It’s a place few global musicians go, and yet M.I.A.’s experience speaks to new possibilities for artists who lie a bit further off the beaten path musically and culturally. And it all lies in the story.
In fact, it’s nearly impossible to imagine M.I.A.’s swift rise to pop prominence without her story. She’s the proud, outspoken daughter of a Tamil insurgent/freedom fighter (her father’s political moniker became the title of her 2005 debut, Arular).
She weaves this story visually into her videos, into interviews, and into her lyrics, when not explicitly speaking up about the beleaguered Tamil community in Sri Lanka. M.I.A.’s claims about her dad have been questioned, as have her views of Sri Lankan politics, yet her rebel pedigree has quietly shifted the conversation about what global music, in particular music from Africa and Southeast Asia, can be. It can be rebellious, countercultural, revolutionary, angry, hot, cool.
Her recent aggressive and somewhat shady move to distribute to her Twitter followers the personal number of a journalist who penned a less-than-flattering piece for the New York Times Magazine proves how central the story—and her control of it—is. The story is a major asset, and M.I.A. won’t let it get reshaped without a fight.
Her story, and the context it creates for her music, is one of grit.
“Grit"—where cultural authenticity meets street cred—is not generally associated with "world music" projects, which still tend to get pigeonholed as liberal, feel-good joints, or folkloric frolics of purely educational value. International music has often been discussed, distributed, and marketed in the U.S. in a way that encourages a soft-focus peace-and-understanding vibe. And, for some, this has become a barrier to be broken down, leaped, blasted through.
Grit gives global musicians an opportunity to do just that. They can position themselves radically. They can draw on a new kind of authenticity, one with potentially broad appeal and accessibility, woven from two important strategies.
One, successful artists like M.I.A. sit squarely in a popular genre but still manage to push the envelope slightly. In M.I.A.’s case, this happens thanks to edgy and eclectic production aesthetics. Pop artists like M.I.A. aren't playing Uruguayan rock or Ugandan soul. They are masters and minor innovators of their genres, not exotic variations on them (i.e. not "Rwanda's answer to Paul McCartney" or "the Madonna of Turkey"). That strategy—the exotic variation on a Western household name—seems to only garner temporary curiosity, not long-term interest. M.I.A. is a hip hop artist that can go head to head with any other hip hop artist.
She accomplishes this feat, in part, by sticking to English as her primary language of expression, something not all artists will want or be able to do. But it is worth noting: Almost all the global icons who’ve broken into the mainstream—from Bob Marley and Fela Kuti to Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte—use English, in some form. Naturally, understanding the lyrics helps listeners identify with the musician as a person, not a representative of a culture or nation. Yet it also helps them put the artist into a familiar framework of genre.
Two, M.I.A. at the same time meticulously maintains a kind of street cred based on personal international experience and draws on popular trends, as well as traditions, from her native land (and elsewhere). This personal experience lends the story M.I.A. has crafted both substance and authority. As she told the New York Times Magazine, discussing her performance at the Grammys last year and her advocacy of Tamils in Sri Lanka, “I wasn’t trying to be like Bono. He’s not from Africa — I’m from there.”
These two approaches allow M.I.A. to come across as instantly recognizable to a mainstream listener, yet instantly believable as exotic spokespeople with an edgy yet just cause. M.I.A.’s work and persona include a global aspect that feels utterly real, yet she never refers to herself as some odd local version of musical genres generally associated with the U.S. or Europe.
So how do other musicians tie into grit and the new possibilities it creates for wider exposure and appeal?
Drop the equivalency. If you are working in an established genre like hip hop or rock, focus on your innovations as a musician, not as a representative of another country. Don’t craft your story around analogies and namedropping. There are, of course, implications for singing in English to pull this off.
Don’t be afraid of a little (well-considered) controversy. Just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean you have to be a spokesperson for international peace, love, and happiness. If your work is political, talk about it. If your society has problems, call them out. Conflict, rebellion, and toughness make sense to people.
Get specific and personal about your story. Draw on your life and your connections to the material that inspires you. While there’s no need to invent or embellish the facts, think carefully about a strong narrative arc, a pathway you can sketch out for people potentially interested in your music, about how you got to where you are now as an artist.
The more concrete detail and human emotion in the story, the stronger the possible connection with others. Your personal revelations, struggles, and triumphs can often lead people where more general cultural context cannot.
This last point can apply even to artists—people performing very traditional music, classical or new music, or feel-good hymns to happiness—who might feel less than gritty. All artists have paths they followed, often difficult, surprising, or moving paths. By carving out and expressing these paths clearly and precisely yet passionately, you can gain more traction with audiences who may not initially find your work appealing or relevant.
The picture shifts a bit when you’re not actually “from there,” when you’re creating music in a style associated with a part of the world you don’t hail from, or when you’re building your own style from global parts. There are some success stories of late in that direction, too, and some similar lessons about the “f” word… global fusion, that is.
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