Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Dissonant Undertones of M.I.A.

February 11, 2009

The Dissonant Undertones of M.I.A.

New York Times

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — To many Americans, Maya Arulpragasam, known as M.I.A., is the very pregnant rapper who gyrated across the stage at Sunday’s Grammy Awards.

Yet in Sri Lanka, where she spent her childhood years, M.I.A. remains virtually unknown. And some who do know her work say she is an apologist for the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels fighting in the country’s long-running civil war.

M.I.A. — who has been nominated for an Oscar for the song she co-wrote for the hit film “Slumdog Millionaire” — has branded herself through music videos and interviews as the voice of the country’s Tamil minority. In the video for her song “Bird Flu,” for instance, children dance in front of what looks like the rebels’ logo: a roaring tiger.

“Being the only Tamil in the Western media, I have a really great opportunity to sort of bring forward what’s going on in Sri Lanka,” she said in an interview on the PBS program “Tavis Smiley” last month. “There’s a genocide going on.”

But her political views rankle some people at a time when most Sri Lankans are clutching to the hope that the rebels, branded by the United States and European nations as a terrorist group, are on the verge of military defeat by government troops.

“Frankly, she’s very lucky to get away with supporting, even indirectly, perhaps the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world,” said Suresh Jayawickrama, a songwriter based in Colombo.

Mr. Jayawickrama is from the country’s majority Sinhalese ethnic group, and his reaction is similar to that of many Sri Lankans who know M.I.A.’s music. But he also said that M.I.A. deserved credit for her artistry and the fame she had achieved. “She really should have a little more recognition in this country,” he said.

Despite decades of conflict, music has remained largely free of political messages or overtones in Sri Lanka, perhaps because audiences are seeking entertainment and escape from the daily reminders of civil war.

“Compared to other countries, people don’t write many songs here about what is going on politically,” said Dillain Joseph, a singer who is of mixed Sinhalese and Tamil parentage.

Meanwhile, M.I.A.’s claims that the government is carrying out a genocide against Tamils place her on the outer fringe of opinion about the conflict.

Although the government has brutalized and killed Tamil civilians over the past 25 years, human rights organizations spread the blame around, estimating that 70,000 people on both sides have been killed in the fighting.

“This is a conflict in which both sides have terrible human rights records,” said Yolanda Foster, a specialist on Sri Lanka with Amnesty International in London. “The Tamil Tigers have a long history of child recruitment, hostage taking, forcing civilians to the front lines. It’s complicated to assign blame.”

M.I.A. was born in Britain but moved to Sri Lanka when she was 6 months old so that her father, an engineer and a leader in the Tamil separatist movement, could help fight for an independent Tamil homeland. Her childhood took her across northern Sri Lanka, wracked by insurgency, to India and back to Britain, where her mother and siblings settled into a public housing project outside London. Her father remained in Sri Lanka. She now calls New York home.

Sri Lankans who have seen her videos say they interpret some parts as showing support for the Tigers, or at the very least glorifying their cause. But for those not familiar with the conflict, they might come across as generic third-world scenes.

“I kind of want to leave it ambiguous for my fans,” she said in the PBS interview, referring to the lyrics of her song “Paper Planes,” which was nominated for record of the year at the Grammys but did not win.

“Paper Planes,” which compares international drug dealing with selling records, drew a reaction from DeLon, a Sinhalese rapper based in Los Angeles, who made a video remix in which he interspersed images of people being blown up by Tamil Tiger bombs and subtitles about M.I.A. being a terrorist.

M.I.A. responded that she did not support terrorism.

Despite those tensions, which played out largely on the Internet and abroad, musicians in Sri Lanka say the music scene has remained ethnically diverse, with members of the country’s numerous ethnic groups and religions often forming bands together.

“There’s a lot of mixing and matching going on,” said Rienzie Pereira, a guitar player. “It’s basically like sports. No matter what ethnic group you are from, people can play cricket together.”

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