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Later this month, the inaugural London offshoot of Afropunk Fest—the forward-thinking musical event, held annually in Brooklyn, that explores race, identity, and visual art in black counterculture—will take place. Initially, the headliner was to be Maya Arulpragasam, the forty-one-year-old pop star known as M.I.A. The pairing seemed natural, if not inevitable: M.I.A., a Londoner of Sri Lankan descent, has long been guided by the notion that her music is inextricably linked to sociocultural concerns. And Afropunk organizers have begun to expand the festival’s vision to encompass more people of color, not just African-Americans.
Yet the choice of M.I.A. drew immediate criticism, owing mostly to a comment that she had made to the Evening Standard, in April, about the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s not a new thing to me—it’s what Lauryn Hill was saying in the nineteen-nineties or Public Enemy in the nineteen-eighties,” she said. “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters?” Soon afterward, the festival announced that M.I.A. had been removed from the bill and replaced by Grace Jones.
By now, M.I.A. should be accustomed to this outcome. Her résumé includes a long list of controversial decisions, such as an online spat with Anderson Cooper over his coverage of Sri Lanka, an alliance forged with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and numerous disputes with her label. M.I.A.’s brand of provocation, once a source of admiration, has become a liability. At times, it can seem as if she had been deployed to test our claims that we adore disobedience, and that we prefer complicated, “unlikable” protagonists to predictable ones— or that we’re sincerely invested in the global concerns and musical styles that she doggedly puts in front of us.
This week, M.I.A. will release “AIM.” a record that she says may be her last. It’s worth taking stock of the way that the world and the music industry have changed since she recorded her first songs, more than a decade ago. In 2004, when she released the mixtape “Piracy Funds Terrorism”—a clattering, irresistible whirlwind of squelching baile funk, reggaeton, and hip-hop—the major-label system was largely intact. At the time, young, untested talents did not yet have inexpensive access to the technologies that later enabled them to turn their homes into recording studios. Nor did they have online platforms through which to release and promote their music, and to quickly amass big audiences. Most rappers did not yet proudly wear skinny jeans, nor was it customary for them to sing as often as they rapped. Indie-rock fans held fiercely to their disdain for pop stars. And those pop stars had not yet grown comfortable acting as political provocateurs.
M.I.A. is not responsible on her own for these changes, but she has been in the vanguard of nearly every cultural and economic advance in music of the past dozen years. (She was even a harbinger of the surprise-album era, with the release of the excellent mixtape “Vicki Leekx,” with almost no warning, on New Year’s Eve in 2010.) At the same time, no one has struggled as publicly with the march of the music industry. It is difficult to sustain a reputation as a renegade in such a turbulent era, but M.I.A.’s taste for controversy has not wavered. Early this summer, out of disdain for her label, Interscope, she threatened to leak “AIM.” This is a habit of hers. On “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” she heavily sampled her then forthcoming début, “Arular,” cannibalizing her own output.
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