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M.I.A.

M.I.A.

Singer, songwriter

M.I.A. is the stage name used by Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam, a British singer-songwriter of Tamil heritage who grew up in England and Sri Lanka. M.I.A.'s exuberant sound blends musical styles from around the world, including rap and ragga. Reviewing her 2005 debut Arular for Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield likened her music to "the sound of jump-rope rhymes in a war zone," and wrote that as with its first single, "Galang," the album came across as "weird, playful, unclassifiable, sexy, brilliantly addictive."

Born in 1977, M.I.A. spent the first six months of her life in London, England, where her parents were living at the time after an arranged marriage in Sri Lanka. They were both Tamil, the largest ethnic minority in this Indian Ocean island nation. The Tamils had come to Sri Lanka centuries earlier from southern India, and their distinct culture bred conflicts with Sri Lankans that were exacerbated during the period of British colonial rule. A separatist movement arose, and in the mid-1970s new and far more militant groups were taking up the Tamil cause. M.I.A.'s mother was surprised to learn of her new husband's deep-seated political commitment to separatism. Returning to their native Sri Lanka in early 1978, the family was left to fend for itself when M.I.A.'s father took up with one especially militant Tamil separatist militia group. Armed conflicts in the northern part of the island eventually erupted into a full-scale civil war by 1983. As M.I.A. recalled in an interview with Steve Yates for the London Observer, "my uncle told me the first time I saw a white person in Sri Lanka—I must have been about six—they came to my village, and I ran up and said, ‘Take me out of here!’"

Fled to London

M.I.A.'s father belonged to the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), and adopted the name "Arular." Their mother raised her and her sister alone, for Arular spent long stretches of time in hiding from Sri Lankan authorities. "Although he didn't live with us or spend any time with us, we suffered all the consequences of having him as a dad," M.I.A. told Hattie Collins, a writer for London's Guardian newspaper. "Our houses would get extra bombed and the people in our neighbourhood would get extra tortured and the army would come round and beat my mum up." The desperately poor family—so malnourished that M.I.A.'s teeth fell out—was uprooted several times, fleeing once to Chennai on India's Bay of Bengal, then returning to Jaffna, the main Tamil city in Sri Lanka, and finally traveling to London. "Being shot at wasn't even the main thing," M.I.A. said in the Guardian interview. "By the time I was 10 I had seen people get killed and my school had been burnt down."

M.I.A. arrived in London in the late 1980s with her family as Tamil refugees. They lived in a council estate, as public housing projects are called in Britain, in the Mitcham area of South London. As an Asian, she was harassed by working class white youth, telling another Observer journalist, Emma Forrest, "I came at the end of punk. It had trickled down, like culture eventually does, from the inner cities. Spitting on the street was normal and acceptable and I took the brunt of it." As she began to learn English, M.I.A. found herself intrigued by African-American rap and hip-hop culture, and in her late teens moved to Los Angeles to become fully immersed in the South Central lifestyle in the city. She worked in a call center for computer software, before returning to Sri Lanka for a time and then heading to St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean. It was there that she first began writing music.

M.I.A. eventually returned to London and enrolled at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to study fine art, film, and video. Her first paintings were shown in 2001, and they captivated alternative-art critics for their mélange of pink and green camouflage graffiti-style tigers and other symbols of her heritage. Based on these, Justine Frischmann of the band Elastica commissioned M.I.A. to do to the next album cover for the band. M.I.A. also directed the video for their single "Mad Dog," and toured with them as a videographer. One of Elastica's opening acts was Peaches, the Canadian electroclash singer, and M.I.A. was intrigued by the Roland MC-505 Groovebox that Peaches used. Back in London, she bought her own sequencing machine and began working on her own music. She tried to recruit female singers to perform her works, but was told that her lyrics and raps were just too difficult to master.

Named Debut After Father

The second song that M.I.A. ever wrote, "Galang," became her first single, released in 2003 in a limited-edition vinyl pressing by Showbiz Records. It quickly made it onto the Internet, however, and found thousands more listeners, thanks to file-sharing Web sites. M.I.A. was signed to XL Recordings, which re-released "Galang" in 2004 with a music video. There were plans to release her first full-length album in September of that year, but legal battles over sampled tracks delayed that date by six months. Arular—named for her father—was released in March of 2005 in the United States and a month later in Britain; one track, "U.R.A.Q.T.," had to be left off the American version when record producer Quincy Jones balked at allowing his theme song from the 1970s television sitcom Sanford and Son to be used on it.

For the Record …

Born Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam on July 17, 1977, in London, England; daughter of Arular (a political activist) and Kala (a seamstress) Arulpragasam. Education: Studied fine art, film, and video at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London, England.

Worked at a computer software company's call center in Southern California, c. mid-1990s; visual artist in London, after 2000; videographer for the Britpop band Elastica; first single, "Galang," released 2003 by Showbiz Records; signed to XL Recordings; signed to Interscope Records.

Addresses: Record company—Interscope Records, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.

Arular's lyrics were intensely political, and M.I.A. explained her inspiration for the songs to Forrest. "I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet," she said. "What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about." The record was shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Mercury Music Prize for album of the year, and made it to the number three spot on Billboard's Top Electronic Albums chart. M.I.A. also landed a much bigger record deal, this one with Interscope Records, whose founder, Jimmy Iovine, promised her complete creative control.

Kala Released in 2007

The making of M.I.A.'s follow-up album proved problematic, however, when U.S. immigration officials denied her a work visa to re-enter the country. She had planned on working with rap artist and producer Timbaland, but her visa issues jettisoned that plan. Instead she packed up some portable recording equipment and kept moving. She visited India, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Australia, and sampled sounds from street musicians and underground artists. Again, the album was delayed due to legal rights, for not all of the sampled tracks had the necessary release forms accompanying them. Named in honor of her mother, Kala was issued on XL Recordings in Europe and on Interscope in the United States in August of 2007. New York Times music writer Ben Sisario gave it high marks for its range of rhythms. "The enormous drums of ‘Boyz,’ for example, were recorded in India, but the rest of the song—a Bollywood-tinged club banger about the rowdy, war-starting sex—was made in Trinidad," Sisario noted. "‘World Town’ rewrites a Baltimore hip-hop anthem for a violent third-world ghetto; the dizzyingly abstract percussion loop of ‘BirdFlu’ is spiked with Indian dhol drums and chicken squawks."

M.I.A. did manage to work with Timbaland on one track from Kala, "Come Down." As she recounted to Collins, "I played him the Wilcannia Mob track (Mango Pickle Down River) and a month later, it was on the Snoop record—the exact same didgeridoo beat. So I was like, if it's gotten to a point where I can actually influence Timbaland, as much as Timbaland can influence me, then it's all good because I can keep on fighting, and in 20 years' time I can feel satisfied that I made something I believed in and that was difficult to make at the time."

Selected discography

Arular, XL Recordings, 2005.

Kala, Interscope Records, 2007.

Sources

Periodicals

Guardian (London, England), August 18, 2007, p. 4.

New York Times, August 19, 2007.

Observer (London, England), September 4, 2005, p. 34; September 16, 2007, p. 48.

Rolling Stone, February 24, 2005; August 15, 2007.

Spin, September 7, 2007.

WWD, September 8, 2005, p. 8B.

—Carol Brennan

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