Why the Outsider Pride of M.I.A.'s ‘Kala’ Still Matters 10 Years Later
By lifting "global" sounds and dropping them into a club-friendly context, this album used sonic innovation to try smash down borders.
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"Where were you in '92?" taunts M.I.A. in the intro to the Diplo-produced "XR2" on her second album Kala. I'm too young to remember the "whistle whistle blow blow" of the underground raves described in the song, but it paints a vivid picture of "roll up jeans, E's, Lucozade / Versace jeans, shades and chains", east London's now-dead Labyrinth nightclub and M.I.A.'s own "Brick Lane massive". She raps about 90s rave culture, the familiar Britishisms delivered as whispered missiles punctuated by a deafening, acid house horn. It's a brilliant, swaggering assault.
Though "XR2" was one of most evocative tracks on M.I.A's second album Kala, it was arguably "Paper Planes" that elevated it. Ten years later, the track is almost annoying in its ubiquitousness; the song's instantly identifiable bang!-bang!-bang!-bang!-gun-cock!-ker-ching! has reliably featured on most party playlists I've encountered since it was released in 2007. Yet somehow, it still sounds good. The dreamily sarcastic singsong rap, the looped sample of The Clash's "Straight to Hell", the chanting children; none of the song's separate, moving parts scream 'club banger', but together they make for an instant party track that has outlasted its contemporaries (we don't hear "Golden Skans" in the club now, do we?). It was punk – and not just because of that Clash sample. The video was censored in the US; M.I.A. herself was told she matched the profile of a terrorist and was denied the renewal of an American visa. In 2009, she would perform the song at the Grammy's while visibly pregnant, a give-no-fucks display two years before Beyoncé's own "Love on Top" reveal.
Titled after M.I.A's Sri Lankan mother, Kala is alive with abrasive female energy. Recorded in India, Liberia, Jamaica and Trinidad, its sound is both global and somehow specifically "London". M.I.A.'s disinterest in identity politics – and her unapologetic embrace of cultures from all over the world – is her greatest strength and biggest downfall. Long before the truffle fries debacle of 2010, she'd been accused of champagne socialism and called out for her pick 'n' mix palette of sounds from the global South. The Guardian gave Kala a positive review, but famously compared her use of sampling "to Angelina Jolie's attitude towards starting a family," going on to accuse her of "ordering in the constituent bits from various far-flung corners of the world". Never mind the fact the same critic suggested that "Jimmy" had borrowed from West Germany's disco scene (rather than citing the Bollywood soundtrack it references), M.I.A.'s avid use of field recordings, samples and world music has often been dismissed as "cultural appropriation" rather than an attempt to decolonise pop.
But it is an attempt – and one that she pulls off. "I put people on the map that never seen a map," she yelps on "20 Dollar", her voice warping over the hook from New Order's "Blue Monday". By including indigenous Australian rap group The Wilcannia Mob's 2002 song "Down River" on her own "Mango Pickle Down River", she inscribed the Barkandji voice into mainstream pop. Her reworking of Parvati Khan's "Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy, Aaja" (aaja being the Hindi phrase for "come here"), fashioned a tongue-in-cheek come-hither anthem from a tacky, glittering disco violin riff rarely heard outside of Punjabi weddings. If not for "Bird Flu", the reverberations of 30 urumi drummers might not be heard on a nightclub dance floor. By lifting snatches of these "global" sounds and putting them in a club-friendly context, she brings "outsiders" in, collapsing that invisible boundary between the so-called "Third World" and the global North. Its blend of agitated sounds from various countries feels like a sonic attempt to dissolve borders.
At a time when pop is supposedly "purposeful" but rarely so outwardly political (despite the empty platitudes about living in a bubble spouted by celebrities) it's worth remembering – and celebrating – the outsider pride articulated on Kala. M.I.A. has long aligned herself with communities of immigrants and refugees, platforming their stories in a bid to return power to those lacking in money, legal status, and human rights. "I use political references or words to reflect everything – whether you're poor, whether you're from the street, whether you can't pay the bills, whether you're just the underdog all the time," she told the Village Voice back in 2005. Whether listening to Kala from beginning to end or hearing snatches shaking through the club, it's hard to disagree with such a sentiment.
Kala is a record that grabs its listener by the scruff of the neck, shoves a tequila shot down their throat and insists they pay attention – and that they dance. It also doesn't shy away from interrogating the way capitalism can breed violence, but the narrative is packaged as cacophonous, danceable anarchy, rather than a sob story. This unapologetic mix of party-ready tracks and anti-war politics was subversive, global and outward-looking before it had become normal for artists to trade on "wokeness". For context, the album was released before the Obama administration, in the same year as The Surge, George W. Bush's increased deployment of American soldiers to Iraq. It's hard to imagine a dance record as combative being released now, despite the political climate in North America and Europe drifting towards fascism. In 2017, it can feel as though we're lacking voices in mainstream pop tackling global issues – as opposed to identity politics – head on. Kala felt, and still feels, like both a party, and a fight.
Like all problematic faves, M.I.A. is not without her… well, problems. Her call for Black American musicians to cry "Syrian Lives Matter" rather than Black Lives Matter in response to the ongoing refugee crisis and public support of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange are two eyebrow-raising examples of how her views can veer into muddy territory. Over the years she's proved an increasingly frustrating character, whose mixed messages occasionally make her difficult to connect with, but maybe it's age that's made her jaded. Kala, made while she was in her thirties, feels like more of an actual critique. And, as she says on "Bird Flu" – among squawking chickens and shouting kids – "credentials are boring".
M.I.A. has described Kala as her "most creatively 'I don't give a fuck' album" and herself as "an anti-hero". She is an outsider and proud, rapping that she's "an outlaw from the badland". Kala's insurgent sonic mix of dancehall, garage, electroclash and Bollywood disco is a crystallisation of her melting pot ethos. Ten years on, it still sounds hard, percussive, and most importantly, really, really good played loud.
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