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Deconstructing M.I.A.

As her Super Bowl digit malfunction reminded everyone, Maya Arulpragasam is?one of the most polarizing figures in pop today

In 2004, M.I.A. and Diplo released their first mixtape, titled Piracy Funds Terrorism, comparing downloaders to suicide bombers. It established her unique political posture, charging herself with being the chief Western voice of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, an ethnic group that has been subject to systemic oppression at the hands of the country’s Sinhalese majority. This has forced her into a problematic rhetorical relationship with the militant separatist Tamil Tigers, whose most extreme tactics include the use of child soldiers and many suicide bombings (which they are credited with popularizing). M.I.A.’s father founded a nonviolent forerunner of the Tigers, called EROS, and while many early stories on her fabricated a Tiger connection, she strenuously claims he was never in the group. In 2008, she said, “I don’t support terrorism and never have,” and she doesn’t support the Tigers. Other statements (“Give war a chance”), suggest a radical-chic identification with violent rhetoric that recalls ’60s groups the Weather Underground and Red Brigades. Detractors point to her use of tigers in her videos and on her website; in 2008, a Sri Lankan–American rapper named DeLon posted a parody video of “Paper Planes,” featuring images of Tiger atrocities.

She has been articulate in explaining the ways reactionary leaders brand all dissent as “terror”: “When [Westerners] think Tamil, you automatically think Tiger,” she said in 2009. “If you’re a terrorist organization, you don’t have the right to speak. That’s been passed on to the Tamil civilians.” At the same time, she can play fast and loose with facts. She claims, for instance, that the Sri Lankan military is “a million soldiers big” — it’s closer to 340,000. She has also been criticized for calling the civil war in her native country a “genocide,” though it hasn’t been officially designated as such.

“Any time you’re trying to address a complicated situation or complex ideas, you’re going to have a hard time getting it across,” says Boots Riley of leftist Bay Area rappers the Coup (and rap rockers Street Sweeper Social Club), who caused a media maelstrom by depicting the World Trade Center exploding on the cover of a record that was supposed to come out right after 9/11. “When it’s CNN interviewing you and you’ve only got five seconds, you’ve got to cut to the core.” In 2009, shortly after her genocide claim, hostilities in Sri Lanka came to an end. Yet at least 80,000 Tamils still live in army-run camps.

M.I.A. throws herself into this mess headlong, embodying the impulse to incite and also to heal. If her comments often seem contradictory, that too is a kind of message. “If I represent anything, it’s what it’s like to be a civilian caught up in a war,” she said in 2005. In other words, she represents not just struggle, but dissonance, a kind of permanent refugee status. Maybe that’s why her political statements can at times end up sounding like this recent tweet:

“I got digital cash Hactivism at its best Google Bombing with my Infotainment.”