THE VORTEX OF DISCOURSE
DESCENT INTO THE M.I.A.SMA-STROM
Ooh, a reprimand from the Dean himself!
I dunno, to me, this historical stuff, while fascinating, simply amplifies and substantiates the succinct (of necessity point I made in the original piece, viz. the Tamil independence movement doesn’t fit the third world versus first world model, instead:
“like Rwanda, it’s an ethnic war within a third-world nation”
And substantiates it moreover with a load of queasy-making details. So “like the PLO, I don’t surrender”, that’s the same PLO in whose Lebanon camps her dad-- after whose guerrilla/terrorist (you call it) alias the record is named--trained and became an explosives expert? Mmm, that nugget sure is enhancing my enjoyment of the record, how about you?
For whatever reasons, she didn’t decide to name the album after her mother, “the saint”. She named it after the dad, who’s “mad.”
Now M.I.A. is no Muslimgauze, who released about 20 or 30 albums fixatedly endorsing the Palestinian cause. But Arular and Piracy Funds Terrorism nonetheless are limned with simultaneously blatant-yet-opaque allusions to terrorism in the abstract and to this extremely local and specific Tamil versus Sinhalese struggle. I don’t think I’d be slandering M.I.A.’s following overmuch if I ventured that in their heart of hearts 98 percent of them don’t honestly give two shits about that struggle, beyond at most a vague sentiment of hoping for justice to prevail, the bloodshed end, the two sides reach an accommodation and live in peace and harmony, etc, and so forth. I doubt if they’d want to take time out to study the subject, especially given that at the end of that process there’d still be no clearcut side with which to, er, side.
It’s never been in doubt that M.I.A. “owns” her experiences and can do whatever she wants with them artistically; the question is whether she’s made anything compelling out of them.
To my mind, I can’t see it, the terrorist allusions are larded in among the Missy-style sassy-me stuff. I don’t find it especially provocative, just sort of irritatingly undeveloped. It doesn’t generate any real resonances for me, nor is the music groundbreaking or arresting to the extent that you feel compelled sort-through your responses, as, say Public Enemy’s dodgy, confused, often deeply offensive politique did. So her use of terrorism is at once totally authentic (for want of a better word) yet the actual effect might just as well be cosmetic. It feels like radical chic.
I think Christgau’s elaborations on the already-known ought to place MIA-champions in a double-bind. On the one hand, the (Pop-ist) position that the politics have nothing to do with the record is now clearly untenable; enjoying the record in blissful ignorance is an unsustainable stance. On the other hand, the “the politics are central and that’s why she’s good, indeed contradictions and confusions even make it more aesthetically richer” stance are belied by the fact that the end result doesn’t actually feel that urgent.
Personally I think getting Prince Harry and M.I.A. into the same sentence is the kind of feat that ought to result in a round of applause. I guess people are more priggish than I’d imagined. But the suggestion that all brown skinned people across the world--South Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, mix-race, whatever--are united in some kind of commonality of subaltern experience strikes me as Otherizing exoticism with a large pinch of liberal guilt thrown in. (Not that there’s anything wrong with liberal guilt of course--liberals should feel guilty. Much of the time, I’m wracked with the stuff!). But surely, the very fact that Tamils and Sinhalese are locked in this grim struggle agitates against some notion of brown-skin universality of experience.
Another idea that the pro-MIA camp put forth--and which seems to me more tenable--is that her experience up to the age of 10 or so of turbulence, instability, hardship, subsequently authenticate her dabblings/borrowings from other chaotic and impoverished parts of the world. (Or “internal colonies” such as the grime scene, which is British imperialism coming home to roost). A sort of lifetime ghetto passport, valid in all territories across the globe. A ragged-trousered cosmopolitanism.
I can see the validity of this argument (although it smacks of the kind of realer-than-thou-ism approach that some of its proponents have accused me of at other strategic points in their arguments--bit of a contradiction there). (And presumably the Pop-ist contingent of MIA-love also believe in the proposition: “it’s not where you’re from it’s where you’re at”, which means that the immediate contingent context and conditions of production of a pop artifact far outweighs things some time in the past). But, well, let’s look at how the “ghetto passport” notion plays out in a specific instance--the case of the baile funk track which appears to be one reason the release of Arular has been held up. There is no clearcut right or wrong in the transactions delineated below, but they create a kind of cloudiness that for me blurs the line between “3rd world persons unite on shared communality of experience” notion and straightforward top-down appropriation.
Turns out that I actually know someone involved with DJ Marlboro, the guy who produced Deise Tigrona’s “Injeção,” the track which influenced, to put it mildly, “Bucky Done Gun.” Well, it’s not clear if he produced or if it was one of his people, but it was made in the studio he owns, he has the publishing rights, and it’s with him XL began negotiating the sample clearances. (Deise Tigrona is the singer, incidentally). “An inspiration” is how MIA/Diplo apparently described the relationship of “Injeção” to “Bucky Done Gun” (my favorite on Arular, as it happens). But the narrative here isn’t any clearcut imperialists ripping off the natives. Marlboro--real name, Fernando Luís Mattos da Matta--himself is no ghetto kid. He’s from a suburb of Rio De Janeiro, which in the urban geography of Brazil, means a peripheral neighbourhood with a lower middle class population. And he would appear to be the epitome of the petit bourgeois entrepreneur made very very good. His Big Mix brand includes a record label, a recording studio, a hugely popular radio show, a clothes line, and a monthly magazine. He also writes a weekly column for the Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Dia. He appears to be pretty fucking wealthy, something like the Paul Oakenfold of baile funk--reputedly, he has 80% of baile funk--or funk carioca as appears to be the correct-er term--tunes under his publishing company.
The Paul Oakenfold comparison is a good one, as this guy--while not the only big figure in funk--is a foundational figure. There are real parallels between baile funk and rave-- in the early 90's Rio de Janeiro city council created a law to enabling the closing of bailes funks (bashments, raves, sound system parties) in the city.
Here’s Irony #1. Marlboro’s music has at its very “root” a form of appropriation. It’s one I would characterize as a sideways musical migration rather than top-down hijacking, but nonetheless… What happened was that he journeyed to Miami in the late Eighties and picked up a load of early Miami bass records by the likes of DJ Magic Mike and 2 Live Crew. Legend has it he acquired 600 of the then 1000 or so available Miami bass records and brought them back to Brazil. These became “an inspiration”, to borrow an expression, for a whole new genre of hybrid Brazilian dance pop. Marlboro wasn’t the only exponent but he was one of the very first. He did the first album that used Portugeuse words, Miami Bass samples, and Brazilian percussion heavily influenced by candomble. Funk Carioca’s use of Brazil’s own regionally variegated ethnic musics, incidentally, is totally impurist, jumbling up Bahia’s axe and the North East’s forro--this before you filter in the further impurism of the pirated influences from overseas, like technorave, Tone Loc, etc. Anyway, back to Marlboro. Right off the bat, he began selling huge numbers of records (250,000 copies of 1989’s Funk Brasil compilation). He’s remained a big big figure in this scene.
The weird thing about the whole story is when we whiz ahead to the part where Diplo (originally from Florida, right?) replicates in reverse Marlboro’s journey to Miami, by being so enthused by this foreign music he actually flies out there to buy up a load of it.
The next part of the story I’m going to gloss over because I only have one side of it. But it seems that a set of cultural exchanges took place between Diplo and Marlboro, and then a harsh exchange of words. A guy called Mr Bongo played some kind of intermediary role. On SFJ’s blog, Diplo roundly calls him out as an asshole.
“Bucky” was made and then at some point somebody got nervous about its debts to “Injecao.” Quite late in the day, though, as the finished XL copy of Arular I have credits a sample from ‘Theme From Rocky’ and includes the guy who wrote it, Conti, in the publishing credits. But nothing about “Injecao”.
Now the interesting thing to me about this whole story is its non-clearcutness. Marlboro is way richer and more powerful than Diplo. Brazil is not a 3rd world nation. I’m not sure what it is--a country that encompasses 1st, 2nd and 3rd world elements? Sao Paolo, the only bit I’ve visited, is like a European city, you often feel like you’re in Milan. Another irony is that the official cultural ideology of Brazil is, or for a long time last century was, mesticagem, which means mixing, miscegenation.
There is also the striking mirror-image thing of Diplo as a younger version of Marlboro and both of them making their subcultural-capital moves, moving in on this exotic music, and at once championing it while building a career out of it. It’s what all DJs do to an extent (and some journalists, arguably).
Having said all that, I would say that Marlboro did with Miami Bass is the pretty much the opposite of what’s going on with the MIA record and Diplo’s own album Florida and Favela On Blast. Marlboro built up a homegrown grass-roots scene using a hybrid music that draws from outside but also reflected its environment; the music got so popular, its meaning and function soon escaped his hands as a cultural auteur, if not his hands as ultra-canny businessmen. There are loads and loads of other key producers and party organizers in the Brazilian scene, like Furacao 2000.
Whereas, it seems to me, Diplo/MIA at the moment are engaged in a peculiar transaction. It would actually be more interesting if they were Madonna-level and ripping off a subaltern culture, like she did with “Vogue”, then there would be mass-cultural reverberations. (Perhaps with this Interscope deal that will be the next stage). But as it is, so far, what they are doing is acting as self-appointed ambassadors for a music (or musics, since the sound on Arular is a pastiche of dancehall, the crunkier end of hip hop, baile funk, etc etc) that most of those hipsters could fairly easily access anyway with a tad more effort.
To me this whole story confirms the righteousness of my analogy between Arular and Duck Rock (with MIA herself being a sort of McLaren combined with an Annabella Lwin exotic uber-babe, and Diplo as Trevor Horn, Ann Dudley, JJ Jeclazik, and the World Famous Supreme Team all rolled into one etc). Now, ‘Buffalo Gals’ was one of my favorite records at the time, and I’m still very fond of it; it also has a certain old skool stature as one of the first chart record to feature scratching. But there’s no doubt that art school graduate Malcolm was operating in vertical fashion, taking all these “raw” elements from ethnic musics
(including South African township music, this back when apartheid still ruled and the ANC was considered a terrorist organization by the SA government) (and in fact he took some traditional and Soweto-pop songs and copyrighted them as his own compositions) and then McLaren combined this disparate mélange with a whole bunch of wonderfully loopy concepts of his own.
It is in this sense that my comment about Arular being “from nowhere” should be understood. Notice I didn’t say Maya is from nowhere (she’s from Sri Lanka via Acton and a whole bunch of other places). But the pop art-i-fact she’s made is not from a subcultural location in the same way as the musics it’s inspired by come from highly territorialized places, where they serve specific communities.
Yes yes yes, "nowhere" can be a utopic space of possibility (utopia = atopia =no-place) but (as regular readers to this blog will already know) I think the kind of discourse that once surrounded electronic music and celebrated it in terms of postgeographical/infospheric/nomadic drifts/deterritorialized flows blah-blah-blah, it’s pretty passe. Or it might have some validity, in some instances, but it needs to reckon with the fact that many of the most exciting musics of recent years have been totally bound up with a sense of place-- dirty south rap, grime, dancehall, Miami bass, New Orlean bounce, Baltimore breaks, reggaeton, etc. These are all local musics, not impervious or impermeable to outside influences, but obsessively referencing parochial details and surroundings. I would argue that this very insularity is integral and intrinsic to their ability to generate intensities. True, they all draw on other musics but the specific hybrids created make sense in a specific place and are addressed to a specific constitutency’s audio-erogenous zones; they service a demographic, a tribe. This contributes heavily to their vibe and flava.
A positive take on Arular would be to receive it as referencing an imaginary subculture, perhaps. Or as a sonic essay on the Black Atlantic (I would give it a B-plus, sonically, but question all the nonsequiturs about terrorism). In other ways, it’s just an expression of fandom, as Byron Bitchlaces suggested, it’s as if the bloggerati were an ethnos and had generated its own tribal music! Obviously potent music can be created out of diasporic experience, from deracination, but I think it’s worth acknowledging the something that is lost. A certain grain or character. (The most grain-free, characterless music on the planet is the most postgeographical--one example being Sasha-style progressive, as in the Global Underground compilations. That is music whose “locale” is the Globe--an abstraction).
* * * * *
Now I’m supposed to have argued somewhere along the line that education is bad and that only noble savages and apolitical ignoramuses like the grimesters make “real” music. Erm, actually, no--Dizzee may not have the jargon, but he’s a powerful intellect; these guys are patently virtuosos of language; grime is full of politics, based on confronting the limits and constraints of their lives, it’s just not often overtly politicized. And of course there’s an irony, of which I’m fully aware, that I’ve just written a book about postpunk which in many ways is a celebration of the art school tradition. But for all it's good points, conceptualism leading to aesthetic breakthroughs, broadened horizons, etc, art school music does often lack something on the visceral level. Not that grimesters etc are barbarians, but A/ those scenes are weirdly cocooned from a lot of mediatized stuff, I'm always amazed at how insular they are on some levels, material from "outside" filters in but in a weird haphazard way. They might appropriate stuff but you couldn’t say the mindset is “eclectic” or ”cosmopolitan”. B/ there is an urgency and hunger to the music that comes from the fact that music is too often their only escape route, whereas art students have a lot more options.
Okay, I’ve been scrupulously balanced and fair so far, I think I’ve earned another cheap shot, don’t you?
Am I the only one who finds the CD booklet shout-out to “all the fader peeps” just a wee bit cringy?
1/ go to 3rd item here for even more enjoyment-enhancing stuff about the Tamil Tigers,
2/ I like this guy’s analysis of how hype/buzz works and how there really is no such thing as bad publicity. (And not just because he says something nice about me at the start).
3/ Completing my honest confusion I learn that my absolute favorite grime tune of the moment, Kano’s “Reload It” was co-produced by Diplo with Kano. Although this is presumably Kano’s attempt to broaden his sound, and appeal, beyond grime to a more generalized hip hop-loving audience, ironically the lyric is totally grimecentric, all about the DJ reload ritual and which MCs on the scene get the most reload demands from the crowds-- just the sort of local flava I love and would hate to see get erased.
4/ Another comparison for Arular is Remain In Light/My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Remain--ethnological forgery-type music that updates the Can approach into oceanic Gaia-funk--is an essay about the need to recover a more primal, un-alienated, non-Western, holistically-integrated etc etc mode of being, that poignantly doesn’t quite reach it. It remains slightly outside what its describing. It’s an example of just how great music produced by the art school sensibility can be, but also the limits of that approach. Remain also includes the Talking Heads second great song about terrorism (the first being “Life During Wartime”). “Listening Wind” does better than anything on Arular by actually making you sympathise with the terrorist’s point of view describing a guy who makes letter bombs and explosive devices in the free trade zone. The song is explicitly anti-colonialist (or what they used to call Coco-Colanisation), which adds resonance to the Fourth World nature of the music. Byrne provides a different example of how one can be an ambassador for world musics--starting a label, in his case Luaka Bop.
5/ There’s been some debate about how indebted Arular actually is to baile funk. Not too much in the strict musicological sense, “Bucky Done Gun” and a few other instances aside, but it’s clearly a kind of spiritual influence, a touchstone. What baile funk shares in common with the other shanty house musics is that it’s rude. (Exception here is kwaito, which on first listen is disconcertingly tasteful, such that you could imagine some Francois Kevorkian spiritual house type DJ dropping it, or West London broken beats clubs rocking it.). M.I.A. to me is on the whole just a little too polite a distillation of all these disparate rudenesses. The other thing about baile funk is that it’s cheesy. Samples from things like cheesy technorave tunes like “Met Her At the Love Parade,” elements that recall early 90s hip house of the Technotronic sort, or Europop. And there’s no contradiction, the rudeness and the cheesyiness are connected and mutually reinforcing. This rude’n’cheesy quality is something you can find across the hardcore discontinuum. But cheese is something that Arular never risks. Is crossing the portals of an art school the moment at which "cheesy" ceases to be a possibility?
6/ “all the fader peeps” c.f. the grime lyric I heard recently where the guy references being on the cover of The Face in his fantasy-scenario of making it big, unaware that the Face went out of business a couple of years ago.
7/ Of course if you want to be a stickler, yeah sure Arular comes from somewhere. We can situate it somewhere at the intersection of West Acton, St Martin’s College, Justin Frischmann’s basement, etc etc.
8/ When I first thought of writing about M.I.A., I’d heard ‘Galang’, like the Dean wasn’t that overwhelmed, but was intrigued by the buzz and by Sasha’s story, finally heard the mix-CD and liked it quite a bit. Initially, I thought my angle would be to examine the syndrome of British-Asian (meaning, in the UK, people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc, not Chinese, Korean, etc as “Asian” means in the USA) youth projecting towards black music. It’s a definite phenomenon--Apache Indian, Bally Sagoo, certain Indian friends I’ve known who were obsessive junglists and cleaved to the hardest, most ragga end of the music, 2step’s large South Asian following, desi with its debts to R&B and blingy rap. It’s similar in some ways to the way white Brits (such as myself) project towards black music, but it has a slightly different valence, you sense that they’re looking for a kind of racial identity-based militancy they can’t find in their own culture. At any rate, when I found the whole M.I.A. assemblage wasn’t adding up for me, I ended up writing something totally different. But hearing anecdotes about M.I.A. going to LA and chasing gangsta rappers, including son-of-a-Black-Panther Tupac (parallels, parallels) or reading about the impact of Public Enemy on her as a teenager, it reminded me of this story-that-was-never-written.
9/ Just because one is generally pro-hybridity, mixing it up, it doesn’t therefore follow that all instances of hybridization are equally valid or equally arresting. Some of the most weak-ass music on the planet is hybrid. Some hybridization processes take place on unequal terms. In certain cases, purism is a valid stance, an aesthetically productive path. All this is explored in much great depth in this essay Pure Fusion: Multiculture versus Monoculture .
10/ Now here’s something funny I haven’t mentioned, mainly, cos it’s, like, totally irrelevant really. My dad grew up in Sri Lanka. He’s ¾ Indian but (complicated story) was adopted and grew up in the then-Ceylon in a Sinhalese but Anglicized family--Methodist minister father. He emigrated to England well before the whole Tamil/Sri Lanka thing blew up (unfortunate expression). So I have no insight into the situation, apart from having gleaned indirectly that (some) Sinhalese are capable of being pretty racist towards Tamils. I heard so much about “Ceylon” growing up that I feel some vague connection to the island, although it’s all based around the 1940s and 1950s. I’d never got the impression, though, that the Tamils were favored by the British or somehow had control of the reins before independence.
11/ Despite being 37 percent Indian myself and a product of postcolonialist diaspora, culturally speaking I might as well be pureblooded Anglo-Saxon stretching back before the Domesday Book. Looking basically English, I’ve never encountered racism, apart from the kind of Limeyphobia you might find on, say, an internet forum. Still, growing up with mixrace-ness in my environment and on the table, as it were, it’s given me certain advantages; certain kinds of standard-issue English racism were less available, if you get me. The idea of miscegenation and hybridity as positives was introduced so early on as to be almost pre-political. Perhaps that’s also why I don’t have to clutch onto them as articles of faith and spurs to sanctimony.