Music: The Great Messenger

Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @KristNovoselic.
There's much to admire about the rapper M.I.A. She's a working mom, a dynamite performer, and a writer of songs, like "Bucky Done Gun," that command you to give the volume knob a twist. And with her outspoken political views and heart for her homeland, Mathangi Arulpragasa reflects the global consciousness of the information revolution.

Music is indeed a messenger. And it's Arulpragasa's comments on the Sri Lankan civil war, which the Sri Lankan parliament declared over last month, that inspired me to pay attention to what was going on over there. It didn't take long for me to realize how similar our stories are.

An ethnic Tamil, M.I.A. is a member of the minority that makes up the northern part of Sri Lanka, a country governed by the majority Sinhalese since the end of WWII. The Sinhalese-controlled government and Tamil's rebel fighters had been involved in a decades-long civil war until the rebel leader was killed and their fighters routed, thus putting an end to the conflict.

M.I.A. has been giving interviews regarding the humanitarian costs of the military action, including the 300,000 displaced ethnic Tamils, many living in overcrowded camps. This reminds me of my situation in the early 1990s during the war in the former Yugoslavia. I had emerged from obscurity to play bass in the biggest band in the world. Being of Croatian heritage, I found myself speaking out about the war in the Balkans. (I lived in Yugoslavia in 1980 and have visited many times since.)

And there's a distinction here. As a youth I always thought that my parents were from Yugoslavia, but to be exact we're from the Croatian coast--a place called Dalmatia. Besides being known for the dog breed, Dalmatian culture is different than that of Croatia's inland. I grew up around Bosnian and Serbian folks in San Pedro, California, and things were harmonious. It was the Croatian nationalists we didn't associate with. They were the ones planting bombs and hijacking airplanes. The U.S. even put these people on a terror watch list in the 1970s.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was emblematic of the crumbling Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. This resulted in a power vacuum, and war came to Yugoslavia soon after. Many took sides along ethnic lines, and old grudges between Serbs and Croats surfaced in a violent way. The city of Zadar, where I went to school, was bombed by artillery. Many relationships and families were split by the deep animosities caused by war violence.

I was living in Seattle in the latter part of the '90s, and it seemed like half of Sarajevo had moved here to get away from the war. The country of Yugoslavia was disintegrating, but the idea of unity among the southern Slav peoples was alive in Seattle. I'd party with a mix of Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnians, and it seemed the consensus was that petty nationalism only served those looking for power. I made many new friends in this expatriate community. The scene centered around bands like Kultur Shock--gypsy grunge at its best. Seattle has always been an international city, and these expats are just another story in the city's diverse cultural history. Today, it's ironic that after all the strife, the Slavic people of southern Europe are coming together in another government--the European Union.

One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. We can toss this back and forth, but in the meantime too many innocents suffer. The Sri Lankan government has said that M.I.A. should stick with music and not worry about politics. It doesn't matter if she's Tamil or Sinhalese, M.I.A. is the most famous Sri Lankan in the world. She has the right to speak.

I didn't know about Sri Lanka and the trouble there until M.I.A. made me aware. Her work can be political, but that aspect never seems overbearing. Thank you, Mathangi Arulpragasa, for bringing my attention to what's going on in that part of our world. And a big thanks for the great tunes as well!

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