M.I.A. at Central Park’s SummerStage
New York, August 7, 2005
The words “MAXIMUM CAPACITY” sent a cold shot down my spine on an otherwise pleasantly warm afternoon. You see, my year has led up to this day–starting late last year when someone had recommended Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1, the block-rocking mixtape from the suddenly iconic M.I.A. and her deejay Diplo. While initially unimpressed, Piracy eventually won me over. By the time Arular was released in March, I was salivating. And both albums have dominated the iPod since.
It only seemed natural that Maya Arulpragasam would perform a free show to wind down the 20th anniversary of the Central Park SummerStage series–she has become the face of the most revolutionary form of music since punk, and quite possibly the future of pop music as we know it. So what better way to conclude one of the more diverse musical series in the country than to begin to look forward to the next era?
So maybe, yeah, I guess it was my fault that we arrived a little late to this free show. We still got there early enough to hear the last bit of DJ Rehka’s set, but the park’s SummerStage area was already packed. As a result, about a thousand people congregated behind the area’s tall bleachers about a football field away from any real semblance of the concert. Luckily, Rehka brought the bhangra in force, spinning gems like we were in the middle of a Punjabi harvest.
With no visuals to help the growing crowd outside, we had to rely on the trademark hard-cadence of Brazilian baile to realize that it was now Diplo warming the crowd. Pulling all the standards–some “Push It” here, a sprinkle of “Cutty Ranks” there, Illadelph’s prince built anticipation for the headliner by spinning some of the borrowed material from Piracy, teasing us into expecting a segue into Maya’s set. When she finally did arrive, her instantly recognizable voice spoke a few indecipherable words to her biggest crowd yet (whether or not she knew it) before spitting her lone verse on “Bad Man,” the undeniably best track on Missy Elliott’s latest The Cookbook. And then it was off to the races – “Sunshowers,” “Fire Fire,” “$10,” “Bucky Done Gun,” “Hombre.” She got our arms in the sky by dropping the mixtape version of “Pop” with the brilliant Dead Prez beat and filled between-song gaps with some chit-chat and assorted free-styles. Diplo dropped bombs, beats, and bombast behind Maya’s electrifying declension. I mean, let’s not mince words–this shit is bananas.
From Rehka to Diplo to Maya, the interdependence of world music was apparent. The concert retained a unified feel despite the distinction in the three performer’s cultural influences. By now, this display of the world’s freshest music had attracted more then just M.I.A’s previous fans–various passer-bys had stopped to stand and listen, with nothing to look at, appreciating the ingenuity taking place. After all, New York is synonymous with diversity and Central Park is the city’s star. The group listening to the concert outside had now risen to about two or three thousand–an incredible assortment of people, the type of crowd that you only get in this random sort of situation. And though our nation’s dominant attitude now tends toward ignoring race rather than acknowledging and accepting it, the mindset here was that culture and diversity should be noticed and appreciated.
Eventually, mild appreciation turned into a gigantic dance orgy–the entire crowd breaking into a beautiful frenzy of movement amidst the grass and dirt. Not that hippie Woodstock mud shit either, this was various hues weaving in and out of each other, waltzing around the sunbeams under a sky so bright blue it accentuated the perfect green of the trees surrounding us. People on bikes and rollerblades had to stop to gauge the spectacle and were quickly drawn into it themselves, dancing like they were down with this shit from the weekly Hollertronix night in Philly.
We were all so enthralled it took a minute for fans to recognize the initial bump of “Galang,” the obligatory set-closing hit single. Those who knew the words sang them, those who didn’t simply continued to dance, still unsure of whom (or rather What) was causing them to do so. After a brief retreat, Maya returned with an encore that began with “Pull Up The People” before reveling in the mixtape treat “URAQT” and finishing with a super big pimpin’ version of “Bingo.” It had come and gone so quickly–the crowd broke like a fever–that I had to question its legitimacy afterwards. The most powerful flames always burn the quickest.
I’m still not sure what rings more true: was it Maya’s global sound as a microcosm to the diverse and appreciative audience, or vice versa? This bold new front emphasizes inclusion, so it becomes clear that these are sounds for us all to share. On this day, the impressive collective of listeners gave up on thinking about and rationalizing racial and cultural ideals and just took it all in, resulting in a powerful display of unity. When you hear these exotic sounds combined with our native hip-hop and club movements, it isn’t Americanization as much as a new formula for harmony–a re-definition of our idea of music and what should be the death knell of the terms “Eastern” and “Western” in the context of sound.
Appropriately enough, at some point during Maya’s set actual sunshowers began to sprinkle down. No matter how minimal, the sunshower itself is an act of two seemingly discordant pieces combining to create a beautiful moment. At least in this tucked away space, what was supposed to clash gave way to comfort, and there was one omnipresent essence to the goings-on outside the confines of the SummerStage. The word of the day, truly, was “love.”