There’s never been a genre name less descriptive than “world music.” It’s evident that everyone who makes music lives in the world, yet it’s no less clear that world music is not made by everyone — you’d never claim, except as a joke, that Rammstein, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Jane Birkin, or Pussy Riot made world music. The “world” of world music is not the whole world. There’s an empty space preceding it, a blank adjective: It would somehow be a breach of decorum to openly call “world music” “Third World music,” but that’s precisely what it is. Even here the term is deceptive: It’s not necessarily the entire Third World that makes world music. East Asia or Spanish-speaking Latin America, perhaps. Brazil, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, maybe. But the traditional sounds of South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa? Almost certainly. There’s an embarrassment in the formulation of “world music” that accounts for its lack of specificity. It would be too supremely shameful for the First World listeners who make up its audience to face up to the fact that they prefer the music of the poorest, brownest regions of the globe to accompany their affluent lifestyle. The coinage of the term “world music” allows them to put an entire planet between themselves and their moral discomfort.
Released ten years ago, Kala, the second official M.I.A. album, is at once a prime example of “world music” and a challenge to the complex of guilt and deception that occasioned the phrase’s vagueness. M.I.A. wasn’t shy about making her point. By the first track, the Sri Lankan–British rapper-producer was “knocking on the doors of your Hummer, Hummer” with apparent menace; in case you missed the memo about what parts of the world “world music” comes from, she had a mnemonic primer prepared. “Somalia, Angola, Ghana, Ghana, Ghana; India, Sri Lanka, Burma, bamboo banga.” Elsewhere she’s lecturing listeners on the value of “20 Dollar”: It’s nothing to you, but it’s the price of an assault rifle in Africa, she explains over a synth-distorted remix of the melody to New Order’s “Blue Monday.” If, at some point, a well-off listener dared to think they were experiencing hard times, she, or rather the London grime artist Afrikan Boy, was ready with a rejoinder. “You think it’s tough now? Come to Africa.” Here was an artist who took evident pleasure in engineering collisions between disparate sectors of the Earth, of forcing the world in world music to live up to its name as an entity both unified and open about the violence that united it.
If earlier surges of “world music” into Western pop — most notably in the ’80s, with Paul Simon and Michael Jackson both drawing from the wells of African song — had stressed positivity and concord, M.I.A. (born Mathangi Arulpragasam) was willing to start a more heated conversation. Her sonic influences were clearly myriad, drawing from British grime and techno as easily as from Missy Elliott, Bollywood soundtracks, and African percussion, but the combative spirit that animated her sound was mostly inherited from a single act, Public Enemy. She was far from the first British rapper to take her cues from Chuck D. The Bristol artists later grouped under the rubric of trip-hop were all deeply influenced by Public Enemy as well, and the albums of Tricky in particular seem like powerful precursors to M.I.A.’s own, sharing a common commitment to representing migrant experience in terms of intensified sonic density and stress as well as a certain puckishly insolent tone. “All I want to do is [sound of gun shots] and take your money,” goes the unforgettable chorus to “Paper Planes”: The cheeriness in her voice amplifies the threat more than any growl ever could.
She sounded like the future then, but what about now? Her immediate influence was remarkable: Two of her co-producers went on to form Major Lazer, and her record label put out the early Sleigh Bells albums, whose raucous textures were deeply informed by her own. Even in less immediate terms, she resonates: If M.I.A. reached back to Public Enemy for precedent in making music with explicit political overtones, Kala seems to herald certain trends current in contemporary hip-hop. It’s rap as fashion, the “look” as both content and form, and M.I.A., a fashion designer years before she ever fiddled with a drum machine, looks like a precursor for the various fashion-rap acts (Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and above all A$AP Rocky) that between them have constituted the house style for rap in 2017. At the very least, she fit in perfectly in her guest feature on Rocky’s At Long Last A$AP two years ago.
M.I.A’s was an aesthetic built not just on spectating but speculating: Her music gained or lost relevance in direct proportion with the credibility of her lyrics. All too often (okay, all the time), the music on Kala is charged by a kind of hollowed-out fear, the frisson emerging from the distant prospect that dark-skinned people with guns were going to hold you, the cosseted Western listener of refined and worldly tastes, up for all you were worth. Of course, since said cosseted listeners were the primary audience for M.I.A.’s music, the possibility that the music itself would incite a race-based class war was zero. The beats certainly hold up. Together with her long-time collaborators Switch, Diplo, and Blaqstarr, M.I.A. created a percussive palette perfectly suited to channeling a sense of exotic restlessness. But her words themselves seem toothless, albeit diverting. In a certain way, they seemed to reflect the experience of a different kind of border-crossing, violently underwritten source of speculation: not the grimy, undocumented immigrant, but the crisply dressed, globe-trotting capitalist. This affinity seemed especially pronounced after M.I.A. married a scion of the Lehman family. (She’s since divorced.) If she was indeed knocking on the doors of the Hummer, it was unclear which side of the door she was doing it from.
It’s interesting to note how her music has steadily declined in interest and relevance since the 2007–08 financial crash — Kala came out right around when it began — in which Lehman Brothers perished, as if her particular mode of borrowing the shadows of the poor to decorate the lifestyles of the rich were somehow intimately linked to the debt-fueled frenzy that precipitated the collapse. Of course, the music on Kala is harmless and bankers are not harmless. But you could argue that that’s precisely the problem with the album, nine years into a world recession: a slick and lovely relic from an era that will never return, it sounds nothing like the world we live in. This is only an issue because she herself introduced politics into her music and made it a core element of her aesthetic. M.I.A. may have roots in the land of the Tamil Tigers and her biggest hit is “Paper Planes,” but the phrase that best sums up Kala today is something else: However well-formed, the album is a paper tiger, and even the deep cuts don’t sting.