liberia, Australia, India, Japan. And rather than back down from her militancy, she’s let the experience enhance it. While her last album, Arular, was characterized by dense sampling and rapid-fire beats, it’s the sound of each of these nations that make this album pop. The swinging tunes of Bollywood, slinking didgeridoo, banging temple drums all play on the same level as samples from the Pixies, Jonathan Richman and the Clash. It’s a kind of musical internationalism; a chance to give a voice, however small, to that ninety percent of the planet who are routinely ignored in western music.

She comes out of the gate swinging from the first track. Though she’s been around the world and back, it’s clear that she’s shunned the role of the condescending tourist. Instead, on “Bamboo Banga,” she’s taken the voice of the street-kids and shanty-dwellers; the ones rightfully viewing the rich vacationers with disdain. It’s an intimidating track with the memorable line “I’m banging on the doors of you Hummer, Hummer,” which seems to set the tone for the rest of the record.

This is a recurring theme throughout the album, sometimes with the added ingredient of live ammunition in songs like “Paper Planes” and “World Town.” “20 Dollar” is especially effective: “Do you know that cost of a.k.s / Up in Africa / 20 dollars ain’t shit to you / But that’s how much they are / So they gonna use the shit just to get far.”

Extreme? Yes. So is the legalized pillage of Africa. Not too many mainstream artists are willing to support the arming of the people of these nations. After all, the only other time we hear the people of Africa mentioned in music is from the likes of Bono and Geldof, who have peddled to us the image of the helpless savage waiting to be fed by the magnanimous west. MIA’s take is quite different. She isn’t afraid to raise the banner of By Any Means Necessary.

The flak doled out to her because of these ideas hasn’t been small. And not just for her lyrics, but for being a vocal woman of color: “From day one, this has been a mad, crazy thing: I say the things I’m not supposed to say, I look wrong, my music doesn’t sound comfortable for any radio stations or genres…” The album’s best tracks confront this head on. Maya proves she can give it as well she takes it on “Boyz,” as she confidently asks “How many, how many boys are crazy? How many boys are raw? / How many, how many boys are rowdy? / How many start a war?”

There are a lot of differences between this album and her previous Arular. There aren’t the same catchy tunes like “Sunshowers” and “Galang” on here. But the collision of the beats, the eclectic sounds and Maya’s own cocky, streetwise vocals give the whole album an almost hypnotic quality. The world it so irresistably draws you into may seem strange and harsh, but that’s because the daily crimes carried out upon it go unnoticed every day. That’s this album’s biggest strength, and what makes MIA one of today’s most important artists.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.