Friday, June 4, 2010

M.I.A. vs. the NYT: I'd be mad, too

The past few weeks have seen a shift in the structure of the rap beef: less man-to-man and more man-to-monolith. Kanye West recently used the new song "Power" to call SNL out for mocking him back in December; more famously (perhaps only because she's made it her mission to publicize the incident) M.I.A. and the New York Times have been locked in a battle over what the artist claims is a misrepresentation of her character in a recent article. After a series of mostly one-sided attacks--during which, among other actions, M.I.A. posted author Lynn Hirschberg's phone number on Twitter and recorded a song called "Haters" where she disses the NYT--the New York Times recanted and posted a note to the 9-page article apologizing for compiling a series of separate quotes to create a longer one, which was what presumably contributed to M.I.A's character assassination.

Gawker called it a victory for the artist, as it lay more of the blame on Hirschberg for deliberately constructing quotes to present M.I.A. as image obsessed at the expense of any concrete knowledge about her pet causes. Reading the original article, the things M.I.A. says aren't very different from anything else she's said on record (take her recent NME interview, where she calls out Lady Gaga for being too image-obsessed, as an example); she's always been blunt, a bit arrogant, maybe even (though I could be misreading her sense of humor over print) a little humorless. The real damage was done when her quotes were paired with Hirschberg's own writing. For example, the now-infamous truffle fry quote (which MIA later exposed as completely inaccurate):

"I kind of want to be an outsider," she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. "I don't want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist."

Definitely incriminating, and quite the departure from her artwork and web design. Obviously she cares more about looking terroristy in the public eye than about actually working to advance the Revolution.

But my issue with M.I.A. doesn't lie in the fact that she cares about her image. She's a celebrity, after all; it's her job to manage her image just as it is a journalist's job to take a subject's quotes and work them into a presentable article. Nor does my issue lie with the fact that she went from the projects in East London to a mansion in Brentwood--that's the American Dream, after all--but that she is still trying to maintain the "starving immigrant refugee artist" image even as she's enjoying the fruits of her labor. I love the fact that she remains a voice for people who can't afford to make their own heard (or, to quote her directly, she "puts people on the map that never seen a map"). She's still very unique within the music industry--no other artist, least of all a brown girl for whom English is a second language, has made as much of a name for herself while keeping it relatively real by rapping about her family's life back in the Third World. And no journalist, Lynn Hirschberg least of all, should trivialize her body of work just because she eats truffle fries now instead of government cheese. Her past still belongs to her, no matter where she finds herself in the present.

It's more than a bit disingenuous, though, to claim to be involved in the struggle when all you're really doing is name-checking the PLO in the third verse of one of your songs and decorating your album covers with tigers. Hirschberg did well by calling her out on all that, but using her misinformed politics to continue to paint her and her music in such a relentlessly negative light was a mistake. That's where the real apology should be.

Also, Diplo? Way to come off as the bitter ex-boyfriend, man.