M.I.A. May or May Not Be A Terrorist Apologist, Says New York Times


My lord this is a badly informed piece in the Times this morning. The lede:

    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. Tet 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.

The author, Thomas Fuller, goes on to identify a couple of shreds of evidence–“In the video for her song “Bird Flu,” for instance, children dance in front of what looks like the rebels’ logo: a roaring tiger”; “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,” a fact that isn’t mentioned till the article’s thirteenth paragraph–that supposedly support the claim that she’s a Tiger apologist.

Never mind that this reporting was done, in far greater depth, a full four years ago by Robert Christgau, whose conclusion then was as follows:

    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.

Christgau also takes care, as Fuller does not, despite presumably writing for an audience that has close to zero familiarity with the conflict in Sri Lanka, to detail what precisely the Tamils and the government are arguing about:

    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.

Not to mention who exactly her father is, and how much contact M.I.A. has had with him (very little, as it turns out):

    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.

As M.I.A. has said publicly many times, including in the Tavis Smiley interview last month that Fuller selectively quotes, her concerns about “genocide” in Sri Lanka are not limited to government actions against Tamil separatists: “If I represent anything, it’s what it’s like to be a civilian caught up in a war.” Finding a single songwriter to claim that “Frankly, she’s very lucky to get away with supporting, even indirectly, perhaps the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world,” is not evidence of very much of at all. And the insinuating suggestion that “Paper Planes” compares “international drug dealing with selling records” is not only equally circumstantial but also flat out wrong: selling records has nothing to do it. (“I kind of want to leave it ambiguous for my fans,” she told Smiley, which it assuredly is. I always figured it was about robbing drug dealers.)

This smear was old when it was being employed five years ago, and despite a pregnant Grammys performance, does not constitute “news” now, either–especially when the piece divulges exactly no new information about her putative relation with a rebel group she’s had no formal connection with for the better part of two decades. For that matter, what about reporting her visa problems? The political views of an administration that profiles pop stars as potential terrorists might easily “rankle some people” too.