As she bends over the press rail, singing and attempting to crowd surf on her back at the Vic, Chicago, yet again, the massive security guard pulls at Maya’s leg to keep her just out of reach of the crazed and clutching crowds’ claws. The masses yearn to hold her up as she seemingly wants to fall, surrendering to her own weight, perhaps her heavy heart and the overwhelming spectacle of it all. The audiences mesmerized and entranced, glibly devours the persona and image M.I.A. propagates. But, I wondered how it must feel to have so many eyes tugging at your every gesture, the hot gaping mouths of the audience and critics breathing back at you, ready to swallow you whole.
“America’s not raising its generations saying, ‘Knowledge is currency. Corporations are raising themselves say, ‘Knowledge is currency and we’re gonna collect it all’ … the people are not being told that,” Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam comments, ironically in Marc Eckó’s Complex fashion merch magazine. When asked if she’s ever felt like a poser, she wryly replies to Marc, “When I did this [photo] shoot.” Self-aware and fiercely intellectual, In the June/July 2010 issue, Arulpragasam continues to question the dis-order of the world and Google’s blockade on the information highway. While magazines may be the only form of literature and analysis most American consumers may even graze through, I pray some of the masses might absorb Mithangi’s world view. Maya lays it all out in art magazines across the globe, the way only a former art student and socially-conscious industry head could.
On the commodification of knowledge and corporate-governments’ ambitions to keeping the masses down by keeping them blissfully ignorant, Arulpragasam keeps it real: “it’s important to tell people in the street or poor people to arm themselves with knowledge ‘cause that shit’s a commodity.” It’s unfortunate most artists aren’t as avidly political as Arulpragasam. With a platform of millions and world tours serving as modern day religious institutions, Maya knows she’s in the belly of the beast, but battles seemingly constantly with her conflicting image, while never wavers on her message.
As she steps to the edge of the stage at the Vic, I ponder, where does Maya’s mind wonder throughout the routine performance? The glamorous clamor and innocence of Maya’s humble beginnings as an underground sensation from the hood are long gone, but the magic remains.
Maya wants her fans and the world to be more conscious consumers, “you have to tell people to [reach out for varying perspectives in the media].” She challenges, her audience with “Critical thinking… that’s what my album’s about. Making it so uncomfortably weird and wrong that people begin to exercise their critical-thinking muscles.” She continues her critique of the U.S.’s educational system, “Apparently, America…has the lowest critical-thinking percentages in schools.” But, do M.I.A.’s third world rave beats out drone her message? Do her lyrics and politics really sink into the masses? Is M.I.A. just preaching to the art-nerd choir? Does anyone hear her? Does anyone actually sit with her words and dissect the dichotomy of a corporate icon in a misfit state of mind?
Arulpragasam has driven her political platform straight home in every production promoted to date. But amidst the trash of crushed plastic beer cups, the clutter of the music industries’ waste and her own though counter-imperialist exports across the world, I wonder how Maya manages to stay sane. The unattractive and chaotic cover art of her self-titled album /\/\./\.Y/\., intentionally mask her face among the “digital ruckus” of her own performance, the living idol she has transformed herself into.
The album’s sound, similar to the album art is fracas, ardent, and unrelenting. Reflecting the riotous tumult of her live show, the album and album art, seem drowned in a hundred megawatts of blistering stage lights and the amply blared bombastic billow of the album’s well suited live revere. I almost missed the simple screen projections of Arulpragasam’s repetitious and rhythmic pop-art, ‘Boyz’ and bombs flashing from behind via her on the Kala tour. But, this is Maya now, with images of herself stumbling, floating, falling along the backdrop of red carpets and tour buses. She’s self-deprecating, honest, and human despite her tantamount notoriety.
The scattered design of /\/\./\.Y/\. printed on plain white tour t-shirts are a long cry from her face-as-icon sophomore branding efforts. Whereas her Kala turned Maya’s image into commodity with her face splattered in iridescent eternity over bold blues and greens, her glittering, African print debut in the fashion world and her since soaring success as exec of her own record label, N.E.E.T. (Not in Entertainment, Education or Training), this time around Arulpragasam seems hidden behind the vitriolic reverberations of her image.
This is not the Maya I saw at the Vic, Thanksgiving break 2007, months before “Paper Planes” blew her name up and catapulted her donnybrook grind into a household name. Considering her acrobatic, precarious climbs atop rafters at Lollapolooza (2007), watching her mount the amps on Thursdays’ performances, I wondered at the monotonous routine of Maya’s life as an anti-pop diva.
Victor Benitez, a dutiful fan and library information sciences grad student went to both Wednesday and Thursday’s shows and reported on Wednesdays’ performance as follows: Maya pulled up all the brown people on stage, seemingly hand picked, to smoke a bowl and sing along to “Born Free.” A marvel of political potency and a bold statement in the face of the American music industries appropriation and commodification of, well anything and everything brown, not only did Arulpragasam make a staunch stance on race but also pushed the envelope of entertainment in support of marijuana legalization. The crowd huffed and puffed, shared spit with and sang along with their goddess. The audience got blazed and galanged with there guerrilla guru, turning one Chi-town stage into an authentic “World Town.”
Thursday’s packed performance didn’t afford such intimacies. However, both nights Maya did climb her subs and amps to towering heights, sat atop the speakers and rocked perilously back and forth while howling her ironic and poignant Native American-Indian war hoots and woots, while the high-pitched Indian-chime chorus echoed over her monotone, “All I ever wanted was my story to be told.”
Her story is in-fact inspiring. There’s no doubt that M.I.A. has changed the face of hip-hop, engendering her persona onto the global arena of female MC’s with an astute ferocity and flawless agency previously unseen in the industry. But, who is M.I.A. really? A recent New York Times interview blasphemously proposes Arulpragasam as a hypocritical and flippant artist. The article prejudiceously proposes Arulpragasam as unaware of her self-propelled and self-projected mass media image. Not to mention the Chicago Readers persistent, indifference and yuppie art-snob reproach of her “contradictory” anti-corporate rhetoric, through convenient dismissal of her racial and social commentary. Oh how the hipsters love their hip-hop to be as degrading and misguided as their own unfortunate lives. Does anyone actually expect a self made media giant to be anything but extravagant? Do the smug and austere reporters mascaraed-ing their privilege as “objectivity”, really expect a woman who’s seen first hand what the effects of globalization can do to Third World and a First World ghettos, to live in squalor in order to satisfy their guilt? (For those of you who don’t know, Arulpragasam tweeted her NYT interviewer’s info in protest. Wouldn’t you?)
If we’re to believe the hype, where does the DIY drive of an exiled-Tamil-Shri Lankan, immigrant-activist, twitter hack-tivist, indie-agitator and hip-hop pioneer truly lie? Has the music, or will it ever, simply become a hustle and grind like any other? When she’s mixing her own melodies and sampling beats from the motherlands across the Third World does she consider the tremendous effect her very presence, her larger than life persona may have on those immigrant, transient, exiled, persecuted, denounced and denied masses of urban youth the world over who yearn to see their own brown faces reflected in the imperial media exports of the First World propaganda? Did M.I.A. set out to become a beacon, a pillar of light, a promise of hope, a mango-tooth-picking brown Madonna from the wrong side of the tracks? Or is Maya just out to win big and cash in on her First World privilege and education?
Arulpragasam is a nerd. There’s no doubt about it. A too-cool-for-school video and visual artist meets a music biz wiz. Arulpragasam is not her persona. But she may very well be the calculating yet intuitive, and uncompromising tour de force of the hip-hop industry we’ve all been waiting for and have since loved to hate. Through astute intellectualism, pop-art-ivism and a hack-tivist approach to media-hijacking, M.I.A. continues to galvanize, scrutinize and just plain terrorize the music industry and the press with her nuanced complexities and mad media mogul management skills.
At the Vic the crowd, licking up Maya’s sweat like liquor, an elixir from the divine dharma, was pleased, but I was left less dazed and more confused. Everything about Arulpragasam’s virtuoso hip-hop performance buzzes and clanks with race consciousness and self-empowerment, yet how does the artist see herself as she becomes leader and her fan’s followers? Through a world identity and social consciousness, Maya, I pray, will continue to move the masses. When M.I.A. shouts, “I can mill a sound and this shit will make you jump,” you should see the crowd bounce and for a second, touch their heathen heaven, their naysayer nirvana. But, what of Mathangi’s spirit? Where does her persona end and the real Maya shine?