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Border, Music and Politics in Cultural Studies: MIA as Provocateur

December 10th, 2013

A ‘cultural project’ runs alongside the war on terror and impacts upon a diverse range of practices, from the militarisation of public policy, through to entertainment, cinema and the music industry (Bhattacharyya 1998:293, 299; 2008, 92). Thus, there might be reason to revisit Walter Benjamin’s essay on the now near impossible role of the storyteller as the site of critique and an alternative to ‘Total War’. The storytelling I have in mind involves a mainstream pop music video that uses humour, gimmicky effects and provocations that stress or otherwise reveal our anxieties. The performer-curator and musician Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam, also known as M.I.A, features as main focus: herself conceived as a prankster character, aiming to undo the unexamined comforts of power, in ways which need to be analysed.
I will examine M.I.A.’s collaboration with Romain Gavras on Born Free (2010) to investigate the way stereotypes that are knocked down seem to threaten to just get right back up again. I take the controversy over M.I.A.’s work as exemplary for a survey of the absurd and often worrying scrapes British South Asian musicians have gotten themselves into under the new civil (un)liberties environment in the contemporary multicultural city and argue that if we can agree that the co-constitution of the war ‘over here’ and ‘over there’ should be recognised differently, then our responses may also need to be different.

© Raul GschreyProfessor John Hutnyk is Academic Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College. Author of a number of books including “The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation” (1996 Zed); “Critique of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry” (2000 Pluto Press); “Bad Marxism: Capitalism and Cultural Studies” (2004 Pluto), and co-authored with Virinder Kalra and Raminder Kaur: “Diaspora and Hybridity” (2005 Sage). He is an editor of several volumes of essays, including “Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the Politics of the New Asian Dance Music” (1996 Zed, co ed with Sharma and Sharma) editions of the journals ‘Theory, Culture and Society’ and ‘Post-colonial Studies’, and of a festschrift for Klaus Peter Koepping called “Celebrating Transgression” (2006 Berghahn, co-ed with Ursula Rao) and the volume “Beyond Borders” (2012 Pavement Books). His book “Pantomime Terror: Music and Politics” is forthcoming in 2013.