The Art of Defying the System
Consider, if you will, how many young hopefuls have entered the entertainment industry with nothing more than a dream and a smidgen of talent. They get picked up by someone — a record label, an executive, some famed producer — and this means everything. Getting picked up means family and friends applaud you, enemies from school see your face on the cover of magazines, and a sizable paycheck is in your future. It also means your individuality will be slowly stripped away. “Do you want to be famous, or what? Lose the accent, dress this way, don’t say that, sing this, promote that, suck here…” Such “experts” style and media-train these young hopefuls within an inch of their lives this side of Stepford. And for what? Not art.
Every single narcissistic music video that comes complete with a four-minute monologue leading to the grand reveal of a sad-looking pop star staring into their own empty eyes in the mirror before moaning lazy lyrics that have been auto-tuned to death is due to this moneymaking system. Got something to say? Well, keep it to yourself. Wanna be an activist? Here are the permitted causes you can get behind, the policies you can support, the issues you can discuss, and the virtue-signaling you can use once we give you that award for being such a good little puppet. Dare to color outside these lines, and you’re done. No one will ever work with you again, and no more magazine covers for you.
Sadly, it isn’t until these ingénues are half-naked, shellacked to death for HD, dry-humping some background dancer, and lip-syncing about sexy cannibalism to a synthetic beat that they realize the work that they’re producing is neither art nor meaningful. But by then it’s much too late for change. They can’t revert to their “true identity” (if they can even recall what that is), because the public is already acquainted with the identity they allowed others to forge for them.
The music industry has become so vapid it’s no wonder the ratings for the Grammys have reached an all-time low. They’re not giving anyone a reason to dance, to sing along, or to even expand their thinking. Instead, the industry has become so egocentric that they must crush any opposing views, silence outspoken thinkers, and shame them as much as they can through hit pieces in the New York Times and other means of censorship. Industry execs can’t afford for their little ingénues to get any ideas.
Perhaps this is why there’s been so much resistance to artists like M.I.A.
Born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam in London, she spent most of her childhood in her native Sri Lanka, where her father was an activist and political leader who played a role in the Sri Lankan Civil War. Maya spent her early childhood dodging bullets while living in poverty, with her father notably absent due to this conflict. And when the situation became too dangerous for Maya and her siblings, their mother fought to get them out of the country and back to England. There they lived as refugees, experiencing harsh racism in southwest London. Luckily Maya’s mother was able to get a job as a seamstress, which provided a modest income for the family. All the while, young Maya was filming everything.
Maya initially dreamed of becoming a documentary filmmaker with the goal of telling stories most of us never hear: of the poor, the working class, the victims of war, the oppressed and the ignored. Her first major attempt at making a documentary brought her back to Sri Lanka, where she hoped to follow her cousin to film the war, but then her cousin went M.I.A. Maya ended up back in London shortly thereafter and took up painting, since it was cheap. It wasn’t until later that she found herself working as a musician, but that’s when her desire to speak truth found its proper medium.
Armed with a Roland MC-505 groovebox and drum machine, she began to create her own songs. By June 2004 she was uploading them onto MySpace, where major record labels instantly took note of her unique sound enhanced by diverse cultural flavors and earworm lyrics that were fun to sing yet steeped in political and economic significance. Within the year she was signed by XL Records, whose only desire was that she do something interesting. In a 2008 interview, Maya said, “Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs. Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked.”
Her first music video, for the song “Sunshowers,” was filmed in the jungles of south India. The lyrics describe guerrilla warfare and asylum seeking: “Semi-9 and snipered him, on that wall they posted him, they cornered him, and then just murdered him.” Compare this to any other pop star’s debut and you discover that this video is not only fresh and authentic but throbbing with aggressive energy. Naturally it caused controversy, but unlike other music videos, it brought audiences somewhere they’ve never been before and allowed M.I.A. to express who she was as an individual — not as some glittered-up plaything.
Then her second video, for “Galang,” showed another side of her: that of a refugee who grew up on the streets of London, surrounded by guerrilla art. It’s colorful, vibrant and raw. It feels like art made by people, not by committee. Undoubtedly, this authenticity is what made M.I.A. a success online. Not only was she speaking to a global audience, but she was giving them art that was creative and designed to make people dance — rather than just please the C-Suite. Her first album, Arular, named after her father, was released in 2005 and included other memorable tracks such as “Bucky Done Gun” and “Pull Up the People.” It was celebrated as one of the best albums of the year.
Next Maya set her sights on Kala, her second album, which she named after her mother. The track “Paper Planes” would skyrocket Maya into mainstream awareness, with the song garnering a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year in 2009. The single was so successful, and downloaded at a such a rate, that even today if you mention M.I.A., people bring up “Paper Planes.” Yet the album featured other memorable tracks, such as “Bamboo Banga” and “Boyz” as well as “Jimmy.” And honestly, if anyone could write a song about following a journalist on a genocide tour, put it to Bollywood disco music, and perform the dance of a thousand hands, it’s M.I.A.
Then in 2010 she released /\/\ /\ Y /\, which she named after herself and stylized as a commentary on internet culture and the rise of what we now know as surveillance capitalism. But before the album was officially released, a music video for her track “Born Free,” directed by Romain Gavras, was leaked online to great controversy due to its violent content. This was probably the ballsiest action Maya has made thus far in her career: portraying redheaded boys being hunted down and killed, as a way to express the realities of genocide happening around the world. It was quickly banned by YouTube, but since it is a valuable and important cultural artifact, I’ll simply leave a link here(warning: it’s graphic).
Still, many of the tracks on this particular album highlight changes with internet culture and information politics — in particular, the difficulty in ascertaining truth in a world of powerful search engines such as Google, who have the ability to control what information we see (and don’t see). At the same time, the artist had just given birth to her son, so she summed up this particular album as being a mixture of “babies, death, destruction and powerlessness.” In its opening track, “The Message,” she sings: “Head-bone connects to the neck-bone, neck-bone connects to the arm-bone, arm-bone connects to the hand-bone, hand-bone connects to the internet, connected to the Google, connected to the government.” At the time, people thought she was a conspiracy theorist. Today she’s been proven correct. Meanwhile, other tracks, such as “Xxxo,” demonstrate her vision for the artistic canvas that the internet could have become, as opposed to the clean minimalism that’s popular today.
In 2012 Maya released her next album, Matangi, which marked the beginning of deeper maturity in her artistic development. Important tracks include “Matangi” and “Bring the Noise.” One particularly stunning music video, which plays with rainbow explosions of color projected onto Maya as she portrays a glow-in-the-dark goddess, is “Y.A.L.A.” However, the most powerful video of this time is “Bad Girls,” which demonstrates a type of feminism and female empowerment not often seen in mainstream channels.
Then in 2015 she released “Matahdatah Scroll 01 Broader Than a Border,” a music video combining two of her tracks from Matangi: “Warriors” and “Scrolls.” The footage highlights real people living in India and West Africa, including young girls training to become warriors, as well as one of the most entrancing dancers the world would have otherwise never seen. Here Maya seems to take the goddess angle in another direction: she is the earth goddess showcasing the people to elevate them, rather than herself. And by combining her skills in fashion design, painting, songwriting and filmmaking, M.I.A. becomes a mirror for showcasing talents and faces behind the nameless blob that is culture outside of the mainstream. This revelation would ultimately culminate in her next project: Borders.
As exhibited through her work, M.I.A. has chosen a different path from that of her contemporaries. It’s not that she finds her views to be controversial; it’s that the ever-shifting social mores of Western culture deem them so. And while activism is currently experiencing a resurgence in the music industry, it all seems very fake and scripted simply because it’s being used to elevate brands rather than people. In sharp contrast is the career of M.I.A., who has battled controversy and lawsuits left and right to maintain her place in the public’s eye. Thankfully her business model of using the internet to connect directly with her fans and protect her autonomy has empowered her to maintain her artistic vision and push for self-expression. It’s a model many up-and-coming artists should study and consider for their own career paths.
If history tells us anything, the best artists — those who have endured the test of time — were rarely easy to define. They never fit within any preordained mold of humanity, because it was precisely their contradictions, hypocrisies, personal dilemmas and varied experiences that made them culturally relevant and historically important. And while there is a new documentary about M.I.A. that helps us to understand her many struggles on the path to fame, it’s not the drama that matters but the work that’s produced — and Maya’s work speaks for itself.
Furthermore, she’s proven that this road less traveled is worth it in the end — that artists in possession of a strong identity can produce work that matters, whether mainstream audiences or the music industry initially see the value in it or not. She also proves that artists don’t have to sell their souls, bodies or integrity to get noticed or to survive. They just have to have the courage to say something true, in a way that only they can, without apology.
It’s the harder path, but it’s what our culture desperately needs.