|Photo by Alessio Michelini|
Maya Arulpragasam, exploded onto the scene in 2005 with her mouthwateringly eclectic debut, Arular. M.I.A. sounded like no one else, mashing up elements of hip-hop, grime, world music, street culture and political activism and cleverly contextualizing it all by making the personal the political. She raised political awareness about the rights of the Tamil people in her native Sri Lanka through her lyrics and artwork (her father is believed to have been involved with the Tamil Tigers).
M.I.A's dress sense was also wild- all clashing prints and hand me downs, what she called 'a refugee uniform'. In 2007 she dropped the epic Kala, which contained the smash hit 'Paper Planes' and also garnered rave reviews. At this stage rapper Nas had declared her 'the future'.
Fast forward to May 2010 (just two months before her much anticipated third album, /\/\/\Y/\ was released) and M.I.A's credibility was blown apart by Lynn Hirschberg's controversial interview in The New York Times. It portrayed the singer as a spoilt rich kid, living a charmed life in an LA mansion with a heir to the Bronfman liquor fortune who was vague and ill- informed about her political arguements. The article dealt a serious blow to her credibility, how could she be singing about the plight of the third world, when she was so far removed from it? It didn't help matters that M.I.A. retaliated by tweeting the journalist's number.
Tonight, she is in Dublin for the first time in three years and will go onto play a much hyped sell out date with Sleigh Bells at The Warehouse Project in Manchester, the following night.
We needn't have doubted her, by the time the first rumblings of 'Born Free' rock the place, the venue is heaving with excited looking fans. M.I.A. rocks onto the stage looking every bit the slacker fashionista- dressed in black and white patterned leggings, a loose fitting white shirt with black triangles, black shades and a neon pink lipstick which pops out every time the lights go down.
'Born Free' is a raucous punk call to arms, with M.I.A. as our commander in chief. Blood splatters flash up on the screen, strobe lights go wild and her female DJ pumps out bass so loud it must be illegal in several countries. The singer has such a commanding stage presence, disaffected yet intense and powerful.
No one seems too fussed about the furore over the banned video for the song or even all the bad press that M.I.A's being getting, everyone's just here for the music and a good time.
When she sings it sounds muffled and at times it looks like it could all just be a mime act but not even this dampens the atmosphere.
M.I.A. tests out tunes on the decks first, judging the crowds reaction. There's no diva behaviour here, just a eagerness to please. Notably the tunes that go down best are from the first and second albums. M.I.A. fans are a loyal bunch and sing every word to early tunes like 'Xr2', 'Pull up the People' and 'Galang'. They still sound fresh and years ahead of their time. The party atmosphere is aided by two redneck/refugee looking male dancers who shake their limbs so loose they look like they're dislocating muscles in the process. The visuals, strobe lights and female DJ dropping dirty Drum and Bass beats all add up to give the gig a really futuristic feel.
The punk aesthetics of /\/\/\Y/\ shine through in the visuals for the attitude laden 'Illy Girl', M.I.A. runs down a highway followed by a disorientating, shaky camera. It's easy to see why the singer was nominated for the Alternative Turner Prize in 2001. Another song is backed by a transfixing visual of M.I.A. defying gravity and floating around the inside of a car, curled up in the foetal position. It's discombobulating and looks like she's admist a car crash.
The singer doesn't come off as the icy, unapproachable rich bitch the NY times portrayed her as. She jumps into the crowd, shakes the crowds hands and for 'Boyz' she invites an army of fans onstage to dance with her. The overexcited teens drape their arms around M.I.A. and sing along, too busy documenting the experience on their cameras for Facebook to actually enjoy the moment. The fun atmosphere is infectious.
The anthemic 'Paper Planes' lifts the roof off, with everyone punching their fists in the air at the gunshot sounds.
AU came here all cynical and judgemental but we've been won over by M.I.A's ballziness. We're going home to give /\/\/\Y/\ a few more listens and hope she can come back with the goods for album number four.