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Sri Lanka native M.I.A. performs in S.F

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The tropical, Dayglo colored stencils of grenades, missiles and machine guns set the stage for M.I.A.’s performance before a crowd hungry for her playful political verbal flows at the Grand Ballroom at Regency Center on Wednesday, Oct. 5.

Born in Sri Lanka, and having moved around from India to London during her youth, M.I.A.’s music is a sometimes schizophrenic but worldly mix of digital and unrefined sounds, steeped in the tradition of Brazilian dancehall and hip hop. Staying true to the sound of her debut album Arular, DJ Contra performed a fabulous mash up of M.I.A.’s tracks with unexpected ones like Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It,” Dead Prez’s classic booming track “Hip-Hop,” and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.”

The diverse and mostly 20-something crowd chanted along with her lyrics from beginning to end without prompting. With M.I.A. fans there seemed an excited sense of being keyed into a well-kept secret that just may explode into the mainstream, and the bittersweet feeling that she already has. (The recent appearance of her hit “Galang” in a Honda Civic commercial seems as strong an indication as any.)

She’s been criticized for a seeming indifference to her audience during live performances, but her attitude is all too fitting with the calculated laziness of her flows. Clad in an oversized black sweater with gold sequins detailing the torso of a human skeleton, shorts, black leggings that reached to just below her knees and her ever-present white Reebok classics, she was refreshingly measured and restrained, sometimes breaking into a playful dance reminiscent of grade-schoolers playing double dutch.

But M.I.A.’s playful image belies the guerilla undercurrents of her music. After performing “Pop,” she was careful to note that although the song prods at her listeners’ political leanings (“you can be a follower, but who’s your leader?”), she doesn’t consider herself a leader, but rather an “aggravator.” But quite unwittingly, she’s become a leader for what seems like a movement of young people who are more attracted to anti-war iconography than political action.

She yelled to the crowd, “Where are my Tamil boys and girls at?” receiving a resounding roar from the audience. But wait. How many in the screaming crowd actually understand M.I.A.’s connection to the Tamil Tigers (her father was a known member) or who they are (an infamously violent guerilla group in Sri Lanka often credited as the first suicide bombers)? Is M.I.A. just pulling a fast one on us – pointing out the hypocrisy of a legion of young Americans so outraged with the Bush administration and yet politically unaware in every real sense?

Truth is, I don’t care. How’s that for apathy? Although political on the surface, M.I.A.’s lyrics rarely reach any deeper than the surface “war is bad,” “our government is corrupt” talk so familiar to our generation – the music itself has more depth and energy behind it than her lyrics. There’s an irony and enigmatic quality to M.I.A.’s music and image; perhaps fitting for a modern world where many of us embody similar such contradictions.