Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam (born July 17, 1977) better known by her stage name M.I.A., is a British songwriter, record producer, vocalist and visual artist of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. Her music encompasses various genres she has expressed interest in, with lyrics that voice politics, social realism and humour. Her artwork and clothes feature similar topics and have distinctive, often vibrant color schemes.
An accomplished visual artist by 2002, she came to prominence in early 2004 through file-sharing of her singles "Galang" and "Sunshowers" on the Internet. In 2005, her debut album, Arular, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Her second album, Kala, was released in 2007. Her single "Paper Planes" was particularly commercially successful in 2008.
In addition to her work as a graphic designer, providing artwork and photography for releases and as a director of music videos, she has also experimented with documentary film and in 2008 released a collection of her fashion designs.
Arulpragasam has an older sister, Kali Arulpragasam, and a younger brother, Sugu. Due to the conflict, the first years of her life were spent moving from home to home. Contact with her father was strictly limited, as she says he was in hiding from the Sri Lanka Army. As the civil war escalated, it became unsafe for the family to stay in Sri Lanka, so they relocated to Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, moving into a derelict house, with sporadic visits from her father. Later resettling in Jaffna again, the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka deteriorated further and the family once again tried to flee the country. Eventually, Arulpragasam, her two siblings and mother Kala moved back to London where they were housed as refugees. It was in the late '80s, on a council estate in Mitcham (South London), that Arulpragasam began to learn English. Arulpragasam speaks English and the Tamil language fluently.
Arulpragasam graduated from London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, with a degree in fine art, film and video. She currently lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York in the US and is reportedly engaged to Benjamin Brewer, singer and guitarist for the band The Exit.
Arulpragasam's first public exhibition of paintings in 2001 at the Euphoria Shop in Portobello, London, featured candy coloured spray paint and stencil pictures of the Tamil rebellion movement. It included graffitied tigers and palm trees mixed with orange, green and pink camouflage, bombs, guns and fighters on chip board off-cuts and canvases. The show was nominated for the Alternative Turner Prize, (Jude Law was among early buyers of her art) and a monograph book of the collection was published by Pocko, simply titled M.I.A..
The Publication's back cover reads:
During her time in film school, she cites "radical cinema - Harmony Korine and Dogme 95" as some of her cinematic inspirations, and having written a script, was approached by John Singleton to work on a film in LA. Additionally Arulpragasam expressed an early interest in fashion and textiles, (her mother is a seamstress), designing confections of "bright flourescent fishnet fabrics", and was a roommate of fashion designer Luella Bartley. In July 2008, she showcased some designs in a short video she made called Real Pirates of the Caribbean starring Okley Leslie, which she posted on her official website. Clothes from her limited edition "Okley Run" line - Mexican and Afrika jackets and leggings, Islamic hoodies as well as tour-inspired designs including "People Vs. Money Tour Tees" and "KALA Tour Tees" (T-shirts) - were sold in September 2008 at fashion week Opening Ceremony shops in LA and New York in the US, and through her webstore. As of 2008, the song "Paper Planes" was featured in the trailer for the film Pineapple Express starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.
A mix of dancehall, electro, jungle, and world music, Showbiz Records pressed 500 copies of the independent vinyl single "Galang" in 2003 which became popular and made an immediate impact with DJs. In 2004, file sharing and airplay on college radio of songs like "Galang" and "Sunshowers", with the fast propagation of them in clubs and around the Internet by word-of-mouth made her a household name to international music listeners before she had graced a stage, leading commentators to herald her as one of the first successful examples of doing so, who could be used to study and reexamine the impact of the internet on the way listeners listened to and were exposed to new music. Major record labels caught onto the popularity of "Galang" and M.I.A. eventually signed to XL Recordings as she felt at the time they were the only label to offer her complete creative control. She also chose them because it was the closest to her house, telling the label, "Trust me, you've been looking for me", before dropping off the "Galang" tape. They called her back soon after.
"Galang" was re-released in 2004. The accompanying music video for the song, featuring multiple M.I.A.’s amid a backdrop of her militaristic graffiti artwork animated and brought to life, was art directed by M.I.A., depicting scenes of urban Britain and war. Her next single "Sunshowers," released on July 5, 2004, and its B-side "Fire Fire", described guerrilla warfare and asylum seeking, with one reviewer characterizing the former as "a portrait of religious persecution" and the latter as a "tug-of-war battle between pop culture and guerilla culture." A video was made for the track, which she filmed in the jungles of South India. She also collaborated with Richard X and Diplo, a Philadelphian, who was coincidentally playing "Galang" as she entered the Fabric Club in London to meet him. She travelled to work on the production of her composition "M.I.A.", with him. Remixing, sampling and mashing up the tracks on Arular, they eventually created the mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, released December 2004. The mixtape followed the success of her two earlier released singles "Galang" and "Sunshowers" increasing anticipation for her album on the blogosphere and elsewhere.
Originally completed and ready for release in September 2004, Arular's release was delayed over several months, with pushed back dates of release between December 2004 and February 2005 mentioned. Prior to the LP's release, Arulpragasam made her North American debut at the Drake Hotel in Toronto in February, 2005, pulling in a diverse crowd. Receiving a response described as "phenomenal", attendees already knew many of her songs.
Arulpragasam's debut album Arular was eventually released worldwide in March 2005 to universal critical acclaim. Composing and titling the album Arular in acknowledgment of her and her father's past, much of its focus lay in experimentation. Consisting of bold, jarring and ambient sounds, complimentary lyrics on Arular were both observational and reflective of her experiences of identity politics, indie culture, popular culture, poverty, revolution, war and with the working class, exemplified by songs such as "Amazon", "Fire Fire" and "M.I.A.". Its themes, use of culture-jamming, multi-lingual slang, and its mix of strident and elusive imagery, social commentary and storytelling incited debate.
Arulpragasam was first exposed to Western radio in London, hearing broadcasts emanating from her neighbours' flats in the late '80s. Her liking for hip-hop and dancehall developed from there, finding a common identity with "the starkness of the sound" of Public Enemy, records by MC Shan, Ultramagnetic MCs and the "weird, distinct style" of acts such as Silver Bullet and London Posse. Her time at college shaped her affinity for punk, the emerging sound of Britpop alt-rock and electroclash, after which she began writing songs. She has spoken of the large influence musicians The Slits, Malcolm Mclaren and The Clash had on her living in West London.
Making Arular in her bedroom in West London, she built tracks off her demos with programmed beats she wrote on the 505. Her work attracted artists such as the rapper Nas, who by early 2005 stated, "Her sound is the future." Following "Galang" and "Sunshowers," she later released her third single from Arular, the funk carioca-inspired co-composition "Bucky Done Gun" in July 2005. Arulpragasam performed through 2005 supporting her album at South by South West, at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which drew a strongly favourable response and an unusually large crowd for the billing she played, the Manhattan club S.O.B.s, the Bue Festival, a free headlining show at Central Park Summerstage, the Glastonbury Festival, Reading Festival and the Summer Sonic Fest as well as at other venues. She also toured with Roots Manuva and LCD Soundsystem. She appeared on the track "Bad Man" on Missy Elliott’s 2005 album The Cookbook.
On July 19, 2005, M.I.A. was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize for Arular. In December, Arular was the second most featured album in music critics’ Year-End Top 10 lists for 2005, and named best of 2005 by publications such as Blender, Stylus and Musikbyrån. M.I.A. ended 2005 briefly touring with Gwen Stefani and the Big Day Out festival.
In 2006 M.I.A. wrote and recorded her second studio album, Kala, named after her mother. Following censorship controversies and documented U.S. visa problems in 2006, Kala was worked on while M.I.A. travelled through several locations including India, Trinidad, Liberia, Jamaica, Australia, Japan, the UK and US, using more diverse live instrumentation and brash colours for heavier textures, and layering, whilst exploring traditional dance and folk styles such as soca and dappan koothu (in songs such as "Boyz") and rave culture and music (in "XR2") among many others. The unconventional recording sessions brought out, as did her artwork and photography for the album, both the celebratory and the "rawer, darker, outsider" themes that were felt to have run through Kala. The album also saw her re-embrace bootleg soundtracks of the film music of India from her childhood. Arulpragasam wrote songs about immigration politics, her personal relationships and war. Taking Switch on her travels to collaborate with her, she made songs and videos such as "Hit That" and "Bird Flu" available on her internet accounts, official website and for digital download. M.I.A. featured in the song "Come Around", a bonus track on Timbaland's 2007 album Shock Value and a track on Kala. Before her second album's release, Arulpragasam confronted the public media, citing some journalists over-attributing work on her debut album to her male collaborators. Released on June 11, 2007 , "Boyz’," music video was co-directed by Jay Will and M.I.A. and the album's second single "Jimmy," followed (about a genocide tour date invite Arulpragasam received whilst in Liberia) .
General acclaim met Kala's release in August 2007. Arulpragasam’s 2007 tour in support of Kala, included a show at Studio B in Brooklyn in July 2007, Lollapalooza, the Gloria Theatre in Germany, the Arena of Nîmes supporting Björk, Rock en Seine and Get Loaded in the Park - a festival gig that drew a crowd sing-along pitch described in a review as "near hysterical. M.I.A. performed at the Electric Picnic, Connect, the Virgin Festivals, the Osheaga Festival, Austin City Limits, at the opening of the Terminal 5 club in New York and Parklife among other gigs. M.I.A. ended 2007 with a mini-tour of venues in the UK. Supporting acts throughout her tour included Rye Rye, Santogold, The Cool Kids, Soko, Radioclit and Buraka Som Sistema. She provides guest vocals on their kuduro song "Sound of Kuduro."
Arulpragasam revealed in December 2006 that she revisited Liberia to meet war-affected people there including ex-child soldiers and featured in a "4Real" TV-Series documentary on the post war situation in the country with activist Kimmie Weeks. In a video documentary for Vbs.tv in 2007, M.I.A. and director Spike Jonze visit Afrikan Boy in his immigrant neighborhood of Woolwich, South London. In the documentary, M.I.A spoke of the possibility of launching her own record label entitled Zig-Zag, with Afrikan Boy’s track "Lidl" being the first release.
In December 2007, Kala was named the best album of 2007 by publications including Rolling Stone and Blender. M.I.A. was also included on USA Today's "100 Most Interesting People of 2007". M.I.A. released Paper Planes - Homeland Security Remixes EP digitally on February 11, 2008. In early 2008, M.I.A. DJed at the Marc Jacobs fashion show after party, and modelled for "Marc by Marc Jacobs" in Spring/Summer 2008.
M.I.A proved popular at the annual Experience Music Project's Pop Conference held in Seattle, USA in April 2008, with paper submissions and discussions on her and her work presented on the theme of "Shake, Rattle: Music, Conflict, and Change."
M.I.A. toured during the first half of 2008, with opening tourmates including Holy Fuck, before stating she would end touring in support of Kala, cancelling her European tour dates through June and July, opting to start on a new album. Stating "This is my last show, and I'm glad I'm spending it with all my hippies," M.I.A performed a set at the Bonnaroo Music Festival.
Asked in 2005 if she was always political, M.I.A. referenced her political development. "I think I was always slightly political but my issues change with what’s going on in my life. Politics is something that I’ve never been able to discuss with anyone and everyone…my life in England for the first ten years wasn’t really political. It was more about getting an equal shot as the next person. I wanted a shot at an education…politics came back to me after I went back to Sri Lanka. Once I studied and wanted to be a filmmaker, I tried to make a documentary on what it was like to be a young person in Sri Lanka. I wanted to make a film that could compare the 19-year-olds in Sri Lanka. That’s when I came across so much politics.
M.I.A. has expressed discontent with the formula for the War on Terror and its global impact. "You can't separate the world into two parts like that, good and evil... America has successfully tied all these pockets of independence struggles, revolutions, and extremists into one big notion of terrorism."
M.I.A. talks about the relationship between first and third world countries and the differences that exist between them, as well as the similarities. "It's O.K. to add new elements to your ideas, to your existence," Arulpragasam says. "There will be more bridges built between the developed and developing world." M.I.A. has included numerous artists from developed and developing countries in her music. "Why don't we ever get to, like, actually hear people talk on TV? Why don't we ever get to hear the starving African kids say something or do something or sing something or express something? We show them but they don't have a voice.