Todd S. Inoue

Rebel Girl

M.I.A.-- THE BRITISH Sri Lankan MC -- is the hot word on the lips of music critics and hipsters in search of something unique. Not to be confused with R&B tart Mya, M.I.A. blew up in late 2004 with one single "Galang," but -- got damn! -- what a single. It's a roller coaster of broken beat, ragga, bhangra, electronic buzzes and whistles. M.I.A.'s sing-song cadence is part chitter chatter, part feminine mystique with a "yah-yah heyyy" chant at the end that signals an uprising.

Born Mathangi Arulpragasam in London, the future MC moved to Sri Lanka when she was a baby. Her father, an engineer and activist, worked alongside Tamil freedom fighters, going into hiding for months at a time. The family moved around to Madras, India and London and then back to Sri Lanka. As the civil war reached its height in the mid-'80s, the family immigrated to London for good. It's here where M.I.A.'s interest in music took root.

She admires Public Enemy and jacks into the local dancehall, garage and Asian Underground scenes. M.I.A. released her full-length album, "Arular," in February 2005. She and Hollertronix DJ Diplo collaborated on Arular and on the acclaimed mix "Piracy Funds Terrorism." Along with the amazing "Galang," she asserts herself on sure shots "Bucky Dun Gone," "Fire Fire" and "Sunshowers." M.I.A. also makes vibrant art, videos and short films.


How tough was it moving around so much?
It was tough enough for me to want to turn it around on its head and say that I liked it. I knew it was something I couldn't stop and it was just going to happen. I had to start seeing the positive in it. Apart from that, I had to constantly start from scratch getting to know people. It felt like wherever I went, people always seem to be like, the lowest common denominator.

Having to learn a new language and culture just seemed annoying in the beginning and then I got used to it. It taught me not to be attached to materialistic stuff like objects and cars and furniture and photographs. I think I have only two photos from my childhood, up until I was age 11.

Were you exposed to racism?
I tried to ignore it because it didn't make sense to me. A month before I moved to London I was getting shot at for being a Tamil, and a month later I was getting spat at for being a Pakistani. They were lessons on human beings and what makes people do [those things]. I didn't get caught up in it. Just ignoring and rising above it gave me motivation to do better.

Were your parents protective of you?
I only had my mum. I never grew up with my dad so I don't know what he's like. I think I'm a mixture of both. My mum's really passive, quiet and she's not feisty. She cared about bringing in food and getting us to school and stuff but that's as far as it went.

How did your father's participation with the Tamil Tigers affect you?
Growing up without a dad, I was going to school and turning up at parents' meetings on my own. At the time everyone was like, "Oh if you had a dad he'd pay for your school and you'd have a better future." At the time, my mom was bringing us up and she was like, "The only thing your father gave you was a name." So that's why I used [his name "Arular"] on my album to turn it into a statement that my mom always made. If the only thing he's going to give me is a name, then that's what I'm going to use.

Where do you feel most at home?
I feel at home at my mum's when she cooks and I can watch Tamil cable TV and know what's going on with everybody. I also feel at home in Philadelphia. It seems if I spent two weeks anywhere in one place, it's been in Philadelphia. I got to do normal things--go to the shops and the clubs.

What music were you exposed to when you got to London?
Chart music, hip-hop and dancehall, then I got into the Asian scene--bhangra/raga. Jungle, house and garage mostly through the pirate radio station. Once I discovered pirate radio, that's what I grew up on. I was listening to Madonna and Paula Abdul and then I heard Public Enemy and Roxanne Shante. It was like, "Woah, what's going on?" That really blew my mind. Then hearing Jamaican pirate radio--that was really exciting. Hearing Supercat and Mad Cobra seemed really amazing to me.

You use a lot of military and soldier imagery and metaphors in your lyrics and videos. What is the reason?
The reason why I reference war isn't because of my dad, but because it's around my life right now. I grew up for so long without doing music or talking about that kind of stuff. But it seems that after 2001, war was on the front page every single day, on every channel. Everything was escalating and getting bigger and bigger and more and more untouchable for young people to get involved in what's going on in politics.

I just tried my hardest to not let politics dissipate to the back of my head.

Everybody doesn't feel right to comment on politics because they don't know enough, but that's exactly the whole idea the government understands when they talk on behalf of the people. When I was in London, a lot of people were feeling like this. I have a right to talk about it because of my past. So I don't care whether people feel it's naft (dodgy) or scary to talk about politics because it was my life. But ultimately I started doing it because of what's going on here today.

Always Bet on Yellow

"Dae han min kuk!" (clap clap, clapclapclap)

"Dae han min kuk!" (clap clap, clapclapclap)

For all I know, I could be chanting down the Spanish government. Betty, my Korean-American wife, doesn't know what the chant means either. But up on the flat-screen TV, 45,000 soccer-mad Koreans are chanting "Dae han min kuk" and cheering on the South Korean soccer team with lusty passion. The 300 or so red-clad soccer fans watching the South Korea-Spain World Cup quarterfinal game on the flat screen of this Korean market are doing it, too. Pretty soon, I've picked up the chant and am losing my voice.

I can't believe I'm here -- at 11:30pm on a Friday night in June -- but at the same time, I can't imagine being anywhere else. Korea is the first Asian team to make it this far in the World Cup. They have been playing amazing ball, knocking off tournament heavies Portugal, Poland and Italy. All of us are hoping the heart attack kids pull off another miracle. And with the support of crimson-clad "Red Devils" supporters, the soccer team has galvanized the Korean-American community while captivating the Asian American community and the soccer world.

When South Korea finally bests Spain in penalty kicks around 1:30am, the crowd erupts in hugs and tears and screams. Tumbling outside, the cars toot away, spinning exultant victory laps, their occupants waving red shirts and Korean flags. The next day, I ask my mother-in-law what "dae han min kuk" means and she replies, "Republic of Korea."

That was early in the summer, when the Korean soccer team had an amazing run -- finishing fourth after bowing out to Turkey. That was when I first noticed that a lot of my friends -- and most of the Asian American ones -- were suddenly down with soccer, staying up late to watch the games, rooting in supermarkets and driving like idiots. During the whole World Cup, I had rooted for the United States, but drew the line against the Asian teams. Even though, as soccer-playing kids, we sucked down oranges at halftime side by side with American teammates, I felt pride watching our yellow brothers excel on the world stage.

The fact is, I felt a deeper kinship with the Asian players. They resemble me -- crazy Ahn Jung-Hwan perms notwithstanding. They probably take off their shoes when they enter a home and have rice cookers on their kitchen shelves. They make the same faces I do when I screw up on the field. Am I a bad American because I feel more in common with the Asian players and root for Asian teams?

Yao Ming Dynasty

The question is fresh on my mind, especially since the United States and the Chinese national basketball teams are set to play against each other this Thursday, Aug. 22. It's the American debut of Chinese national and 2002 NBA No. 1 draft pick, the 7-foot-6-inch center from Shanghai, Yao Ming. Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown remarked about Ming, "In four years he could be one of the best players in the world."

Ben Kim is a writer, sports nut and co-founder of the Foundation of Asian American Independent Media (FAAIM). He says international sport is the one arena where it feels OK for an Asian American to root for his country of ancestry. "It has to do with America's place in the world and one's place in America," he says. "Against the backdrop of American global hegemony, everyone else is an underdog even in sports not dominated by the U.S., and it's fun to root for the underdog. And in other realms of international competition -- politics, trade, what have you -- anyone's gain at America's expense isn't something you want to root for."

Kim hints at a political undercurrent lurking in the stands and it's true. A victory against the United States is seen as payback for years of cultural and militaristic superiority. When Apolo Anton Ohno sold a foul that eliminated the South Koreans from the short-track speed-skating gold medal, the Koreans got payback during the World Cup. South Korean striker Ahn Jung-Hwan, after scoring a goal against the United States, celebrated by imitating the movements of a short-track speed skater -- a direct diss of Anton Ohno.

Elaine Kim is an author, filmmaker and professor of Asian American and comparative ethnic studies at UC-Berkeley. She loved Jung-Hwan's post-goal move and feels sport is the great equalizer for smaller nations used to living in the shadow of the U.S.

"I thought that was really cool," she says with a laugh. "It seems that the U.S. makes all the other countries in the world constantly think of their situation with 9/11. Their issues are the only important issues in the world. Their culture is the only important culture. When it gets moved aside, it's really exciting."

The June 10 U.S.-South Korea World Cup match, which ended in a tie, was much more than a soccer game for Korean Americans and Koreans abroad. It had deep emotional ties to occupation and outrage, a way to exact revenge without firing one missile.

Korea has been mad at the United States for 20 years, Elaine Kim says, pointing out a recent news item about a U.S. Army tank running over two Korean girls. The Status of Forces agreement allows crimes by the Army to be tried by U.S. Armed Forces courts, not Korean courts. Thus the person gets slapped on the wrist.

"It happens so often," Kim says. "It's the culmination of a lot of inequalities of the past. When people were rooting for Korea against the United States, there was all that history there. And for Korean-Americans who were not historically treated as equals in the U.S., it's great to root for Korea against the U.S. It would have been super if Korea won."

Asians of Change

For the less politicized -- like the 5-foot-8-inch Asian American kids at the playground who worship Vince Carter -- seeing a 7-foot-6-inch Asian brother chosen first (by the Houston Rockets) in the NBA draft is an earth-shaking event. In the case of Yao Ming, he presents a supernova of possibilities. His size and versatility has rival team scouts nervous. It's been hinted that if he's as good as he's hyped, Yao Ming could change the way contemporary basketball is played.

"I think it might open up the door for many Asian Americans who have the dream to go to the NBA," says James Ryu, editor at KoreAm Journal. "There's a perception of many Americans that Asians cannot compete in the NBA. However, I think it will still take another 10 years before you will see many Asian American players, like you see in the professional baseball league."

Before that day comes, Yao Ming will have to endure a couple of years being viewed as a pricey novelty -- similar to what Seattle Mariner superstar Ichiro Suzuki and Los Angeles Dodger pitching ace Hideo Nomo both experienced during their rookie seasons. A period of adjustment is followed quickly by high expectations from fans, countrymen, teammates and the swarm of foreign media.

And like Ichiro and Nomo, Yao Ming's rookie season will bring a lot of Asian Americans to the game, boosting attendance and exposure of the NBA. Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella, on a DVD about the 2001 influx of Japanese baseball players called "Rising Sons," acknowledged the link between the spike of Asian faces in the seats and his star right fielder.

"He puts people in the stands, no question," Piniella says about Ichiro. "San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Dallas, we've drawn more Asian people to our baseball games. When you put more people in the ballpark, it's good for baseball and that's exactly what he's done."

The hopes of a country and its expatriates rest firmly on the tall shoulders of Yao Ming. It goes back to representation. Pro sport is showing some progress in Asian role models. Soccer has the South Korean team, baseball has Ichiro and Nomo and others, golf has Se Ri Pak and Tiger Woods, basketball has Wang Zhizhi and now, Yao Ming.

He could be a bust, the Asian version of Shawn Bradley or Michael Olowokandi. He'll probably get dunked on -- there's a rumored pot going around the NBA for the first person to dunk on Yao Ming. But if Ming lays a Spalding facial on Shaq, the shock waves will be felt far and wide, from Beijing to the Bronx.

"I'm worried about the Chinese chucker -- he's going to get knocked around in the paint," says Ben Kim. "But I invite him to shock me."

Todd Inoue is music editor of Metro Silicon Valley.
BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.