Coming Back with Power Power: MIA @ CMJ


Our favorite Sri Lankan world runner played at Terminal 5 in NYC last night, as part of the CMJ showcase. Terminal 5 is cavernous space with two tiers of balconies, a giant bar island, and draconian crowd-control policies. They made you get into lines to go outside for a smoke.

Doors opened at 7pm. So with nothing but a faintly entertaining opening act (“we’re the new Black Beastie Boys!” was probably their best line) that didn’t do much to help kill the time until M.I.A. came on, people got drunk. Finally around 10pm her presence was felt rather than seen – a roaring, sucking noise as people stampeded toward the stage.

I think she opened with “Bamboo Banga,” but I don’t really remember too well. The next 80 minutes flew by in a blur of jaw-dropping energy, radiating charisma, mind-blowing mashups and the surreal spectacle of pretty white girls moaning “ajaa!!” M.I.A. prowled the vast stage with mesmerizing confidence. Garbed in a futuristic orange and silver flapper top, sliver (lame?) leggings, super sparkly jacket, leather-daddy/police hat, and silver high-tops. She was like an angry human disco ball. With only a DJ and regular backup dancer/singer Cherry behind her, she projected a raw power. When did our little girl grow up so much?

She invited people on stage to join her for “Bird Flu.” The ensuing scramble and dance-a-thon looked like the mad visionary’s multi-culti recasting of Fame … “There she goes” alright. You could barely make her out in the throng of gyrating dancers but there was no doubt about who was in control.


African “You think its tough now, Come to africa” Boy appeared for his verses on “Hussel” and she also brought out a dancer from Baltimore, from the same crew that Cherry belonged to, I think.

Perhaps because her new album is more global in scope, musically and lyrically, than Arular, or perhaps because of her recent visa issues, she’s definitely sliding away from espousing a pro-LTTE viewpoint. The stage was decidedly free of the LTTE flag, paper tigers, and other such military memorabilia.

Surprisingly, the audience (at least those around me) knew more lyrics to songs off Kala than those on Arular. I would have thought the first album was more accessible, but clearly not. Still, when she disappeared after the set, the crowd drew her back for an encored by chanting the refrain from “Galang”: “Yah yah heyeyyy, oye oye oh oh oh ya ya hey.” Seriously, not “M!I!A!” or just hooting and clapping. The whole audience sung the chant, as one, and didn’t stop.

How did this woman get a adenoidal fanboys and privileged hipsters chanting third-world refrains? How did she get them to mouth lyrics like, “One second, my phones ringing/It’s my friend Habibi”? Do they ever stop think about the militancy in lyrics like “I’m better off in North Korea/Yeah, droppin’ from a barrel of a carrier” or the pain in “In a faraway land we got shit made/Ray-Ban shades, warheads laid/Babies born in air raids”? Are they just drawn to the fun of lines like “All I wanna do is (BANG BANG BANG BANG!) And (KKKAAAA CHING!) And take your money”?

I have no idea. But in her words, “I was born out of dirt like I’m porn in a skirt/ I was a little girl who made good with all that I blurt” and I can’t respect her enough for that.

Photos by William Kirk at

New York Times review of her Thursday night show here. Previous SepiaMutiny M.I.A. coverage here.

60 thoughts on “Coming Back with Power Power: MIA @ CMJ

  1. I think she states the situation far more eloquently than your or I can.

    lol. i believe that’s cicatrix.

    this argument’s been had many times over on this site, i don’t think she’s changed her views on the war (which were never entirely concrete, anyway), she’s just actively focusing on wider issues now because she’s seen how the pigeonholing can detract from the music

  2. this argument’s been had many times over on this site, i don’t think she’s changed her views on the war (which were never entirely concrete, anyway), she’s just actively focusing on wider issues now because she’s seen how the pigeonholing can detract from the music

    and I think the basic reason I can’t ascribe any sort of purposive action to that drift away from usage of terror imagery is that the production of art, even for people who don’t think of themselves as artists, is rarely done under a strict politico-social rubric–i.e. “my first priority is making sure people know I like XXX…my second priority is making sure people know I am ambivalent about YYYY” Perhaps this comes from growing up in a home where fine arts (performing variety) were produced daily and partly it’s because I don’t want to believe that MIA is some heartless, bean-counting, corpie-clone, niche-marketed robot who would be so thoughtless/careless as to pimp terror imagery for profit/success down the road.

    FuDaMenTal’s tragic tumble down the terror-lite road happened so quickly (within the space of an album!) I didn’t wish to contemplate the same happening to her.

  3. DL, you don’t and that’s fine. We’re not here to play music snob… But a discussion about her, at this point, has got to move past her once-held views on Sri Lanka.

    a clarification – my comment was not about her songs/records per se, it is just that i felt her exploitative use of imagery trumped her music. maybe, i am being too cynical in not forgiving her for the past use of her imagery, but from the descriptions of her recent shows, it looks like she still continues to peddle it albeit in an understated manner. in any case, i think we all know where we all stand, so i will stop now.

    here’s a curry-leaf branch (as I don’t have any olive trees handy–common Tamil failing)

    muralimannered, i accept your curry-leaf branch and hand you some mustard garnish in return. heck, i will even ladle out some virtual sambar :)

  4. M.I.A. is coming to Austin in 2 weeks and i’m pumped! I was flipping through channels last week (the 4 channels my antenna picks up), and paused on ABC’s Hot Shots…M.I.A.’s “Boyz” was playing as models strutted along the runway!

    Listen to Horizontal K’s mix of M.I.A.’s “URAQT” at

    his mix makes me want to clean my apt or up the speed on a treadmill!

  5. Annie Hall: Sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture. Alvy Singer: You? You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ‘em everything.

    Lol, Woody is a genius. One could quote him all night and still not get bored. Has anyone ever had the chance to see him play with his Jazz group at the Carlyle in NYC? He’s gonna be back soon in theaters.

    Thanks Muralimannered, I’ll revisit MIA and with a more open mind this time. And even if I don’t like the music, still respect to her for sticking by a cause she believes in. Most of the artist out there don’t.

  6. I love MIA! On CD that is.

    Honestly I cant stand her live! I saw her in Chicago and I wanted to leave before her voice made me hate her and any clip of her live on YouTube just reaffirms my experience. I will buy anything she puts out on CD or the internet, but tickets to her live will be untouched by me.

    And you can enjoy anything drunk. I once stood and listened to a homeless guy slap his hands against his body for like 5 minutes and then gave him a dollar for being so awesome.

  7. Mala spits hot fire. I can’t remember the last time I was as excited to be at a show as I was on Friday. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about her personal politics, but I find her art beautiful and inspiring. Plus she had hundreds of uber-fashionable Brooklyn hipsters singing the refrain to an 80s Bollywood movie song. If that don’t do it for you, nothing will. AND SHE HAD A HYPE (WO)MAN!!! So classic. It feels damn good to see brown folk rockin’ the mic. Word life.