#393: M.I.A., "Kala" (2007)

“A sense of belonging.” A phrase used so often, yet honestly, I don’t even know what it means, or if it even means something good. When did “belonging” become synonymous with the idea of comfort?

For some, knowing what really belongs to you, or what you belong to, is something that only becomes clear once someone forcibly takes it away. What really awakens the anger and passion can be not just someone taking it away, but someone taking what’s yours, then making it “theirs.” The struggle that then ensues, to take back what was once yours, without the feeling of a need to make friends along the way—now that’s a feeling.

It was early on in my childhood that I came around to understanding what I belonged to. A child of immigrants, born and raised in a small town in South Carolina in the early 90s, there was no lack of opportunity to be reminded of my “other-ness”. My fierce mother made sure that though our peers didn’t see us as one of them, as Americans, we would learn and know exactly what it meant to be Nepali.

Perhaps it was a false sense of belonging that Maya Arulpragasam felt, successful internationally due to the amazing response to her first album, Arular, and settled and comfortable at her second home in Brooklyn. So one can imagine the rush of anger and confusion that flooded her mind when she couldn’t even pass through a security clearance at the U.S. embassy to obtain re-entry access to return to her adopted home.

For any kid educated in American public schools, the concept of colonization is taught under very rosy pretenses. It’s what the British did to us Americans, they’d say. And proudly, they’d follow: we knew better. We declared our independence.

But colonization still happens, Those who were colonized are doing the colonizing. It’s seeped through land, and now materializes in fashion, music, language, food, design—you name it.

Something as small as tika, a cultural adornment worn by men and women alike in the Hindu community, to signify a “third eye” representing spiritual sight, has been neatly packaged by Western capitalism. It’s flashy, it’s oh-so-exotic. Give it six months and the entire capitalist food chain will soon present its finished product to your nearest Urban Outfitters: a pack of colorful and glittery, stick-on tika for only $9.99. Kind of ironic to think that it was probably processed in some discrete factory, shy of any labor codes, tucked away in a street corner in Mumbai.

Next thing you know, it’s 1996 and Gwen Stefani is wearing one on stage, and I’m confused.

So what is Kala to me? It’s what I think Kala was to M.I.A.: an angry and emotional response to the colonization of sound, of the culture of the global south. It’s a big fuck-you to the first world authorities that tried to colonize her and limit her movement. But, most importantly, it is an act of reclaiming what belongs to her, and what gives a sense of belonging to me.

Big on the underground / What's the point of knocking me down? / Everybody knows / I'm already good on the ground.

The quick tabla beats in “Bird Flu” and the sampling of an old Bollywood film in the album’s “Jimmy,” paired with a flash of soca, creates a spiraling record that showcases sounds proudly put together by contributing DJS and instrumentalists, and M.I.A. herself, who all tapped into their version of belonging to create belonging for listeners like me. It’s comfort in all the right ways.

“Kala” means “art” in Sanskrit, but then again language is a curious thing. Translating can be tricky: how can you derive the purest meaning of what a word means in another language that perhaps cannot even grasp the idea for which it stands? The closest interpretation I can come up with is a “melodious expansion of the eternal potencies of the fine arts.”

Kala itself is more than just a piece of art—it is a symbol of the eternal nature of the global south’s music and culture, and M.I.A.’s appropriately abrupt, angry, and enlightening call to the world to wake up and reclaim what was once ours.

I wonder if all those kids yelling the lyrics to “Paper Planes” in the club on a Friday night know that.

—Prarthana Gurung