A few years ago, when M.I.A. was more commonly known as a military acronym than as the stage name of a Sri Lankan-born singer with a seductive British accent, my friends and I were busy spreading the word via burnt cds and “have you heard?” interjections about Ms. Arulpragasam. Her tracks, which somehow touched on just about every form of music I’d ever loved, remained in heavy rotation on my faux-Pod. Her voice was unique, but what I enjoyed most about her music was what I heard in the background. It wasn’t until I went to her free Central Park concert in the summer of 2005 that I realized who was the culprit for the music behind the lyrics. Diplo, M.I.A.’s Philadelphia-based on-again/off-again love interest, was the one who had produced and remixed the songs on M.I.A’s underground cd entitled Piracy Funds Terrorism, which sparked M.I.A.’s first major release: Arular, an eclectic mix of reggae, funk, electro, bhangra, grime, and hip hop. He had helped to propel her career and make her a prime candidate for collaborations with artists like Missy Elliot and Timbaland and sampling by DJs worldwide.
Diplo was suddenly to underground music as Pier One was to imports.
He had successfully highlighted the talents of a Third Culture Kid, all the while satiating an American audience’s hunger for something “different.” He was welcomed by various ethnic groups and music junkies, mainly for his ability to highlight the new and cool without turning it into a cliché exhibition of the exotic. He invited us all to join in on this form of musical exploration, not simply as spectators, but also as participants, as he combined aspects of distinctive music from the U.S. like dirty south hip hop, to remind us of his roots, with a few notes from the international underground, to remind us that he had a well-used passport. We all had something to contribute as well as something to learn. And while some Americans still may not know of Diplo, it seems that the rest of the world, in particular the oft-ignored “global south,” is paying close attention.
And for good reason.
Though films, music, and tv shows from the U.S. have come to dominate the global market as the end-all, be-all of exportable pop culture, Diplo and his cohorts at Mad Decent, the record label he established in 2006, have worked to reverse this trend. Serving somewhat as a curator of global music and culture, he has used the label to promote his moving museum of sound throughout the club scene. Having already formed relationships with well-known DJs in countries like England, Sweden, and the United States by way of his mix albums and the club and music collective Hollertronix, the man known to his parents and friends as Wesley Pentz set out for countries like Brazil, Angola, Australia, and Israel/Palestine not only to play music, but to learn more about the musical traditions of the population. Fully knowledgeable of the power of subculture, as his success was due in part to his influence therein, Diplo has made a concerted effort to connect with members of the lower class around the world. Ironically, the ingenuity they exhibit despite their economic and social misfortune has become a key element in Diplo’s success, thus begging the question of whether or not his role is one of student turned educator or appropriator cum exploiter.
The intention is not to create a ‘fast-food documentary’ on the characters who form the funk culture, which could be seen on TV and then discarded. On the other hand, this is also not some sort of ‘cinema verité,’ in which the depth is slowly revealed. This project is more interested in creating a spin around a music expression that is unique in its contrasts and mixtures. This film investigates the particular universe of funk carioca, which is a world composed [of] characters who have remarkable talent and also notorious inadequacies. This way, it becomes more possible [for] us to get to know the inner layers of each of them, while the events are revealed on the screen.
I’m not really sure.
My grandmother had her first child when she was 13 and had 10 after that . . . I come from a real Southern family. I got cousins that are older than my uncles. My uncle had a mobile home, so he was always going to Mexico, doing gospel retreats, bringing Bibles to Mexicans. I took trips with him to Oklahoma, and visited my aunt in Alabama. I spent my time in those states. That’s how I grew up.
Before I was deejaying, I was an elementary school teacher at an inner-city school in Philly. All the kids would say there was a grade scale of what was good and bad. If something was bad, it was corny. If it was good, it was really decent.
So much like other musical artists, he is a walking contradiction of sorts. Though in his case, I am left questioning the social impact of his actions far more than his intent. In many ways, he is exhibiting behavior that we expect other musicians and pop icons to carry out, but that they often neglect to display (i.e. giving back to the community, helping other musicians find a start, giving credit to their sources of inspiration, be it individuals or cultures). Despite that, however, I worry that his intentions may be lost on those who see his music merely as entertainment. The social commentary inevitably fused into his beats may be interpreted by some as a good marketing scheme or the simple satiation of an audience that feeds off an exploitative relationship with the “third world.” I want to wait a few years before I fully weigh in on this. In the meantime, you be the judge.
Trailer 4 for Favela on Blast (featuring the song “Injeçao” by Deise Tigrona and some fun, “try this at home”-friendly choregraphy)
Pictured above: Diplo holding up a copy of his newly acquired visa to travel and perform in Angola.