M.I.A. And The Challenge Of Marketable Diasporic Trap Music
M.I.A.'s new album, "Matangi" brilliantly unifies the struggles of digital and universal minorities across the globe through the lens of Rap. So why aren't more people purchasing it?
The world is out of spiritual alignment, the environment is falling apart, and both marginalized and powerful people are feeling the ill effects of leading lives filled with relative levels of struggle and pain. Possibly because you’re still hung up on the now invalid opinion that great Rap albums can only come from great rappers (by traditional standards, M.I.A certainly is not a “great” rapper), you’re probably missing out on M.I.A.’s latest album Matangi. Clearly, first week sales provide empirical evidence to back up this point. According to Nielsen SoundScan, only 102 copies of Matangi were scanned last week. That brings the total, domestic album sales to 14,622. Those figures are rather paltry, but were still good enough for a top 25 showing. But, then again, if we’re focusing strictly on Maya’s sales—particularly the ones stateside—then we’re missing the point. As well, you’re probably going to be surprised soon to realize that by using the notion of “diasporic trap shit” to unify the struggles of many levels of digital and universal minorities, M.I.A., whose birth-given first name is literally Matangi—the Hindu goddess of speech, music, knowledge and the arts—could quite possibly be changing the world.
As well, you may still hold firm to the idea that the United States, though arguably in a commercial and creative doldrum, is still the global recognized leader insofar as the creation of the next level of Rap’s progressive growth. The space for this to be measured is on merely a creative level at this point, for as much as this commentary may argue from the point that the world is flat, there’s still no one, unifying measure of commercial or critical success on a global level. There’s not even a unified method in America, with global measurement company Nielsen offering one set of data that often differs with that provided by the Recording Industry Association of America. While certain services have set themselves apart, you’d have to compile charts from every country to even come close to some accurate representation. In the interim, until there is numerical evidence to prove this argument as true, it’s likely a good time to get sucked into YouTube. Instead of Tribe’s “Award Tour,” literally take a world tour within a keystroke and mouse click and note that while everything feels the same, nothing actually is the same in Rap anymore. As well, realize that this gap in the industry’s logic may have created the space for the revolutionary energy that birthed Matangi, an album flawed into perfection. It’s an actualization of what it feels like to be wide awake in the darkest hour before dawn or the moment before everything changes forever.
Neneh Cherry & Monie Love: Prototypes For Diasporic Trap Shit
It’s probably apropos for me to mention that the first two times I heard a really dope foreign emcee, they were female, British and revolutionary. As well, I should probably mention that for most of my childhood, I was a picked upon nerd who hated Rap music. Rap represented male aggressive energy, and was the music favored by the prematurely muscle-headed elementary school guys who picked fights with me and forced me to retaliate with my brown belt knowledge of Jhoon Rhee Karate’s tae kwon do.
At the age of 11, when I first heard Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance,” I was hooked. A) I had a crush on her, and B) the song’s mix of foreign fashion and B-girl attitude was strange, new and distanced from the norm, giving me a space where I could safely enjoy a Rap sound that was as powerful as the Run-DMC and Def Jam coterie enjoyed by my tormentors. Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” took its cues from Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” nearly 14 years before Eminem’s “Without Me,” and it also sampled Rock Steady Crew’s “Are You Ready.” In terms of commercial reach, Cherry also enjoyed commercial success in America, as “Buffalo Stance” peaked at the number three spot on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” chart in the midst of a 24-week run.
When I heard Cherry performed the song while seven months pregnant on the UK’s “Top of the Pops” program, she became a kick ass heroine. Curiously enough, Cherry and M.I.A. lead parallel careers in the fact that M.I.A. rocked the 51st Grammy Awards alongside T.I., Kanye West, Jay Z and Lil Wayne on “Swagga Like Us” while similarly visibly well into the third trimester of pregnancy.
Of course, my love of British women in Rap continued with Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” featuring UK native Monie Love. Monie had a dimple, could flow, and the song’s message of squashing stereotypical ideas of femininity delivered with emcees who were smart and fierce struck a nerve. Of course, Monie’s performance on the epic, seven minute remix to De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers’ “Buddy” and her own debut single “Monie in the Middle” put me over the top. She was down with the Native Tongues which meant that she was smart and weird, and then, just like Neneh Cherry, she was from Britain, so there was something “private” in her voice that made me want to search more and discover exactly what allowed her rap style to walk with a different step and feel in a different way.
Ladies First: Globalizing Class & Gender Struggle Through Rap
So, how then do we fast-forward 25 years to 2013 and M.I.A. is rapping in much the same spirit, and American Rap audiences still can’t embrace the vibe? Since “Buffalo Stance,” “Ladies First,” “Monie in the Middle” and “Buddy,” the Internet has been invented and the universe has been connected by wireless energies in the atmosphere. As well, a Bajan girl named Rihanna is one of our favorite Pop stars, white male American rappers are penning songs about homosexual acceptance and nine-member female Korean pop acts are winning best group awards on Youtube’s successful attempt at usurping the MTV Video Music Awards. Depending on when (or if) you were watching, the inaugural YouTube Music Awards peaked with about 204,512 real time viewers. For a bit of perspective, 320 million people have tuned into watch Miley Cyrus lick a sledgehammer and gyrate atop a wrecking ball. But those views were accumulated and not in real time. Somehow, it’s incredible that with all of that happening that the simple nature of understanding women attempting to globalize the nature of struggle as being understood through Rap music and Hip Hop culture could be that difficult to cross over. But it is. However, in a manner most brave, Matangi succeeds at making the nature of global and digital struggle present, ear-worming and accessible. Whether or not American culture is prepared to understand it is the real question at hand.
Let’s also add into the mix the actual thing that makes Matangi great, and let’s truly address the unanswered question that makes M.I.A. so damned controversial. How does an intelligent brown person and the privileged daughter of Sri Lankan revolutionaries have the right to make forceful pop records that articulate the feelings of, advocate equal representation for, and celebrate the heritages of people marginalized by racial, social, economic, cultural and digital terms? Of course, the commercial and critical success of “Paper Planes” proves that M.I.A. can make accessible pop music. Prior to being co-opted into a T.I. single, it was already a Billboard top five single with 3 million certified sales. But what about M.I.A. allows her to reach the point where she evolves from being just a commercially successful emcee into being a next-level progressive heroine for women’s rights?
In the entire history of the world, we’ve enslaved, jailed, murdered or just humored female revolutionaries (especially those of color) until they’ve died. But here and now is a brown woman with a major label recording deal and defined pop music voice creating art in an era where access to a new globalized generation is plentiful and free. For those who are aware that the future is now, we’re on board. For those who are a step behind, Matangi creates the synergy to help everyone understand that the struggle of trapping is a lot bigger than just selling drugs in Southwest Atlanta. It’s about a globe of people trying too hard to get too little and feeling the pain of failing at life. M.I.A. is a leader, her voice has matured, and she has finally ascended to the throne.
The Case For M.I.A. As An Emcee Within Rap’s New Paradigm
It may also be difficult for people to access the greatness of M.I.A.’s futuristic and highly-political message because they don’t understand the rules of the game that is now being played. These are strange days in Rap music. What once was considered great rapping grows rare by the moment. When Rap became pop, hooks became more important than bars, and bars oftentimes now become spaces for punchlines and off-kilter flows that quite possibly cheapen the classic art of rapping itself.
Another brilliant notion is that given the nature of Rap music’s current state, it actually plays well into the ability of M.I.A. to articulate her wide and diverse crusade for equal rights (and more importantly) equal power through the cadence and language that the album uses. The idea of “diasporic trap shit” weighs heavily upon blending issues of the globalized minority with a language they can all understand. Thus, the nature of pop music’s adoption of Rap as it’s most significant voice, alongside Hip Hop culture (in the spiritual presence of struggle story-laden trap Rap) dominating modern dance gives birth to Matangi’s next-level representation of the diasporic need for progression.
In a year where Migos’ “Versace” featured minimal bars but a maximum hook, M.I.A. is almost by extension allowed to not be a lyrically adept rapper, but on occasion a very gifted public speaker. The next level for Rap as a now deconstructed art form is to go all the way back to the Last Poets and Gil-Scott Heron speaking truths to sound. From advocating for the death of Drake’s “Y.O.L.O.” on “Y.A.L.A.” (aka “You Always Live Again”) by discussing her religious belief in karma and the afterlife, as well as on album opening song “MATANGI” simply naming a ton of countries (with the US and UK mention in the midst of the list, as in possibly to read no more or less important than anywhere in Africa, Asia, South America or elsewhere) that would gain the benefit of her creative brilliance. As well, on the Hit-Boy production “Warriors,” we learn that next generation revolutionaries (much like in the days of old school Rap) “train” in “the dance.” These aren’t rhymes so much as they are words to “power, power” as Switch so deftly samples classic M.I.A. song “Bamboo Banga” on Matangi’s “Come Walk With Me.”
In the 21st century, it’s entirely arguable that white is black, black is white, and things are obviously a bit difficult to understand. Thankfully, and as Matangi teaches us, it’s up to a wild, diverse, hyper-intellectualized and new-age brown woman to lead us. In introducing up to down and unifying down to meet the gaze of, then overtake the power wielded by those on top, ultimately create her important (and progressive) rap legacy.
Marcus Dowling is a veteran Washington, DC-based writer who has contributed to a plethora of online and print magazines and newspapers over the past fifteen years. Follow him on Twitter at @marcuskdowling.