One of the things that’s really persistent in electronic music is the idea of female artists as proteges, molded, shaped by a man behind the scenes. As Joanna Russ detailed in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, women’s contributions to culture are actively suppressed. A man must have written that book, or those lyrics, or song. That “makes sense,” to a culture that values men’s creativity over women’s.
One thing that’s come across my radar repeatedly is an ongoing suppression of rapper/producer/etc M.I.A’s contributions as an artist. In particular, her former boyfriend and very occasional producer Diplo—notably, one of her few white producers—is often cited as the architect behind her sound.
The image of M.I.A as a Diplo protege goes back quite some time. In 2007, at the release of her album Kala, M.I.A had this very telling conversation with Pitchfork.
M.I.A.: Yesterday I read like five magazines in the airplane—it was a nine hour flight— and three out of five magazines said “Diplo: the mastermind behind M.I.A.’s politics!” And I was wondering, does that stem from [Pitchfork]? Because I find it really bonkers.
Pitchfork: Well, it’s hard to say where it originated. We certainly have made reference to Diplo playing a part on your records, but it seems like everyone plays that up.
M.I.A.: If you read the credits, he sent me a loop for “Bucky Done Gun,” and I made a song in London, and it became “Bucky Done Gun.” But that was the only song he was actually involved in on Arular. So the whole time I’ve had immigration problems and not been able to get in the country, what I am or what I do has got a life of its own, and is becoming less and less to do with me. And I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed. After the first time it’s cool, the second time it’s cool, but after like the third, fourth, fifth time, maybe it’s an issue that we need to talk about, maybe that’s something important, you know.
So this is a narrative being promoted by the press. More recently, Diplo has not done much to discourage this image, saying in a recent interview:
“She got famous off ‘Paper Planes,’ ” he says. “She had already thrown in the towel when that record came out. Before that, she was like, ‘I’m retiring. I’m going to marry this guy, f–k it.’ Then ‘Paper Planes’ blew up and she was like, ‘Oh sh-t. I gotta take advantage of this. I’m actually an artist now.
She’s actually an artist now? M.I.A had made two official albums, one before she met him, and the second with one album track and one bonus track with Diplo, but now she’s an artist because his one song was a hit. The idea would be ludicrous if it wasn’t so common.
In contrast, M.I.A’s friend and former flatmate ex-Elastica singer Justine Frischmann’s influences on her career show a very different narrative—the two have worked together on films and art, Frischmann lent M.I.A the Roland 505 drum machine/sequencer on which she programmed much of her debut album, and the two collaborated on “Galang.” This is not to say that Frischmann should take credit—far from it—just to say that both Frischmann and Diplo had sustained creative relationships with M.I.A but one of them is oft-cited as a major influence and the other isn’t. Of course, the truth is that neither can take much credit for M.I.A’s body of work.
Artistic collaboration can be a nebulous process, but the one thing that’s very obvious from looking at M.I.A’s career as a whole is how very distinctive it is, how much control she exercises as an artist, a writer and producer. You know an M.I.A track when you hear it, and it’s not because of Diplo or any other man.