Once in awhile we need to look beyond our own neighborhood if we wish to discover anything interesting. Such was originally the case with now-L.A. resident Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam. Born in the UK in 1975, Arulpragasam, better known by her stage name M.I.A., is a Brit rapper, singer-songwriter, record producer, director, artist and activist.
She is (musically-speaking) best known for her unique modern pop music which combines the sounds of the UK, Sri Lanka, India and Jamaica. Her original compositions blend the genres of electronic, hip-hop, alternative, dance and world music. But just how did this eclectic mix of music come about and from where did she draw her initial inspiration?
To answer that, we must explore M.I.A.’s origins. Born in London in 1975, her family moved to Sri Lanka when she was still a child. After civil war broke out there they once more relocated to India. It would not be until 1986 that the now 11 year-old M.I.A. would once more be living back in the UK.
She was back in her birthplace albeit as a war refugee and without her father who as co-founder of the revolutionary group EROS, was now a wanted man and living in hiding. While still a young girl she would listen to the radio broadcasts emanating from her neighbors’ flats in the late 1980s. She cites these numerous exposures as her earliest musical influences.
She became interested in dancehall music and hip-hop. She became especially interested in “the starkness of the sound” in records by such artists as MC Shan, Public Enemy and Ultramagnetic MCs. She also took particular notice of the “weird, distinct style” of groups such as London Posse and Silver Bullet. Oddly enough, she took some over-the-top steps to get into college.
She phoned the head of the art department at the college on numerous occasions and told him that if they did not admit her she would turn to prostitution. Eventually she was admitted and was told she “had chutzpah.” Her cut-and-paste, day-glo artwork replete with violent imagery of gas bombs, tigers and guns would eventually find their way onto her future album covers.
In college she developed a taste for punk rock as well as the newly-borning sounds of Brit-pop and electroclash. This was when she first began writing her own songs. To this day she names The Slits, Malcolm Mclaren and The Clash as major influences. She completed her studies and received a degree in art, film and video from the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
She took a job filming a documentary for the Brit-pop band Elastica and shortly after that Justine Frischmann, frontwoman of Elastica, commissioned M.I.A. to create original cover art for the band’s 2000 album, The Menace. While on the road, M.I.A. became friends with Elastica’s supporting act, electroclash artist Peaches who showed her how to use a Roland MC-505 and encouraged her to make some demos of her songs.
While on vacation together in Caribbean, M.I.A. began experimenting with Frischmann’s music sequencing machine. It was also there that she adopted her stage name, “M.I.A.”, standing for “Missing In Acton”. After returning to the UK she moved in with with Frischmann and started to work with a simple set-up consisting of “a second-hand 4-track tape machine, the 505, and a radio microphone”.
She soon completed a six track demo tape that included the songs “Lady Killa”, “M.I.A.”, and “Galang”. Naturally, her early works relied heavily on the Roland MC-505 sequencer/drum machine although she would later create music with layered textures of instruments, electronics and eclectic sound samples. In 2003 the independent label Showbiz Records put out 500 vinyl singles of “Galang”, a blend dancehall, electro, jungle, and world music.
College airplay, internet file sharing and the growing popularity of “Galang” b/w “Sunshowers” at fashion shows and in the dance clubs soon turned M.I.A. into an underground sensation the following year (2004) before she ever set foot on a stage. Stylus magazine music critic Josh Timmerman praised her as “one of the first artists to build a large fanbase exclusively” through the above-mentioned channels and as an artist who “could be studied to reexamine the internet’s impact on how listeners are exposed to new music.” A number of major record labels caught on to the popularity of “Galang”, and M.I.A. was snapped up by the indie label XL Recordings.
XL is also the label of The White Stripes and Dizzie Rascal. Their people are reputed for having a well developed eye for the unique. “Galang” was quickly re-released later that same year.
A music video was also released with the single. It featured multiple M.I.A.s against a backdrop of militaristic animated graffiti and showed scenes of urban England and war. M.I.A. served as the art-director for the video and also created the graffiti.
Her next single, “Sunshowers” now backed with “Fire Fire” soon followed. The cut concerns seeking asylum and guerrilla warfare. One critic characterized “Sunshowers” as “a portrait of religious persecution” and “Fire Fire” as a “tug-of-war battle between pop culture and guerrilla culture”.
While critics such as Nigel Williamson have said that “her sound has proved too strange for the charts”, she nevertheless gained some critical success that year with her pair of singles. She was nominated for two Grammy Awards, an Academy Award and the Mercury Prize. Her premiere platter didn’t hit the racks until the following year, 2005.
The long-delayed, debut disc was titled Arular. It was named after M.I.A.’s absentee revolutionist father whose political name was Arular. M.I.A. told the press: “My dad’s been a myth in my life. He used to come around once a year for twenty minutes at three in the morning.”
The project received critical acclaim and includes many songs about her and her father’s experiences in Jaffna. While making Arular in her London bedroom, she actually built tracks off her demos, using programmed beats. The music is a bold experiment of ambient and jarring sounds with serious lyrics concerning the Iraq War and daily life in London as well her past.
The previously-mentioned delay from 2004 until 2005 was largely because of problems with the clearance of specific samples used in the songs. In the forced interim M.I.A. put out a couple of singles and a mixtape. Its critical success however was not followed by commercial success.
The world of popular music was not yet ready for her trademark mix of genres such as Brazilian baile funk, grime, hip hop, and raga let alone the political lyrics. M.I.A. simply asked one question of the audience: “As the first Sri Lankan artist in the West, what am I supposed to sound like?” It was, however, nominated for the Mercury Prize in the UK.
The rapper Nas praised her signature sound as “the future” and “Bucky Done Gun” was the third single to be released from the record. It was the first time that a funk carioca inspired track (“Bucky Done Gun”) was played on mainstream radio and music television in Brazil where the song was born. Shortly after this, she worked with one of her female musical influences Missy Elliott, contributing the cut “Bad Man” on the 2005 album The Cookbook.
She went out on tour with such artists as LCD Soundsystem and Gwen Stefani. She would also receive other recognitions before the end of the year. Arular became the second most featured album in critics’ Year-End Top 10 lists for 2005 and was also named best of 2005 by publications such as Stylus, Blender and Musikbyrån.
2006 witnessed the recording of her second studio album Kala which was named after her mother. Unfortunately, visa complications and censorship in the United States, the album was recorded in numerous locations including, Australia, Trinidad, Liberia, Jamaica, India, Japan, and the UK. It would eventually be completed here in the U.S. and not actually hit the stores until 2007.
Kala contained cuts that include live instrumentation and layers of traditional folk and dance music genres including soca and urumee melam, rave music and even bootleg soundtracks of Tamil film tunes. The songs could be characterized as both celebratory and infused with “rawer, darker, outsider” themes, such as war, personal relationship issues and immigration politics. It was much more of a commercial success than her debut disc and reached number 18 on the Billboard 200 chart in the US and entered the top 40 of the UK Albums Chart.
The first song off the CD made available to the public was “Bird Flu” which was posted online on M.I.A.’s MySpace page. The official first single from the album, “Boyz”, which drew upon Caribbean, African and Tamil music, was also a critical success. The second single, “Jimmy”, was about genocide in Liberia.
Her breakthrough hit though was the song “Paper Planes” which was nominated for Record of the Year at the 51st Grammy Awards. The tune was even included on the soundtrack of the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire along with “O . . .Saya”, a song written specifically for the film by M.I.A. and A. R. Rahman. This song was not on Kala but was later released on her own label N.E.E.T. and was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 81st Academy Awards. In December 2007, Kala was named the best album of 2007 by both Rolling Stone and Blender magazine.
When questioned about M.I.A.’s career Richard Russell, head of XL Recordings, commented, “You’ve got to bend culture around to suit you, and I think M.I.A has done that” adding that M.I.A.’s composition and production skills were a major attraction for him. Two years ago, in 2008, The Paper Planes – Homeland Security Remixes EP was released both in stores and digitally online. Later that year M.I.A. released the How Many Votes Fix Mix EP which included a remix of her single “Boyz” featuring Jay-Z. The single “Paper Planes” became a North American top ten chart favorite.
M.I.A. was included on the People Vs. Money Tour with opening acts such as Holy Fuck and MGMT. She cancelled the final portion of her tour and announced her intention to go on hiatus. She wanted to work on other projects. The biggest that year being the founding of her own record label N.E.E.T. Recordings, an imprint of Interscope Records.
She went back into the studio to record material for her third album, Maya. It was also during this time that she co-wrote a number with Christina Aguilera. The song was titled “Elastic Love” and was for Aguilera’s upcoming Bionic CD.
The 2010 Maya – stylized as ///Y/, a typographic equivalent of M.I.A.’s legal name – was released in Japan with bonus tracks well before it would hit the shelves in any other country. This is her newest album and already is her highest charting album worldwide release to date. The actual material on this disc is very much internet-inspired.
The first official single from Maya, “XXXO”, was also released and three other tracks—“Steppin’ Up”, “Teqkilla”, and “Tell Me Why” were posted exclusively on iTunes as “promotional singles”. The music on these cuts as well as the others on the album is an eclectic mix of musical styles including reggae, R&B, alternative rock, electro, rap and Asian folk music.
A careful ear will easily detect the inter-medial and inter-textual influences of not only Tamil film music and Missy Elliot but also Beastie Boys, Lou Reed, The Pixies and London Posse. Her exposure to different countries and cultures as well as her childhood love of Michael Jackson are also evident in the way she uses dance music in her recordings. While her early cuts betray a reliance on the C-505 her current tracks show her willingness to experiment with her so-called signature sound.
As her music progresses she continues to draw on a wider range of musical genres and adds additional layers of instrumental work. She continues to include sounds and electronics that are not normally found in a traditional recording studio.
Jimmy Iovine, head of her American distribution label Interscope, considers M.I.A. to be similar to Lou Reed and Patti Smith. He told members of the press that M.I.A. is “gonna do what she’s gonna do, I can’t tell her shit.” One thing is certain; Los Angeles resident M.I.A. has become a “style icon” and is already an influential figure within the music industry.
By doing things her way, being an anti-pop star, she has already begun to inspire numerous other artists. Perhaps Iovine explains her situation best: “The really left-of-center artists, you really wonder about them. Can the world catch up? Can the culture meet them in the middle? That’s what the adventure is. It doesn’t always happen, but it should and it could.”
Can the world catch up to M.I.A.? Will culture meet her in the middle? Only time will tell.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.
A Critic’s Choice List of Songs:
“Bird Flu” off the album Kala: Birds squawk, children holler and M.I.A. is shouting above the clattering, intensifying beat. While the actual song title might lead one to believe the lyrics focus on a then timely subject, M.i.A. is well off topic with typically aggressive soundbites about “making bombs with rubber bands” in this memorable track.
“Galang” from the CD Anular: This is the early number that got her attention out on the dancefloors. It includes chanting, distorted dancehall percussion, gibberish, siren synthesizers and a bit of a rarity for the lady: a truly catchy tune.