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A soundtrack for struggle

Review by Conor Reed | August 31, 2007 | Page 11

M.I.A., Kala, Interscope Records, 2007.

JOE HILL, the early 20th century Industrial Workers of the World troubadour and activist, once said, "A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over."

Fast-forward about 100 years with the exciting release of genre-busting hip-hop "grime" artist M.I.A.'s new album Kala. The equation is stunning: 12 songs--recorded in such far-reaching locales as Jamaica, Baltimore, Trinidad, India, Australia and Japan--address issues like migration, poverty and violence. And it's easily the slickest thing you've heard in years.

For M.I.A., a Sri Lankan/Londoner whose real name is Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam, music is never divorced from the world of politics. Born in Hounslow, London, she relocated several times in her youth as a refugee due to her father's active political involvement in the Tamil independence movement in Sri Lanka.

He organized in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam--widely known as the Tamil Tigers--and helped form the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students. These two groups, heavily influenced by Marxism, sought to form a separate Tamil state, a struggle that continues today.

This political past is found throughout M.I.A.'s work today, much to the chagrin of the mainstream music industry. Both Kala and her first album, Arular, feature lyrics that would make any radical proud. Some examples include: "I'm armed and I'm equal" and "They wanna check my papers/see what I carry around/Credentials are boring/I burnt them at the burial ground/Don't order me about/I'm an outlaw from the badland."

In fact, one of the reasons why she recorded in so many different places around the world was because she had repeated trouble procuring a visa from U.S. immigration officials to work in studios here. This is a frustrating challenge that many people, artists or not, endure in the current anti-immigrant climate coming from Washington and corporate boardrooms.

These challenges didn't stop M.I.A. from making quite possibly the most uniquely "internationalist" album in musical history. The brilliance of Kala's songs is in the seamless layers of intricate drumbeats from India and Trinidad, the Bollywood swoops of melody, the shout-outs that name Jamaican dance moves, the samples ranging from the Clash to the Pixies to Jonathan Richman to Blaqstarr.

In an interview with Fader magazine, she explains how the global recording process affected the entire album's aesthetic: "I took all of the songs to India, then I took all of the songs to Trinidad, then I took all of the songs to Jamaica. Every song has a layer of some other country on it. It's like making a big old marble cake with lots of different countries and influences. Then you slice it up and call each slice a song."

It's no wonder that that the political theme of migration weighs so heavily on Kala. In the U.S., where the historical vibrancy of the world's cultures are callously held up at the borders--and frequently deported home with a ferocious speed unmatched internationally--this album serves as an excellent argument for the free exchange of musical expression without borders.

M.I.A.'s inspiring role as a female hip-hop artist in a male-dominated (and sexism-laden) music scene should be celebrated as well. On countless occasions, she has vigorously defended her talents in the face of the music industry and press's predictable detractions, arguing that there is no "man behind her music."

Even though she collaborated on Kala with such producers as Switch, Diplo, Bangladesh and Timbaland, it's her overall singular vision that leads these songs into such fascinating directions. She will surely encourage a new generation of female artists to reinvent the musical wheel.

So, in response to Joe Hill's sentiment, although pamphlets are completely irreplaceable in giving the clarity to build and sustain movements for lasting social change, these songs should be "learned by heart and repeated over and over." Socialists around the world, I present to you our new soundtrack for struggle.

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