To this day, there are about six or seven albums I can confidently classify as my “all time” favourites; albums that I’ve consistently listened to throughout the years, and still get a lot of enjoyment out of listening to. Mostly, it’s because those albums are snapshots into a period of my life – they are the soundtracks to significant times and listening to them takes me back. They say you never forget your first, and I think that saying extends beyond its initial meaning. It can relate to music too – you never forget that first time you listened to an album and it changed you. That’s how I feel about M.I.A.‘s Kala – still one of my favourite albums of all time.
In 2007, M.I.A. was coasting on a nice little wave of success after her stellar debut, Arular. She was dating then-up and coming producer Diplo, and she was talking of a new album that was to come. With plans of linking up with Timbaland, the two were hoping to release a record that would be her sophomore album. Fans remained a little skeptical, but M.I.A. seemed confident that having a predominantly produced Timbaland album was the way to go. However, the universe had other plans for her and she was soon about to experience the harsh reality of American Homeland Security, and was denied a visa due to matching the profile of a terrorist. It’s been speculated this was to do with her family’s ties to Sri Lankan guerrillas, but in any case, the U.S weren’t having any of it. Her plans were paused, and she was suddenly stuck. This is where my first wave of love for M.I.A. comes from. Instead of throwing her hands up in despair, and crying “woe is me”, she worked it to her advantage. The U.S weren’t going to let her in? FINE. She was going elsewhere and she’s going to make the best damn record she possibly can. And so, Kala – an all out aural assault – came to be.
Hopping between India, Angola, Trinidad, Jamaica and Australia, she utilised the sounds around her to her advantage. Swapping Timbaland for UK producer Switch, the pair created something no one was really ready for. Borrowing elements from dance music, world music, punk, hip hop, pop, rock and everything in between, M.I.A. turned her misfortune on its head and give a big middle finger to those who tried to stop her – government departments or otherwise. There is even a riff borrowed from The Clash, a chorus borrowed from The Pixies and a tribute to Bollywood. She said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “It’s a hard album sonically, and it’s hard in terms of what it stands for.” She had unintentionally become a voice for the “other people”, and at a time where more and more people felt alienated in their native U.S.A cities and towns, it couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Tying together a bright, rich tapestry of sounds collected from all over the world, M.I.A. set about connecting with countries and people that intrigued her. From aboriginal boys in Darwin’s Wilcannia Mob spitting schoolyard rhymes on Mango Pickle Down River, Jamaican male culture on Boyz, 30 drummers in a room playing the urmi (an instrument used for temple rituals in South India) for Bird Flu, to even including UK grime MC Afrikan Boy on Hussel which details the plight of refugees, M.I.A. began to work on Kala as a way of giving a voice to those that wouldn’t have been heard otherwise.
Drawing on her diverse background, she was now taking it upon herself to stand on an international soapbox and hold a mirror up to the world. Only she did it in the most overstimulating, at times abrasive, not exactly accessible way possible, and people couldn’t help but love it. Even the album cover, with it’s oversaturated, hypercoloured, almost hard to look at artwork showed her in all her uncompromising glory. Her face, covered by big sunglasses and surrounded with the powerful message of “FIGHT ON! FIGHT ON! FIGHT ON!” with a backdrop of traditional African textiles, she wasn’t hiding from anyone. There she was, everyone! Come and get it!
She was no longer holding back from calling out the bullshit she, and the people around her were experiencing. Although there were traces of politically charged messages in her songs on Arular, Kala represented a whole new chapter for the rising star. She wasn’t the best singer or rapper, but once again she worked it to her advantage. She used her lyricism and songwriting skills to make songs that catered directly to her. “Big on the underground, what’s the point of knocking me down?/Everybody knows I’m already good on the ground,” she almost shrugs on Bird Flu, clearly addressing the whole visa debacle. She already had her fans, they weren’t going anywhere and neither was she. You literally couldn’t hold her down. She was addressing bigger issues like the fact that an AK47 was incredibly easy to come by in Africa with 20 Dollar, making fun of Homeland Security’s concerns in Paper Planes (which incidentally went onto to be her breakthrough hit and is now an all time classic song), paying homage to her Sri Lankan mother which the album is named after in Jimmy, reminiscing about 90’s London rave culture in XR2 – the list goes on. She was absolutely everywhere, and she had now created something that would reach every corner of the globe.
It’s this “take no prisoners” attitude that I took from Kala. This album is me coming into that time in your teenage years when everything is happening. It’s sneaking out to parties, falling in and out of friendships and love, finding myself and opening my mind to the world. It’s small town me growing up, moving on and getting shit done. There M.I.A. was, faced with adversity and a hand in her face telling her to knock it off, so she went and did the exact opposite. What could have potentially become a flop if she had indeed linked up with Timbaland (the track he eventually featured on, Come Around, is still the album’s weakest track and was the most poorly received) became one of the most influential records to come out of that year and decade. Her influence is still heard now, in 2015. She inspires people every day to get back up again and make it work. Take what is rightfully yours and if they aren’t listening, make them listen. Whenever I am sad, mad, happy, partying, unwinding or more, Kala was, is and always will be there. It is an album that continually motivates me to be better, and encourages me to keep going. M.I.A. never stopped, and when I listen to Kala, neither do I.