In the opening line of the relatively straightforward, boom-bap interlude of M.I.A.’s newly released album, “Boom Skit”, Maya Arulpragasam spits, “Brown girl, brown girl, turn your shit down, you know our America don’t wanna hear your sound, boom boom, jungle music, go back to India…” While M.I.A., a British Sri-Lankan woman, has been making vaguely political indie-dance-rap for the past ten years, Matangi is graced with her birth name, and is the most sonically South Asian of any of her previous work. It is unapologetic in its self-definition in which people of varying cultural, linguistic, religious and political backgrounds are labeled as Arabs, Indians, Muslims or terrorists. Instead of banging her head against the wall in vain attempts to educate an uninterested white audience on the sexual and existential agency of pan-ethnic women of color, M.I.A. uses Matangi as a rallying point for women of color to revel in their otherness as a subversion and celebration of their self-definition despite the dominant Eurocentric discourse surrounding women of South Asia and the Middle East. With her most recent effort and its accompanying visuals, Arulpragasam offers a multicultural punk-rap album that muses on otherness, self-definition, feminism, and the political role of noise through the gaze of a woman of color.
In the follow up to an album (Maya) whose cover shrouded M.I.A.’s face in a collage constructed by repeated toolbars of YouTube videos, M.I.A.’s newest effort is a departure from Maya’s bend towards punk and examination of life in an increasingly digital world. Matangi’s intro, Karmageddon, begins with a Hindu drone and sarangi before being engulfed by bass line. She has described it as her “spiritual” album, and while other M.I.A. albums have contained elements of sampled South Asian music, never before has it been so pervasively present or all encompassing – nearly every track begins or ends in some way with a brief segue of tabla or zither to stake the ground here, while others decontextualize the steady-beat of time-keeping tabla as a dancefloor pulse. This consistent presence creates a cultural context for understanding the moods, lyrics and ideas that M.I.A. is conveying. It refuses to allow listeners to forget her Sri-Lankan identity – it is unapologetic in its ownership of otherness and women-of-color femininity.
In evaluating and experiencing M.I.A. and the pan-ethnic approach that has been so widely critiqued as empty, purely aesthetic, appropriative, or meaningless, it is impossible to separate the music from its artwork and videos. Two videos have been released in support of the album – “Bad Girls” and “Bring The Noize.” “Bring The Noize” opens with a shot of a Sikh man tying his hair into a turban, with men in all-white outfits smashing unknown objects on the ground. She raps between stoic rows of men and women of varying ethnicities and presumptive religions – men in Sikh turbans, others in baseball caps, black and Asian women and black men in Muslim taqiyahs, a man guiding a cow – as strobe lights and blue club lights scatter throughout the room. In later shots, all these culturally disparate people dance ecstatically, while shots so men and women alternatingly dancing alone in front of a screen that says “Bring The Noize.” No one is explicitly objectified, and the mood and tone of the song alternates between Public Enemy-inspired rallying of agency and celebratory otherness. As Ayesha Siddiqi noted in her essay, “The Pop Diaspora of M.I.A.” (Siddiqi), the representation of this pan-ethnic group is not appropriative because it’s main unifying principal is its otherness. Arulpragasam isn’t using signifiers of otherness to brazenly and shallowly define those she depicts in her videos, but as a way to connect them and demonstrate unification through otherness as a healthy environment for moments of self-definition.
Otherness, a typical tool for marginalization and dismissal, is a curious tool for the unification of disparate cultures, but M.I.A.’s makes it a tenant of the album. In the early 20th Century, pan-African activists live Marcus Garvey used shared culture and heritage as a way to unite all people of the African diaspora. While Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, Saudis, Indians and Somalians, don’t share a religion, culture, or heritage, they are unified by the manner in which they’ve been cast as a vague “other” in western society. M.I.A. takes all these signifiers of otherness and jumbles them together, not as cultural collage, but as a direct response to constantly being a “brown girl,” “Indian,” or one of “Satan’s poor people,” as she states on “Boom Skit.” Here, she directly responds to the fetishization of eastern spirituality and western heroics in the so-called third-world, making references to Kony, Eat Pray Love and ashrams in back-to-back lines. The south Asian aesthetic of Matangi isn’t used as a refreshing spiritual vacation for a white audience – rather, it’s the opposite, a way of closing ranks and reclaiming a persistently otherized identity as a brown girl in a white man’s world.
And while the flipping of otherization is used as a way to close ranks and unify otherized people regardless of background, M.I.A.’s standpoint as a woman of color “triumphantly avoids privileging white consumption,” as Siddiqi puts it. M.I.A.’s aim doesn’t appear to be the noble and cooperative education of well-intentioned but ignorant white audiences, or pleas of humanity to abject racists who cast all brown people off as terrorists. Instead, she acknowledges the limited white gaze imposed upon all south and west Asians and creates a community of people who have been marginalized by this gaze, then using it as a space in which to strive towards self-definition.
This is never more evident than in her video for the album’s lead single, “Bad Girls.” The image of middle-eastern (and, through the “exotic” umbrella imposed on all Asians, South Asian) women has been highly politicize and controlled, with widespread debates about the appropriateness of the burka being carried out seemingly by everyone but Muslim women. In the video, M.I.A.’s sidekicks all wear the burka, a clear signifier of global southern “otherness” sure to put off racist, xenophobic white audiences. However, she empowers the women in the burkas by challenging the attributes stereotypically applied to those who wear them, as they joyfully shake their asses, reclaiming agency over their bodies and asserting their sexuality, humanity and individuality, challenging a polarized controlling image without reinforcing its opposing image. They aren’t limited by their dances or outfits either – burka-clad women dangerously drive BMW’s through a street in the desert as a line of men in kaffiyahs watch and cheer. The presence of these men doesn’t read as a controlling male gaze, but as the adoring approval of fanhood and admiration of these daring women of color, reverence for their feats as opposed to consumption of their beauty for their own pleasure.
This video is the summation of everything that is most successful about Matangi. M.I.A. refuses to be pit against herself, as Patricia Hill Collins describes in Black Feminist Thought. While white supremacist western society often forces women of color to take sides as to whether they’re with their race or with their gender. While many white feminists have critiqued the usage of the burka as limiting for women, racism prevents them from seeing the humanity of these women and robs them the agency to practice their religion and do as they please. It also isn’t dismissive of the problematic nature of the relationship between men and women of color. M.I.A. uses the white male gaze to understand the ways in which black and brown people have been otherized and fetishized, and then uses these signifiers of difference as a tool itself to critique the controlling images imposed on women of color. “Bad Girls” combats stereotypical notions of Muslim femininity and sexuality and reimagines them while championing the otherness that’s used to oppress them in the first place. This otherness creates a unifying space for all that is non-western and non-white, and within this space they search for self-definition and self-determination. Her refrain of “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well,” echoes the traditional feminist challenge to dainty, deferential femininity while simultaneously offering an alternate Muslim masculinity that is supportive and reverential of self-determined Muslim women. This not only challenges controlling images of Muslim women, but of Muslim men as well. Her critique is both racialized and gendered, and while it critique points to the oppression perpetuated by white-supremacist patriarchy, it doesn’t privilege the very patriarchy that it critiques by directing its message towards it. Instead, M.I.A. acknowledges the systems of oppression but speaks to the vague other she identifies with and hopes to help, offering them methods of realizing their own self-definition and agency despite an oppressive system, rather than hoping to change it all overnight.
M.I.A.’s championing of the non-white other doesn’t stop in the Near East or in South Asia. While her videos best communicate her ideas on self-determination amid a racist and patriarchal system of oppression, the album’s title track, “Matangi,” illustrates art and noise as a political voice. For generations in America, African-American slaves, prisoners and Civil Rights activists have used noise as a tool for combatting oppression, both on micro and macro scales. Work songs were used as a distraction for slaves and prisoners from the grueling labor they were forced to undergo; protest songs embodied the venom, brotherly unity and we-shall-overcome strength of the Civil Rights Movement; blues gave a voice to marginalized black women in the 1920s; free jazz became an unchained expression of blackness in the late 60s; rap at its advent was a fiery shot at the throne of white establishment as Reaganomics descended upon American ghettos. Joyful communal noise has historically been one of the pillars of the African-American experience, whether in churches, marches or dance clubs. Noise had the potential to communicate intensely personal expression, the venom and anger of oppressed people, and the joy of communal strength. Noise, in this sense, has always been politicized.
Drawing on this, while Matangi is referential of Hindu classical music, it is distinctly noisey. Her previous album, Maya, drew heavily on punk rock, and while punk’s defiance and intensity are present, Matangi is also M.I.A.’s most rap-centric album, with most semblances of indie-pop falling by the wayside. On the title track, M.I.A. rattles off country names, going from Africa to South America to Asia to Eastern Europe and back again. She acknowledges western powers, as they are not devoid of oppressed people, but she doesn’t privilege their importance or value either. It begins with a beckoning, dancey tone, but as she gets to the hook, drums pound and the urgency climbs. Just before the beat drops, trap drums smack that sound more Young Chop than Ravi Shankar. This nod to “drill” rap, a often maligned, often nihilistic music of Chicago-teens in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the world, is another expression of pan-ethnic unity through non-white otherness, an embrace of all those who have been cast aside by a white-supremacist and capitalist patriarchy. Her cry of “It’s so simple, get to the floor,” is a rallying cry for oppressed people, a reminder of the ways in which music and art have historically been an arena for women and people of color to search for and celebrate both group and self, a reminder of the times in which their ancestors sang and danced through adversity, violence and oppression.
Matangi is a joyous and definitively gendered and racialized celebration of otherness within the framework of a dominant culture that is so quick to vilify these very same traits. M.I.A. embraces cultural stereotypes as a context in which to find, define and celebrate both the culture and the individual, a mission statement by and for the shadowy other. It acknowledges the systems of oppression and advocates for change without allowing the oppression to distract it from appreciating the culture, traditions and individuals that make the other worth celebrating in the first place.