Although M.I.A.’s “Galang” failed to render me instantly ecstatic the way a hot single should, soon enough Arular had my entire household dancing around the dining room. Compared to most grime or whatever, its nursery rhyme tunefulness breathed female principle. So at first I didn’t bother to decipher the London-based Sri Lankan’s patois.
Did I notice “I got the bombs to make you blow”? Maybe as metaphor—which it is, but not the way I thought. Had I registered Sasha Frere-Jones’s trenchant New Yorker comment: “What makes this genuine world music, aside from the references, is the weaving of the political into the fabric of what are still, basically, dance tunes. Any division of life into personal and political halves is absent”? Maybe as rhetoric, without understanding what was at stake. But then I learned that this 28-year-old art school grad with Elastica connections had a radical pedigree—via her father, a Tamil “revolutionary” in Sri Lanka. And then came word of an M.I.A. thread at I Love Music (ilxor.com) that morphed from rumor to exultation to, suddenly, a heartrending roller coaster of a political debate.
Outsiders commented or raved or asked questions or noodged the discussion back toward music or imposed their own left or neocon agendas. But the chief participants were two Sri Lankans exiled by ethnic conflict: a Tamil who critically supported the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, as the only chance of ending Sinhalese oppression, and a half-Sinhalese half-Tamil who thought the Colombo government bad and the Tigers much worse. Coming in late was an anti-LTTE Tamil who’d suffered Sinhalese bombings and interrogations and still feared the Tigers could assassinate him in exile, as they had other dissenters. As bearers of belief and experience, all three were credible even when they contradicted each other, but extracting an overview was impossible. My normally reliable panel of geopolitically informed leftist democrats knew nothing about the Indian Ocean island either. So I did some reading. Because it’s true: M.I.A. makes an issue of the Tamil Tigers. If we care about her, she wants us to care about them. My conclusions are brutally compressed and inexpert by definition, but let me try.
Ethnic enmity in the former Ceylon will ring a bell with fans of colonialism in Rwanda or Ireland, where divide-and-conquer also set the stage for civil war. The minority Tamil Hindus had a leg up until independence, whereupon the Sinhalese Buddhists took their revenge, though never at Tutsi-Hutu levels. The 1956 replacement of English by Sinhalese as the official language, onerous educational and other discrimination, and the gradual impoverishment of the Tamil northeast had inspired many resistance groups by the mid ’70s. These were soon dominated by the LTTE, a Marxist-inflected ethnic movement committed to establishing an independent homeland called Eelam. Armed struggle, which began in 1983, has cost 65,000 lives in a nation of under 20 million.
The Tigers invented modern suicide bombing, particularly the infamous “jacket,” and in 2001 had 75 of the 188 suicide bombings worldwide since 1980 on their dossier. The Sinhalese upped the ante with the civilian bombing (of “suspected terrorists”) we know so well from Palestine, plus widespread rape and occasional firing squads. Like the IRA, the Tigers have been generously funded by exiles, from India’s larger Tamil population too. The U.S. declared them a terrorist organization in 1997. Feared assassins—Rajiv Gandhi is counted among their victims—they appear less given to random violence than their Palestinian counterparts, and since September 11 have all but abandoned suicide bombing. Both UNESCO and Amnesty International have recently censured them for the heinous practice of conscripting children by force, Sendero-style. But they’re legitimate enough that Colombo has been pursuing détente with them for years.
As the daughter of a known rebel in a war zone, M.I.A. spent most of her young girlhood intimate with violence. She escaped Sri Lanka with her mother and two siblings at 10 or 11. British racism was no fun, but it beat war, and she excelled in school. Her father, Arul Pragasam a/k/a Arular, joined the Tigers from the more conciliatory EROS group. He has never lived with her and hasn’t seen her since 1995. Extensive online and library research revealed only scant reference to Arular, but he’s definitely an LTTE big shot. Circa 1976 he trained with the PLO in Lebanon, where he took advantage of his engineering degree to become an explosives expert. Wonder whether he designed any jackets.
Sinhalese depredations have been atrocious. But my reading suggests that more Sri Lankan Tamils want equality than want Eelam, and from this distance I’m not pro-LTTE. Hence I strongly advise fellow journalists to refrain from applying “freedom fighter” and other cheap honorifics to M.I.A.’s dad. But I also advise them to avoid the cheaper tack taken in last week’s Voice by Simon Reynolds: “Don’t let M.I.A.’s brown skin throw you off: She’s got no more real connection with the favela funksters than Prince Harry.” Not just because brown skin is always real, but because M.I.A.’s documentable experience connects her to world poverty in a way few Western whites can grasp. Moreover, beyond a link now apparently deleted from her website to a dubious Tamil tsunami relief organization, I see no sign that she supports the Tigers. She obsesses on them; she thinks they get a raw deal. But without question she knows they do bad things and struggles with that. The decoratively arrayed, pastel-washed tigers, soldiers, guns, armored vehicles, and fleeing civilians that bedeck her album are images, not propaganda—the same stuff that got her nominated for an Alternative Turner Prize in 2001. They’re now assumed to be incendiary because, unlike art buyers, rock and roll fans are assumed to be stupid.
M.I.A. has no consistent political program and it’s foolish to expect one of her. Instead she feels the honorable compulsion to make art out of her contradictions. The obscure particulars of those contradictions compel anyone moved by her music to give them some thought, if only for an ignorant moment—to recognize and somehow account for them. In these perilous, escapist days, that alone is quite a lot.