Dancing with Myself

The Bomb: M.I.A. in terrorist-chic T-shirt
David Titlow

Last November, a friend e-mailed me the following note: "I just saw a photo of Maya Arulpragasam, this beautiful Sri Lankan singer, in this week's New Yorker, and it reminded me that I haven't seen you in a while."

Flattered, baffled, and burning with curiosity, I raced to find the article online, largely because a Sri Lankan being profiled in the New Yorker is about as frequent as Halley's comet. And a singer? The most recent Sri Lankan pop song I'd heard was a toxic synthesized Celine Dion cover. And a picture of someone who looks like me was in there too? What the hell was going on?

By now, if you read the music glossies, or tour the blogosphere, or flip through fashion magazines, you've probably run into Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., the subject of a media onslaught that's been going on since late last year despite the fact that her album is only now available in the U.S. M.I.A. grew up in Sri Lanka until age nine or so, and moved to London because of her father's role in a militant ethnic group. These facts, or variations thereof, are inevitably mentioned in each interview, cover story, or buzz-generating blurb about her, generally swathed in high-pitched terrorist-chic excitement. What's lost in the glib "Freedom Fighter" descriptions (one M.I.A. herself uses) is the messy reality: The Sri Lankan conflict is a Gordian knot of political manipulation, corruption, fomented ethnic tension, brutal militancy, and bald-faced, universal thuggery. Suffice it to say that the recycled press releases and the pithy "Tamil-Hindu minority oppressed by Sinhalese-Buddhist majority" line used by most music journalists just don't cover it.

I watched M.I.A.'s star ascend with an uneasy mixture of anxiety and delight because there has never been a Sri Lankan on the U.S. pop-culture scene before. And because I couldn't stop prancing around my bedroom the first (and fiftieth) time I listened to "Galang." And because she says her father was one of the founding members of the militant Tamil terrorist organization, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that forcibly conscripts Tamil children as young as 10. And because I grew up in Sri Lanka until I was 13, I'm almost exactly M.I.A.'s age, and I'm half Sinhalese, and half Tamil.

It's difficult to explain how most Sri Lankans fear and loathe the LTTE. They are credited with the invention of suicide bombings. They've blown up schools, cars during rush hour, offices, the airport, and several politicians. Other politicians, of course, took advantage of the turmoil to consolidate power. Some believe that at one point the government actually slipped arms to the LTTE to keep the whole thing going. No one really knows, but the Tamils are still squeezed from both ends--from the government on one side, and LTTE on the other. Sinhalese fear (all Tamils are probably terrorists!) and bigotry keeps this grotesque Rube Goldberg contraption well oiled.

So M.I.A.'s website filled me with revulsion, rage, and probably a little envy. Most of her artwork appropriates terrorist iconography--sometimes incongruously. For example, the airlines that border her self-designed album cover are a nod to that other terrorist group. Planes have nothing to do with the LTTE, or their tactics, but sweeping it all together seems to connect to the terrorists are people too view she espouses. It's galling to see LTTE tiger symbols on candy-colored backgrounds. People died because of this! And she makes it...cute? But she is here, in the West, and so am I. And she's taken her Sri Lankan-ness and pushed it to the fore, something I've been too timid to even try.

After boring my friends to tears (I need new friends) by obsessing over her for several weeks, I'd decided to give it a rest. But then I saw a Slate review of her album. The review also mentioned a music message board that had a thread entitled "This is the thread where we anticipate and then flip out over how great M.I.A.'s 'Arular' is." I pictured future hordes of fanboys wearing LTTE buttons on their gently faded corduroys and it twisted my stomach into knots. Never having posted on a message board before, I lurked for a while on several sites. I'm told I look like her, so I vicariously enjoyed dizzying highs ("She's so hot!" "Stunning!" "Fine!") and vexing lows ("I don't get it. She's a dog."). I finally registered and proceeded to rain on the parade, when to my surprise, the other posters in turn pushed the conversation into a discourse on exactly what we are to make of an artist who seems both sincere and PR savvy, marketed and truly original, thoughtful and deluded.

Virtually everything having to do with M.I.A. leaves me with a cognitive dissonance so loud my ears buzz. When she speaks of Sri Lanka, especially of the LTTE "freedom fighters," I can taste bile in my mouth. When she speaks of the British Council flats her family moved to, of burglaries, of not fitting in, I flashback to myself as a thickly accented, pimply 13-year-old being chased back to my uncle's unfinished basement in Chicago, my new home, by kids yowling, "Go home, dot-head!" I love "Galang"; it's my favorite track, and the "yah yah heyyy, oey oey oh oh oh" near the end reminds me vaguely of being at the Galle Face beach, listening to the fishermen's chants as they hauled in the day's catch. But I saw the video the other day, and as she's dancing all these stenciled pink bombs fell in Pop Art sheets behind her. Does she know what she's doing? I mean, this stuff is real. She gives her images power and meaning by connecting her work directly to her father (the album title is supposed to be his "rebel code name" for shit's sake). Her music, for all its nonsensicality, is It's fun. It's interesting. She's not concerned about proving her identity to one group, and instead searches for other dislocated people, displaced sounds. But, at least for me, what she's trying to say (oppressed people turn to violence for a reason) gets undercut by the gimmicky enthusiasm invested in these symbols.

After immigrating here, whenever I tried to talk about Sri Lanka and got blank-eyed stares or uncomfortable shrugs from people, I'd let the matter drop. I mean, I wasn't supposed to use things for which people died, to manipulate liberal guilt and draw attention to myself, was I? Yet here she is, bluntly and matter-of-factly doing what I've been too fastidious to do, and at the end of all of this, I find myself applauding her. I wonder how blurry the line between her sincerity and marketing skills will become; but right now, if I stand up and look around the pop landscape for anything that I don't have to try to identify with, anything that resembles me, she's all I've got.

And I think, in some ways, I can follow her.

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