SUNDAY PROFILE: Louder than a bomb

Many in Sri Lanka are turned off by Oscar-nominated rapper M.I.A.’s views about the country’s civil war

By Mel Gunasekera  /  AFP , COLOMBO

Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 14

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She’s the songbird of the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire but in her native Sri Lanka suspicions about Oscar-nominated hip-hop star M.I.A.’s political sympathies have cost her success and fans.

Born in the UK to Sri Lankan parents — both ethnic Tamils — the 32-year-old rapper, whose real name is Mathangi Arulpragasam, grew up in the island’s conflict-ridden north.

It’s an experience she has said informs her music and she is unapologetic about her outspoken condemnation of the atrocities that have taken place during more than three decades of civil war.

After Arulpragasam’s family fled to India and then back to London, she studied music and went on to achieve the sort of fame that saw her performing live, heavily pregnant, at this month’s Grammy awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Her song Paper Planes, on the Slumdog Millionaire sound track, was nominated for a Grammy as record of the year.

O Saya, her collaboration with Indian composer A.R. Rahman for the film, is up for a best-song Oscar.

While the accolades flood in, however, she said in a recent interview with www.dailybeast.com that her current focus is not on awards but on the Tamil struggle for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka.

Her father is said to have been a Tamil militant linked to a group known for its bombing campaign in the capital Colombo in the mid 1980s.

The Tigers’ 37 years of armed struggle is said by the government to be nearing an end with security forces on the verge of crushing the rebels, who are now corralled in a narrow jungle strip in the island’s northeast.

Arulpragasam, in her interview with the US-based Web site, described the current situation as one of “systematic genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

“I actually come from there and the fact is that this is happening now,” she is quoted as saying.

“I lived in Sri Lanka when the campaign for ethnic cleansing started and if I could stop it and see the end of it in my lifetime that would be amazing. I can’t justify my success otherwise.”

Such comments have not endeared her to parts of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community, with some people accusing her of sympathizing with the Tigers — branded a terrorist organization by the EU and the US.

The music video of her song Bird Flu shows children dancing in front of what looks like the Tamil Tiger insignia of a roaring tiger.

“M.I.A.’s lyrics and style of music don’t appeal to people here,” said local rapper Krishan Maheson, who released an unofficial re-mixed version of Paper Planes in her native Tamil.

Maheson, also a Tamil, said he received hate mail for promoting the song.

“The feedback was ‘why are you working with her? She’s a terrorist,’ Having said that, she deserves credit for her artistry and fame,” Maheson said.

Her music is not played on Sri Lankan radio or television — which, like music retailers, dropped her for fear of offending the government as the war dragged on — or in nightclubs.

Her fans must make do with Internet sites such as YouTube or MySpace.

“I think there is lot of political pressure not to play her music because of the hype surrounding her work,” said local musician Eshantha Peiris.

Local song writer and jazz musician Dilip Seneviratne, who is Sinhalese, said: “She generates a lot of hype about her roots, about the war, but her stage presence and what she sang [at the Grammys] turned me off.”

Critics such as US-based Sri Lankan rapper DeLon have accused her of glorifying terrorism and called her a “terrorist chick.”

Sri Lankan music fans have a broad spectrum of genres to choose from, with everything from pop, jazz, heavy metal and rock dominating the airwaves, and Western classical concerts playing to packed houses.

Local rap and pop performers who record in English are also popular, so there is little indication in the vigorous blogosphere debate on M.I.A. that the Sri Lankan music scene is poorer for her absence.

“M.I.A doesn’t have a clue about Sri Lanka,” says blogger Surekha Ratnatunga.

“She is the voice the world will listen to, but makes the same mistake as the government, by acknowledging the plight of only a portion of Sri Lankan population.”

M.I.A.’s songs contain their fair share of violent imagery and the chorus of Paper Planes is peppered with percussive gunshot sounds as a backdrop to the implicitly violent lyrics: “All I want to do is — Bang! Bang! Bang! — And take your money.”

But the artist insists her creativity is born of her own experience.

“If you think lyrics about guns are bad, I shouldn’t have been shot at when I was 7 years old,” she told the Wall Street Journal.

She said Paper Planes refers to the stereotypes that Third World immigrants to the West often suffer.

“It’s about people driving cabs all day and living in a [expletive] apartment and appearing really threatening to society. But not being so,” she told the Houston Chronicle newspaper.

“I’ve seen people get massacred in front of me. When you come from that kind of background, you do become matter of fact and tell it like it is,” she said.

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