The perils of positivity

Published On July 19, 2013 | By William Northup | celebrities, music, politics
Rapper M.I.A. from here.

Rapper M.I.A. from here.

On July 9, we here at Velociriot posted on how Tamil rapper M.I.A. is often told that she doesn’t have the credentials to speak authoritatively. The roots of that run deep, into her status as a woman, a person of color, and a popular entertainer, and it tends to produce some consistent image problems for her. Even comparatively positive music reviews can’t help but call her “prickly”, “misguided”, and “extremist”. As Rebecca Solnit once mentioned, politically active women like her often have to “fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths”. A good chunk of Mathangi Arulpragasam’s previously career has consisted of her working to get her marginalized perspectives out in the public eye against both allegations that she’s not gracious enough and obviously wrong about everything.

Interestingly, it’s actually easy to anticipate her most recent album, Matangi, as a response to those twin attacks on her character and intelligence. The rumor since the beginning of this year was that her new work was unusually “positive” for M.I.A. After the promotional release of one track (“Bring the Noize”) and the leak of another (“Only 1 U”), it’s a bit odd to hear the songs that were apparently so “positive” that M.I.A. had to switch record labels.

Keeping in mind that those songs came from a controversially “positive” album, it’s strange to consider those two songs included lyrics such as – “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” and “tonight’s the one because tomorrow may never come”. Instead of her having become radically optimistic about the world, it sounds like M.I.A. has worked out a careful way of discussing issues that helps her avoid being labeled either ideologically extreme or personally unreasonable. She’s intentionally written a song that practically pleads with people to value themselves (since there’s “only one you”) that’s almost incidentally a criticism of capitalism (“making money is fine but your life is one of a kind”).

Official Matangi album cover art, from here.

Official Matangi album cover art, from here.

Her already released single from the album isn’t necessarily more optimistic, but it’s similarly framed around anti-capitalist affirmations. Arulpragasam raps that there’s “a lot to be pissed at [... but] it’s not me and you, it’s the motherfucking banks” – centering her point on her hope for a unified opposition to exploitative financial institutions. The focus is on asking what can be done about the problem, rather than the venality itself. That might not sound very unusual, but it’s a bit of a break for an artist who previously sought to bring to light the human rights abuses during the civil war in Sri Lanka.

This “too positive” album seems to have set some music industry executives’ teeth on edge because it hasn’t presented the various horrifying problems M.I.A. has previously confronted in her music as unsolvable. Her appeals for self worth and group action make it harder to categorize her politics as “fringe” and her attitude as “inhospitable” – but she’s still a woman of color making some pretty important statements, so instead she becomes too “positive” if not outright unserious.

It’s a game that’s designed to make it impossible for her to be seen as simultaneously socially important and politically palatable, which is a big part of the stonewalling of a documentary on her and continuing problems with her releasing her record. M.I.A. is a problematic woman to enfranchised people, so she’s being made silent.

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About The Author

William Northup
is a sloth-obsessed queer queerspawn who will talk about the epicness of his cats for far, far too long. He’s been ranting for quite some time about feminism, politics, and how words should actually mean things. Claims he can’t write without something distracting in the background.

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