The poster child for the fusion of outspoken political views and incredible musical talent is British rapper Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, known by her stage name M.I.A.
She raps. She sings. She is an advocate for refugees, and her songs and aesthetics document the experiences of those who have been displaced throughout the world. Drawing on her own formative experiences as well as those of her family and community, M.I.A’s career has seemingly been equal parts acclaim and controversy. Her musical talent is undeniable, her political positions unequivocal. Whichever camp you fall into regarding this artist (friend or foe) her creativity and influence is beyond doubt.
M.I.A was born in 1975 in Hounslow, London to Sri Lankan parents and was exposed to the politics of her family’s homeland from an early age – her father was a political activist and founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), a political Tamil group in Sri Lanka. After being born in London, the family returned to Sri Lanka before her first birthday and she remained there until she was 11. The Sri Lankan Civil War uprooted the family numerous times and eventually, they returned to the UK as refugees. M.I.A’s empathy for those who have fled hardship and strife were cemented in these early experiences.
Her music is eclectic and experimental in sound and as such it is difficult to fit a lot of her material neatly into one specific genre as she has dabbled in alternative, dance, hip hop and various world music styles including bhangra. She began her recording career in 2002 and by 2004, she was gaining success with tracks such as ‘Galang’ (co-written with her mate Justin Frischmann of Elastica) and Sunshowers.
Her debut album Arular (2005) was named after her father’s political code name he used during his activism days- an early statement of intent from M.I.A that despite now being over 5000 miles away, her sense of both injustice and pride was palpable and would become a major theme of her work. Arular was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2005 and topped many publication’s lists of best albums of the year.
Her most well-known song remains her single Paper Planes, from her second album Kala in 2007. Sampling the riff from The Clash’s 1982 song Straight To Hell, Paper Planes was inspired by M.I.A’s issues obtaining a visa to the United States and the lyrics are a sarcastic litany of immigrant stereotypes that may be held by American authorities and citizens.
Since her debut, M.I.A. has released a further four studio albums, her latest one being AIM in 2016. She has had to field feedback that her political views have overshadowed her music but for an artist such as M.I.A, these two things are intrinsically linked. She has drawn both praise and criticism for her commentary on the oppression of Sri Lankan Tamils and was a regular on political discussion shows talking on the subject as well as challenging the oppression of other peoples such as the Palestinians. M.I.A has been forthright in her view that her music has given her an opportunity to express her political ideas and that this is a revolutionary act that the authorities fear:
“Sometimes I repeat my story again and again because it’s interesting to see how many times it gets edited, and how much the right to tell your story doesn’t exist. People reckon that I need a political degree in order to go, ‘My school got bombed and I remember it cos I was 10-years-old’. I think if there is an issue of people who, having had first hand experiences, are not being able to recount that – because there is laws or government restrictions or censorship or the removal of an individual story in a political situation – then that’s what I’ll keep saying and sticking up for, cos I think that’s the most dangerous thing. I think removing individual voices and not letting people just go ‘This happened to me’ is really dangerous. That’s what was happening … nobody handed them the microphone to say, ‘This is happening, and I don’t like it’.
Her second album Kala showcased the brevity of M.I.A’s musical influences from African folk to Brazilian Street Funk (funk carioca) and electronica and it will come as no surprise that the album was recorded across a variety of locations including India, Liberia and Jamaica. The album is named after M.I.A’s mother and the singer stated that her mother’s life experiences were the main source of inspiration for the album. The songs are about political themes related to the developing world, including illegal immigration, poverty and capitalism.
Throughout her career, M.I.A. has never been shy about expressing her views on everything from police brutality to Jeremy Corbyn to global conflicts. For her detractors, she is overly reactionary and political from the relative comfort of artistic success however, her early years were shaped by an exposure to brutality and the realities of war that the vast majority of her contemporaries would have no commensurate experience of. She has tirelessly advocated for justice for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka (she often uses tiger motifs in her work as a nod to the Tamil Tigers group); she is a critic of international borders which create divisions amongst people and exclude some from necessary resources and safety; she is a supporter of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and she is an opponent of Tory policies on austerity.
Many may not agree with 100% of her views however as some journalists have observed, M.I.A may be judged much more harshly than her male counterparts as audiences are more used to seeing men being politically agitating and provocative.
Despite being quite a controversial figure in many circles, this has not stopped her from collecting accolades like a philatelist collects stamps. She has won two MTV Video Music Awards; she was nominated for a Grammy Award and Academy Award in the same year (and was the first South Asian person to do so). Rolling Stone named her one of the defining artists of the 2000s and Time Magazine cited her as one of the most influential people of 2009. Even the stuffy British state couldn’t help but recognise her achievements and she was awarded an MBE in 2019 for her services to music.