Are Maya’s politics M.I.A.?

Last week, I saw M.I.A. at First Avenue with Pulao and some friends. M.I.A. (a.k.a. Maya Arulpragasam) is a British hip hop musician and visual artist, and, as a child, a refugee from the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

The show was spectacular and high, high energy. I danced my butt off. M.I.A. rhymed from atop the speakers, crowd-surfed, and, at one point, climbed from the stage to the balcony without missing a beat.

For the song “20 Dollar” M.I.A. said, “Turn off the lights! I’m going to take you to Africa.”

The house lights went down, leaving M.I.A.’s sparkling podium and the screen behind her DJ, which was filled with simple pixels of arcade-game soldiers, at either end of the screen, shooting at each other. Their bullets were dotted white lines. The explosions, vintage Centipede. It looked like a more violent version of Pong.

The song itself is heavy, with electronically drenched guitar loops playing what sounds like a dirge (it’s actually a tricked out version of New Order’s “Blue Monday.”) The titular verse:

Do you know the cost of AK’s up in Africa?
20 dollars ain’t shit to you
But that’s how much they are

The chorus takes the lyrics, if not the melody per se, from the Pixies song “Where is My Mind?”: “With your feet in the air and your head on the ground . . . you’ll ask yourself: where is my mind?”

Put the sound, the lyrics, and the video together with M.I.A.’s palpable on-stage charisma and you get a lot of raw power. But to what use?

Okay, I get it, a little. I like taking the Pixies lyrics, which resonate with a lot of the audience at First Ave (and anybody who’s seen Fight Club or a number of other movies that use “Where is My Mind?” on the soundtrack), and take whatever Frank Black was talking about (drugs? the existential angst of life? fucked-upedness for fucked-upedness’s sake?) and turn it to a situation with more material consequences. “You know what’s really crazy?” M.I.A. seems to say, “Violence in Africa.”

But all that was really clear from the song’s performance was that Africa is dark, crazy, and violent. This is, I think, the generalized opinion of a lot of people anyway—I’ve heard water-cooler talk in the Twin Cities where co-workers said, “It’s all crazy tribes fighting each other in Africa, won’t ever stop.”

The stereotype works against what we might assume M.I.A’s point to be—to help stop the violence in a specific place like Sudan or Somalia. As one of my concert-going friends said afterward, how can you tell the difference between a critique of violence and an avowal of it?

Some of the lyrics clue you in: “And the leaders all around cracking up,” “looting just to get by,” “little boys are acting up.” You can get another hint when you visit her MySpace page and see that M.I.A.’s top friend, out of 21,000-some friends, is a fundraiser, “Education for Darfur.”

But maybe most importantly, something approaching awareness (even a vague awareness) could do wonders for the people in the crowd, myself included to the nth degree, who might be a hell of a lot more likely to surf Metacritic than read a NYT piece relating to the Darfur Conflict.

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