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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: M.I.A. in Action

How much do we know about the feisty Anglo-Sri-Lankan who stole the headlines from Lady Madonna at yesterday's Super Bowl half-time show? Ken Scrudato talked to M.I.A. for Flaunt magazine as she started out six years ago——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Nearly twenty years before 9/11/01 — before New Yorkers and other Americans decided to believe that great tragedy had begun and ended with them — on an island paradise known only to most Americans as the very exotic setting of a couple of very sexy Duran Duran videos, a civil war broke out between, if you can imagine, the Buddhists and the Hindus.

It was a war that had been heating up since the British Empire abandoned its rule of Sri Lanka as part of the shedding of a portion of its colonialist skin thirty-five years earlier. A few years into that war (which to this day starts and stops with unsettling regularity), a little girl and her family, like so many others, had their lives torn apart, and eventually escaped to London's dismal refugee slums.

All these years later, against all probability, that little girl — now a grown up firebrand who goes by the proudly defiant moniker M.I.A. (Missing In Action — get it?) — is set to release her first album. And, although in her music she doesn't bother to dwell on the tragic events of her childhood, she also doesn't at all shy away from recounting them.

"The family unit is just a lot more important to people in the third world," she explains. "Priority number one is keeping that family unit together. So, when the bombs start dropping, and that gets shattered, you've lost everything. Not only do they take your family away, and your home away, and your country away, but then you have start from shit afterwards. Like, who do you thank?"

And much as London has a well-documented reputation of diversity and ethnic tolerance, being uprooted from a stable family existence and dropped into the ghettos of a country whose language you don't speak is surely an abject situation for a child. Poor is poor. Immigrant and poor is worse. And being a poor, immigrant child is terrifying, to say the least.

"You come over as a refugee, and every refugee starts the same," she says. "You get given a flat in the shittiest housing estate, because the hierarchy is, that the most desperate people get put in the shittiest places, and when they wise up to how bad it is, they start working at upping their standard of living. After getting beaten up once a week, then later, you think you're doing great if it's once a year. And we were the family that made everyone else think, 'At least I'm not that!' The only thing you can do is just go on."

Amazingly, that's just what she did, toughing out the bleak, crime-ridden daily existence of her new home, and bonding with a London underground hip hop community through a shared "outsider" status. She recalls, with just a hint of sentimentality, how the scrawny little refugee girl with the big gold earrings turned up again and again at Brixton sound systems, was accepted into the fold, and found new vitality in a Western music culture.

"I could really relate to hip hop," she remembers, "and it was a way for me to feel good about myself. It was my secret little thing, and other kids didn't know anything about it. It was really empowering, like, 'Yeah, fight the power!'"

In fact, on her debut album, Brit street culture easily trumps her Asian roots. First single 'Galang', repeats the mantra, "London calling/Speak the slang now," over a squishy, oddball beat, that sounds like a Soweto rhythm run through a toy drum machine. Yet it's absolutely the most infectious, rousing groove you'll hear all year, with a "YA, YA, HEY!" hook that sounds like a tribal call to arms. 'Amazon', though, gets with the penchant for British kids to get with the Jamaica stylee, and is reminiscent of the punk-informed reggae of post-Slits Ari Up. But the track that is most startling is 'Fire Fire', on which she spits rapid-fire ragga over an impossibly disjointed beat, which could only be described as industrial dub.

Curiously, the music is starkly minimal, yet discernibly African influenced, calling to mind post-punk stalwarts like PiL and Rip Rig & Panic, bands formed before M.I.A. was even born.

"Sometimes I think I'm a reincarnated African person," jokes M.I.A. "Maybe it's in me. But I have such a strange sense of rhythm. Sometimes I would write a mad beat by accident, and then I would just write a song over it. And no one would understand the patterns of these beats at all. 'Sunshowers' to me is just really organic-sounding. You could have made that beat sat in a jungle with a coconut and a stick. So, just in case I'm ever in another war, and I'm on the run, and need to entertain myself — I can just whip out the coconut and the stick."

That she can joke about her relationship to war, of course, about says it all. There's a lesson to be learned in not defining yourself solely by the tragedies heaped upon you, especially those for which you were given no choice in the matter. Sadly, America now seems stuck in some seething, unfocused revenge fantasy; and yet here is this little girl from war torn Sri Lanka, who moved on with her life, rose up against tremendous odds (as well as rising above any resentment), and has made a vivacious, exciting and explosive record — one which is sure to carry her far, far forward, as she leaves the bitterness of her past where it best belongs: in the past.

"It's not about 'them and me'," she insists. "It's literally like, I was born, and I had some idea of where I was going, and then someone knocked me off the track. But it's fine. I just needed to get back on. But I don't have this idea of it being a revenge thing. I mean, what are you going to do, once you've proved them wrong? Then you're just empty. It's better that you just stay on your path. It's more like, where am I now and what am I doing?"

Ya, ya, hey, indeed.

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