The Evolution of... M.I.A.
From small-town beginnings, she became a dominating trans-global force of creativity. This is how it happened.
Remember when “Paper Planes” propped up stoner comedy film trailers and sport montages and everyone was treating M.I.A. like she was just this new thing that appeared rather than a totemic cultural figure who’d spent over a decade grafting through war zones, bourgeois music circles, tabloid frontlines, and political exile? Her story shouldn’t be skirted over. So here we retrace the evolution of M.I.A., from small-town beginnings to an unlikely global icon: a pop star responsible for radio bangers; an anti-style icon with a conscience; a terrorism relativist; a dominating trans-global force of creativity. M.I.A. has thrown the finger to middle America, supported Wikileaks, worn pants capable of inducing epileptic fits, and collaborated with some of the most innovative in the international underground. But before all that, there was Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam.
GROWING UP ACROSS THE GLOBE WITH A DIAL-UP CONNECTION
It’s well documented that Maya’s Dad was a Tamil loyalist in Sri Lanka, and founder of Eros, a student body which campaigned during the 70s and 80s for a separate Tamil state. Maya was born in Britain, but her father took the family back to Sri Lanka when she was just six months old so that he could help fight for Tamil independence. Picking up scraps of clothing from her seamstress mother’s table—“because what fell on the floor was mine”—and surrounded by the errant bullets of civil war, the prominent parts of M.I.A.’s future soundboard started to form.
Her career has been peppered with pushback against the Sri Lankan government. She has frequently tried to expose their wrongdoing, claiming that they’re guilty of the genocide of local Tamils. Her Glastonbury performance in 2014 featured t-shirts protesting against Tamil deportation. Yet despite a shared cause, she hasn’t spoken to her father much since childhood, since his role within the Tamil Tigers forced the family to flee Sri Lanka and return to London in 1986, where they lived in hostels and council flats (the UK equivalent of the government housing). Returning to the UK in a single parent family, the Arulpragasms found themselves the Sri Lankan filling of a Irish-Jamaican projects sandwich.
She told Time Out:
“I was 10 years old and I didn’t know anything about punk or hip-hop. The only words I knew in English were “dance” and “Michael Jackson.” We got put in a flat in Mitchum and the council gave us second hand furniture, second hand clothes and a second hand radio that I took to bed with me every night. There was a black family on one side and an Irish family on the other. Between them and the radio I got to hear London Posse, who were the best of British hip-hop and had a really original flow and fresh beats that made me feel good, and The Clash, who were also really important for me and for London. Then the Irish family nicked my radio while I was at school.”
The Clash - "Straight To Hell’" which was later sampled in "Paper Planes."
Maya wanted to go to esteemed London art school, Central St. Martins, but she didn’t have the right qualifications. She told them that if they didn’t let her in she would “go and be a hooker in King's Cross and make a film about it and come back in three years time and be like, 'This is what happened to me when I got rejected by Saint Martins.'” Amazingly that seemed to do the trick. She paid for her studying by working in a call center.
Saint Martins and it’s culturally influential intake of artists, free thinkers and party kids changed her life. Maya became a regular on the then-thriving warehouse party scene. She told Time Out of one particularly big night out:
“The moment we walked in we found this wallet that was just like something in a movie—no ID, just loads of money and loads of drugs, every colored pill you could think of. You know I like colors! It was like finding a bag of beads. We took some, didn’t think it had worked, and just kept going through the colors. Then everything happened at once. The next day I didn’t remember a thing. All I knew was waking up in a house in Caledonian Road and my shoes had no heels. It was just such debauchery.”
M.I.A.’s artistic streak was recognized early on, especially her acid-pink graffiti stencils depicting civil unrest in Sri Lanka which caught the eye of Justine Frischmann, who was looking for someone to see Elastica through the transformation from Britpop babes to post-millennial punks. By 2001, M.I.A. had become the “de facto visual director” for Elastica, showing off early stylistic traits in the band’s video for “Mad Dog God Dam” (below). Her efforts were aptly described by Stuart Berman for Pitchfork as “mediating between rock-star bustle and street-level hustle” and are an early mood board of the copy and paste, DIY approach that would soon become her own. One night while Elastica were on tour in Canada, they all ended up at a Peaches show. Peaches was already closing her shows with soon-to-be “Fuck The Pain Away,” throwing the mic among the crowd during the songs climatic chorus. On this night, Maya grabbed the baton and started screaming profanities. This was her first public performance.
Elastica - "Mad Dog God Damn."
As Elastica disbanded, the group’s lead singer Justine Frischmann encouraged M.I.A. to make her own beats on a Roland MC 505 picked up from a holiday in the Caribbean. “People always said, ‘You look like you could make music, you dance like you could, but it’s clear that you’re really tone deaf’.” Maya told Spin in 2008. So, taking Justine’s advice, and ignoring everyone else's, she started experimenting in her bedroom. The result? A six-track demo that included “Galang,” a track held by many to be M.I.A.’s startling entrance to the music industry, and it helped her sign to the legendary XL Recordings.
DATING DIPLO, DROPPING MIXTAPES AND BIRTHING HER DEBUT ALBUMThe M.I.A. sound was an amalgamation of London-esque slang laced with political inference via the street beats of a thousand different developing world countries. It didn't fit into a music scene nursing its millennium hangover, so M.I.A. searched out a contemporary which she found in Diplo. Physically her opposite but creatively her equal, Thomas Wesley Pentz was the global voyeur that Maya needed.
“Besides me being a white dude from Florida and her being a Sri Lankan girl in England, everything else was the same: [We were both] film graduates, [listened to] all the same music when we were kids, were going in the same direction right now in music, it was amazing,” he told Pitchfork in 2005.
The pair had met at London’s Fabric nightclub where, coincidentally, Diplo was playing “Galang” to a horde of sweating teenagers. He’d also picked up another track—“Fire Fire”—from a someone at i-D Magazine which played as Maya strolled into the club. The pair soon struck up a romantic attachment which bore more than shared moments in the solitude of night. They recorded a mixtape, titled Piracy Funds Terrorism, which was distributed at live shows and online, that served as an entree for the early internet hype beasts. Piracy Funds Terrorism utilized an online community that Diplo had long courted with his involvement in the Hollerboard, a proto private Facebook group for music snobs. Featuring Maya’s vocals over samples lifted from Madonna, Kraftwerk, and Eurythmics, it was well executed foreplay for Arular, her now long awaited debut, and proved a curious yet insatiable first effort.
As music bloggers continued to cream over her careless sampling layered with socio-political undertones, M.I.A. dropped Arular, released on XL, in March 2005. Named after her father’s Tamil codename in a hope that he would one day Google himself and discover his daughter’s creative opus (he did, and Maya later recounted to the Guardian: "it irritates me that I end up giving him so much attention when he had so little to do with my life"), the album pieced together a lifetime of inspiration. Its DIY ethos cast aspersions on the ethics of punk music, though its sharp sampling of bhangra and dancehall flavored beats, placed it firmly in the 21st century. And it still bangs harder than the beats put out by every “bedroom producer” living in the world of instantaneous internet access and Soundcloud.
THE TRANSATLANTIC SUCCESS AND TRIBULATIONS OF GOING GLOBAL
Diplo couldn’t get on board with the transatlantic success of Arular and their relationship soured. Recalling the time in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, M.I.A said: “Missy Elliott called me for the first time in 2005 to work with me on her record, and I'm sure we had a massive fight about that… I wish I enjoyed it because I had this person on my shoulder the whole time saying, ‘It's shit, it's shit, it's shit. You shouldn't be on the charts.’” It seemed like a case of supportive boyfriend getting protective, jealous, and insecure once the plaudits start rolling in. Obviously, Diplo has gone on to have a subversive career in which he stayed resolutely underground never once dipping his toe into chart-friendly production.
After spending a summer playing festivals—in which she received a rare encore during her Coachella set—and touring with the likes of Gwen Stefani and LCD Soundsystem, the wheels were quickly set in motion for Kala, M.I.A.’s sophomore record. Now signed to Interscope in the US, Kala, named for her mother, was to be a stiltedly international affair. She was sporadically prevented from entering the US due to visa complications, and it was recorded instead in India, Liberia, and Trinidad.
“When I started recording a song in India, say 'Boyz.' I recorded the drums in India, then I had the files in Trinidad. We put it together and did the vocals in Trinidad, and then we did some extra work on it in Brooklyn, and then we went back to India and did some extra extra work,” she told The Village Voice in 2007. “Boyz,” a tri-blend of influences, became an instant dance track smash with a ludicrously vibrant video to match. Styled by the godmother of new rave fashion, Cassette Playa, it was filmed in Jamaica after gaining a heap of popularity as a club track in Kingston (“it got everybody to turn up”).
Incorporating British fashion, Jamaican dancers, and an entirely otherworldly vibe, “Boyz” was color in cardiac arrest, launching a thousand spin offs. Even Diplo would later accuse Rihanna of copying it in “Rude Boi,” mixing a characteristically coy mash-up to emphasize his point. M.I.A was trailblazing.
As the work on Kala came to an end, M.I.A. returned to the United States. In an interview with The Village Voice, she painted a glorious image of the meetings that Interscope had set up on her behalf. “Will.i.am and Pharrell and Timbaland were all in one room, and I was just coming from India, working in a little studio with cockroaches and little kids using my blank CDs as frisbees and shit. And then I sat in a million-pound studio with T.I. and Britney next door.”
Thankfully neither Pharrell nor will.i.am landed on the album. Timbaland, however, lent his hand to “Come Around,” a bonus track with the weight of expectation bringing it down. Made in a day and obviously on Timb’s terms, Maya explained to The Village Voice why the collaboration became a footnote. “By the time that our paths met, Timbaland had already been Timbaland and done all the cool weird shit. He's sampled babies and cows and things, and I was making tracks sampling chickens. And he was like, ‘I'm done being cool; I want to work with Celine Dion.’"
“Boyz” and “Come Around” are the sound of evolution: an artist growing and utilizing opportunities to make another critically and commercially lauded record, without losing the DNA that made Maya Arulpragasm into M.I.A. In an early documentary, VBS creative director Spike Jonze traveled with M.I.A around London, meeting friends and collaborators in the wake of Kala’s release. She dissects tracks including “Paper Planes” as she dances around her protégée Afrikan Boy’s apartment. She tells Jonze that “it’s about making visas” as she and Afrikan Boy pull shapes with barely any room to move. There was no knowledge of what was to come.
THE INTERNATIONAL SUPERSTAR
After Kala’s release, “Paper Planes” was picked up by the biggest distributors possible: Hollywood and Kanye West. Used on the trailer for James Franco’s cheese’n’cheetos frat party epic, Pineapple Express, and then on the Kanye-produced blockbuster “Swagga Like Us,” which featured Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I, “Paper Planes” became inescapable.
It earned a Grammy nomination, and a heavily pregnant M.I.A. joined Kanye and friends to perform it live at the ceremony. Wearing a Henry Holland dress that left nothing to the imagination, 2008 became the year that Maya had officially conquered the world, becoming the only person ever to be nominated for a Mercury Prize, a Brit, a Grammy, and an Oscar. But she bowed out of the Oscar performance, due to the birth of her son with her then fiancé, Ben Bronfman.
With a slew of nominations behind her and millions of records sold worldwide, Maya’s lifestyle had changed significantly. Gone were the days of country-hopping to record in studios where children played outside in the dirt, and her third album was recorded in the LA home she shared with Bronfman, a musician whose own family held the keys to the Warner Music Group.
It was inevitable that her creative process would change, though she refused to be swept along with a tide that could have easily carried into a realm of emotionless hits. Instead, she invested time into her record label, N.E.E.T. music, signing a visual artist, Jaime Martinez, with whom she created an early incarnation of the gif—featuring #onfleek artwork, rather than today’s arrangement of Netflix-era TV shows with an easily quotable slice of text.
M.I.A. became an official figure of controversy after her decision to collaborate with the French director, Romain Gavras, on “Born Free.” It was her most visual attempt at making the unspeakable inescapable. The video, which was nine minutes long and shot in the desert, depicted the extra-judicial killing of Tamil males she had uploaded three months prior to her Twitter feed, by showing the rounding up and killing of a group of red-haired children by an armed militia. Released without her label’s knowledge, the video was promptly banned from YouTube and television stations, and she became an icon of controversy.
GINGER GENOCIDES, TWEETING PHONE NUMBERS, AND GIVING MIDDLE FINGERS
Representational of several —the unspoken genocide in Sri Lanka, immigration in Arizona, the mistreatment of prisoners abroad—“Born Free” is symbolic of an M.I.A. who’d graduated from the school of bright, gratuitous colors, switching up her talking point tactics to something shocking beyond eye-strain. She responded to the criticism of “Born Free” by redirecting back to wider realities, saying how “fascinated” she was by the reaction. “I think it's interesting how we react to fiction and how we react to realism on the internet... this is mainstream media, I wish I was talking about way more underground theories, but [I'm] not, this is just me digesting what I see in the mainstream,” she told MTV News. The new Justin Bieber video is “more of an assault to my eyes and senses than what I've made,” she would later tell NME.
"XXXO."Although Romain Gavras went on to continue the ginger-genocide in his feature length film Our Day Will Come, the digital world seemed to no longer work in M.I.A.’s favour. Her mistrust of it became the subject of /\/\ /\ Y /\, her third album. Stylized as un-googleable concept (try searching for it), the record sounds trapped where its predecessors are free. It’s claustrophobic and intense, with tracks screaming through their CAPS LOCK’d typography. Industrial sounding and shackled, even /\/\ /\ Y /\‘s attempt at pop pastiche “XXXO” is coated with cynicism.
It was received well, its mistrusting theme as fascinating as had come to be expected from such an outspoken artist, though it wasn’t rated as favorably as its predecessors. Would-be fans were likely put off further by a now infamous interview with the New York Times, where Maya was called out for her fickle politics and tastes that didn’t seem to fit with someone’s branded version of a “freedom fighter." The article—and Maya's decision to eat truffle fries while asserting her outsider status—caused a media shitstorm. Maya’s response to the article was to tweet the journalist’s phone number. The magazine retracted quotes, admitting some had been taken out of context, but the damage had been done: M.I.A. was now a controversial celebrity first, artist second, and shifting public's perception of her would become a mammoth undertaking. With the truffle-gate trailing her wherever she traipsed, M.I.A. happily nailed her own coffin shut using just her middle finger.
Exchanging the word “shit” for flipping the bird while performing at the Super Bowl 2010, she was slapped with a multi-million dollar lawsuit. She’d angered Madonna, the Super Bowl, and the family values-loving population of the States whose annual helping of big budget showmanship had been replaced with a deftly placed middle digit. Music was put on the back burner, with her only release in the next three years a mixtape, Vicki Leekx, released on New Year’s Eve, 2010. It was a final sigh for 2010, a flippant final middle finger throw up to a year that ground her down to nothing more than a troublemaker.
THE REBIRTH OF MATHANGI AND THE FUTUREM.I.A.’s most recent record Matangi returned to world town for inspiration. Recorded after finding relief from her inspiration slump in India, M.I.A. had returned to old faithful’s like Switch to help her record, revisiting India to research and reinvent. Named for the Hindu Goddess of music and learning, and her own middle name, Matangi carries with it an airiness lost in the claustrophobic curtain twitching of /\/\ /\ Y /\. A slight calm after a hurricane, her face emblazoned the front: M.I.A. had returned.
The album’s lead single, “Bad Girls,” is a potent return. First heard on Vicki Leekx, Maya waited two years to release it properly, and when it arrived in 2012, it came with a video that placed her firmly back into public consciousness as one of the most original visual artists of the 21st century. I mean, f’real. The video features MIA rapping from a car riding through the Morrocan desert on just its two right wheels. What more could you want?
Premiered on Noisey with a Q&A on her new album, Maya described Matangi as a culmination of her first three records. In a painful Hot 97 interview she speaks about how it’s “unifying loads of concepts”—piecing together a jigsaw of self-discovery that made her a woman able to deal with the flatulent questions thrown at her by the likes of Peter Rosenberg. Sharply aware, but still playing ball, MIA had come out of the 00s a grown woman.
It’s been a quiet two years since the release of Matangi. Last month saw her first solo material since 2013. “Can See Can Do” is no doubt a precursor to new material—perhaps summer will see the fifth wave of M.I.A. Let’s hope so. Until then I’m blasting “Galang” until my ears bleed rainbows.
Tamara Roper is on Twitter.