Pin It

Your ultimate guide to M.I.A.

As the rapper prepares to release her new, possibly final album AIM, we take a look at why she’s one of the most agenda-setting artists of our time

TextVivian YeungIllustrationMax Rawlins

M.I.A. has many talents – rapper, producer, visual artist, activist, model, and fashion designer. Born Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam, M.I.A. first appeared on the music scene dressed in bright colours and clashing prints, making multicultural DIY electro-punk with a punk attitude. Across five albums she’s proved herself to be a force to be reckoned with musically, but also one that has wrapped politics up with her music since day one. She’s highlighted issues from the refugee crisis to international genocide to internet surveillance in her work, and it’s this continuous fervour for addressing these issues with her self-built platform that causes her to be such a fascinating, agenda-setting artist – as well as one that courts controversy. She’s been taken to court for flipping the bird on live TV, boycotted by Afropunk attendees, and allegedly told to “fuck off” by Oprah. The press have painted her as a terrorist sympathiser, and she’s had death threats aimed at her son.

The notorious rapper is set to release her latest album AIM, which will reportedly be her last, on September 9. Even before its release it courted controversy: its release date was only established after she threatened to leak the album due to her record label’s constant delays, and the “Borders” video was criticised by Emirates. Before its release, we looked back on the career of one of modern pop music’s boldest and most unique artists.


M.I.A’s universally acclaimed debut album Arular was named after her father, who took on the name ‘Arular’ when he joined the Tamil independence movements. Released in 2005, the album was recorded in M.I.A.’s bedroom in west London on a Roland MC-505 groovebox that she borrowed from Justine Frischmann, frontwoman of British band Elastica, after the two became friends (and later collaborators) at an Air concert in 1999. Besides featuring hits like “Galang”, Arular addresses themes of poverty (“Pull Up The People” and “10 Dollar”), the Iraq war (“Sunshowers”), frustration with the music industry, drugs, police, and gender and sexual stereotypes. “Arular was a really good look at the other kind of part of the world, full of people working against that,” M.I.A. told Rolling Stone on the tenth anniversary of the album, “We wanted more colour, more culture, more liberalism and we wanted more celebrations. We wanted discussions.”


The Romain Gavras-directed video for the lead single of M.I.A.’s third album Maya was banned from YouTube due to its graphic scenes. The video calls to attention the issue of genocide happening elsewhere in the world that isn’t recognised or reported by western media channels: shot in California, it portrays genocide against red-haired adolescents. Despite the controversy, the singer defended the video. “I have seen way more shocking and intense things on YouTube,” she told Dazed in 2010, “We saw Saddam Hussein being hung on YouTube and during the end of the war in Sri Lanka, the army tortured and mutilated people and celebrated by putting up horrific videos on YouTube. Coming from that political place, there is some confusion about censorship. But when it comes from a creative place there seems to be more of a hoo-ha about it, which is really strange.”


M.I.A. studied at Central Saint Martins, graduating with a degree in video, fine art, and film in 2001. She infamously blagged her way in by saying that if they didn’t give her a place at the institution, she would turn to sex work instead – recognising the rebellion in her, the institution gave her a place. “All the creative people who were running the world at the time, like Alexander McQueen and the sensationalist artists, were from London, and I just blagged it in with no qualifications,” she once told Time Out, “There was that feeling of people being really creative ‘cos they had no money – like Matthew (Stone, the artist and Saint Martins graduate) who started Wowow! in New Cross, all these Super Super Kids wearing washing powder boxes ‘cos they were skint.” She has also been critical of her time there, however, telling Arthur Magazine, “(Students there were) exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualising... It missed the whole point of art representing society. Social reality didn’t really exist there; it just stopped at theory.”


Diplo helped M.I.A. produce her first album, and the two later became a couple. By all accounts it was a tumultuous relationship: “Every time we had a fight, we made good music after,” Diplo has said. M.I.A. has said that Diplo urged her to remain underground, and became jealous of her success. “When I got signed by Interscope, he literally smashed my hotel room and broke all the furniture because he was so angry I got picked up by a major label and it was the corniest thing in the world that could possibly happen,” she told Rolling Stone, “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. You shouldn’t be in the magazines and you should not be going to interviews. You should not be doing collaborations with famous people’.” However, they appear to have since reconciled, with the two of them sharing images together on social media.


Although she is estranged from her father, Arular’s work with the Tamil minorities has greatly affected the singer’s life, being the catalyst for her immigration to the UK. Arular was the founder of the Eelan Revolutionary Organisation of Student – otherwise known as EROS – which campaigned for a separate Tamil state. When she was a child, Arular was introduced to M.I.A. as her uncle rather than her father in order to protect her from Sri Lankan government officials, who would ask her whether she’s seen her father.


There have been a few instances where M.I.A. has publicly challenged sexism. In the single “Bad Girls” she highlights the issue of women not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia (in the video, women dance beside cars and ride in them along to the catchy mantra: “Live fast, die young / Bad girls do it well”). She’s also criticised journalists who attributed the success of her early work to Diplo. “I find it kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female, or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed,” she told Pitchfork in 2007.


“Galang” became M.I.A.’s breakout song when it was re-released as the lead single to her debut album. It was the second song she recorded on the Roland groovebox that she borrowed from housemate Justine Frischmann, and was originally written for Elastica until Frischmann convinced M.I.A. to record it herself. Its video, directed by Ruben Fleischer with art direction by M.I.A., places stencils of tigers, tanks, grenades, and palm trees alongside lyrical references to weed, paranoia, war and the police. The word ‘galang’ itself comes from Jamaican patois – it means ‘go off’.


When M.I.A. performed alongside Madonna and Nicki Minaj at the Super Bowl Halftime show in 2012, the camera caught a moment of her flipping her middle finger at the camera. She later explained that it was in response to sexism in sport: “The way females fit into those cultures is simply as sex objects,” she told ES Magazine, “You either get passed around the players, or you’re a cheerleader. It’s hard for a musician to relate to that... Nobody wants to upset the status quo, but then the status quo doesn’t change unless someone upsets it.” However, M.I.A. was taken to court for four years by the NFL, later explaining that the middle finger is a yoga position named after the Hindu goddess Matangi, who M.I.A. shares her name with.


M.I.A.’s views on the internet have been divided – she was one of the first artists to become successful after uploading her demos on to Myspace back in 2002, but one particular concern that has driven her later work is online security. Her third studio album Maya (stylised as ΛΛ Λ Y Λ to avoid Google search detections) concerns itself with government surveillance through the internet. “Everyone is fucking you up behind the screens,” she told the NME, “and I don’t like that. It makes it difficult for me to interact with my fans knowing that. Google and Facebook were developed by the CIA... Governments can shift their search engines so only what they want you to see comes up.” In an interview with Clash, she further clarified: “I know that because I was following what was happening in Sri Lanka and two days after the war if you Google searched it there was no word of the civil war.”


While her father was involved with Tamil activist groups, M.I.A. briefly moved to Jaffna, the capital of northern Sri Lanka, which was predominantly Tamil. However, this was a temporary resettlement as the Sri Lankan Civil War escalated and conditions worsened. Attempting to flee several times, the family – minus M.I.A.’s father – fled to India, before heading to London.


Continuing the theme established with her first album title, M.I.A.’s second album Kala is named after her mother. Due to the political nature of her debut album, in 2006 the rapper allegedly found herself temporarily on the US Homeland Security Risk List. Complications with getting a travel visa in the US led to Kala being recorded in several areas around the globe, including the UK, India, Trinidad, Liberia, Jamaica, and Japan. The album is darker than her first, with themes exploring immigration, politics, and personal relationships, and incorporates new styles into her avant-pop style with Tamil soundtracks, rave, and folk.


In 2010, M.I.A. briefly had some beef with Lady Gaga. “(Lady Gaga) models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna,” she told the NME, “but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza music, you know? She’s not progressive, but she’s a good mimic. She sounds more like me than I fucking do!” However, she’s since made peace with Gaga by inviting her, over Twitter, to a visit with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Lady Gaga surprisingly turned up, and the two made peace on their Twitter accounts.


Besides playing on her own name Maya, M.I.A.’s stage name stands for both ‘Missing In Action’ and ‘Missing In Acton’. At the time she devised it, her cousin had gone missing. “M.I.A. came to be because of my missing cousin,” she wrote in a 2010 book of her visual art, “I wanted to make a film about where he was since he was M.I.A. (Missing in Action) in Sri Lanka. We were the same age, went to the same schools growing up. I was also living in Acton at the time. So I was living in Acton looking for my cousin missing in action.”


M.I.A. founded N.E.E.T. Recordings back in 2008 under her parent label Interscope. N.E.E.T. stands for ‘Not in Education, Employment, or Training’, an acronym used to in a UK government paper to describe youth unemployment that since took on negative connotations in the mainstream press. The label’s aim was to seek out fresh, underground talent, releasing music by Sleigh Bells, Blaqstarr, Rye Rye, and the visual artist Jaime Martinez. In August 2012, the label stopped updating their Twitter account, diverting messages to M.I.A.’s personal account instead. In 2013, Matangi, her fourth studio album, was released through N.E.E.T. Recordings. The label stopped updating their Twitter in 2012, and mostly appears to be defunct now.


The singer has had some beef with Oprah Winfrey. The pair have been pictured together at a party and upon meeting Oprah, the singer urged her to think about terrorism in Tamil. M.I.A. explained the incident to Rolling Stone: “I met Oprah at that party. And I was like, ‘Hey, people are gonna fucking die in my country. Like, please pay attention.’ And she was like, ‘You’re shit because you were rude to Lady Gaga and I’m not talking to you. And I’m gonna interview Tom Cruise jumping on my sofa, so fuck off.’... She was just like, ‘I can’t talk to you because you’re crazy and you’re a terrorist.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not. I’m a Tamil and there are people dying in my country and you have to like look at it because you’re fucking Oprah and every American told me you’re going to save the world’.”


M.I.A.’s best known song became XL Recordings’ best-selling single at the time of its release, charting at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the US Hot Singles Sales chart and reaching near-universal acclaim critically (Pitchfork would place the song at number three for their top 500 tracks of the decade). Written and produced by M.I.A. and Diplo, the song samples “Straight To Hell” by The Clash, one of her biggest influences, and satirises immigrant stereotypes, its lyrics creating the persona of a fictional character evading the police, creating fake visas, selling drugs, and living a life of crime. In a nod to her understanding of immigrant difficulties with her own first-hand experiences, GQ wrote that “it’s the prepaid wireless that’s genius: the tiny sociological detail of the immigrant buying prepaid minutes as opposed to the monthly plan, the daily calculations amounting to an extra fifty bucks a month sent back to Chiapas, Mexico, or Lomé, Togo, that rings true to those of us who came to the West from more dysfunctional parts of the world.”


In 2010, Lynn Hirschberg sat down with M.I.A. to question her for a 12-page profile in the New York Times. The journalist published a scathing article on the singer after interspersing the feature with quotes from a government official and Diplo, who both discredited her. On her Twitter, M.I.A. blasted the journalist for twisting the story and changing her words. The rapper is quoted as saying in the article, “Give war a chance”, which she later dispelled. Hirschberg also linked her use of tiger imagery to terrorism, and painted an image of a wealthy lifestyle that contradicted her values with lines like “‘I kind of want to be an outsider,’ she said, eating a truffle-flavoured French fry”. But, posting soundbites of the interview on her Twitter, M.I.A. showed that in fact it was Hirschberg who suggested ordering the truffle fries. The singer also retaliated by tweeting Hirschberg’s phone number. The situation, however, did open up the idea that fabricated quotes in journalism could easily be revealed with the rise of social media.


Collaborating with H&M for World Recycling Week, M.I.A. released “Rewear It”, a song that addresses sustainability and environmental issues. Fashion is the second most polluting factor in the world and the partnership urges people to give their unwanted clothes to H&M to recycle into new fashions. “World Recycle Week is about embracing important environmental issues such as the landfills, and highlighting a global movement,” she explained.


M.I.A. has described government soldiers invading her home in Sri Lanka and abusing her mother in front of her. Guns were pointed through the windows at her primary school when she was nine, and the children were shot at. Her exposure to violence from a young age led to the local community funding her family’s immigration to the UK, living as refugees displaced by the Sri Lankan Civil War. The turmoil in Sri Lanka is the driving force behind much of M.I.A.’s work and controversy. In her video for “Borders”, she highlights the issue of the Syrian refugees in our generation, with scenes of immigrants crossing the seas and climbing metal fences, with M.I.A. dressed in what she calls typical refugee wear – a knock-off, customised ‘Fly Pirates’ t-shirt.


Because of her Tamil heritage, her father’s alleged link to the militant Tamil Tigers organisation, and the use of tiger imagery, M.I.A. has been accused by parts of the press of being a terrorist sympathiser. However, M.I.A. has said that her father wasn’t involved with the group and was instead a peace mediator for the civil war, while much of her work is about getting a message across that civilians in Tamil are dying on a daily basis, not just at the hands of terrorists but also the Sri Lankan government. “A lot of people were like, ‘Just make music; don’t talk about politics’,” she told NPR, “But I was in a very difficult position: I was the only Tamil rapper (on the international stage), so when a whole bunch of Tamil people were dying, I had to tell you about it.”


In the same NPR interview, M.I.A. explains her spirituality and life philosophy, and her belief that suffering in the world is due to an imbalance. “Human beings break down to three categories: You’ve got circles, squares and triangles,” she said. “Squares are people that are neutral. They live life by knowledge and logic and scientific approach to finding information and truth, and they build people very practical things... And then you have the triangles, who are people that are led by power and money and ego. These things all work on a pyramid structure: You have one person at the top and billions at the bottom. And then you have the circles, who are just led by love... So that was my thing; I’d sort of worked it out. I’d said the reason why there’s so much imbalance in the world is because human beings can lose touch and become overly developed in one area. When you have that, it’s dangerous, and they become led by something that is not in balance."


Though much of her work has been in music, the musician has also forayed into fashion by modelling for Marc Jacobs, and debuting a collaboration with G-Dragon and Baauer at an Alexander Wang show in New York. Back in 2014, the singer teamed up with Versus Versace to create a capsule collection that blended both high and low culture together with the ironic play on counterfeit Versace items. “Versace designs have always been bootlegged, now it’s Versace bootlegging the bootleg for the bootleggers to bootleg the bootleg.” The designs have a distinctly M.I.A.-ish feel to them – Greek spirals with the Versace emblem, lotus flowers and medallions are blended together with her signature style of vivid colours, with ‘M.I.A.’ emblazoned on the garments.


An advocate for multiculturalism, M.I.A. uses elements in her music from a wide range of cultures. Rhythms and sounds from electro, dancehall, reggae, grime, baile funk, alt-rock, and Tamil film music are used in her music. It’s a very contemporary interpretation of the problem-raising ‘world music’ tag. Yet many of her formative influences were from Western punk and rap traditions: she cites Public Enemy and punk as particular influences, grew up listening to hip hop and later, in college, became inspired by bands such as The Slits, The Clash, and conceptualist Malcolm McLaren.


“XXXO” is the lead single from the album Maya, and is lyrically based on love in the digital era, with references to social media platforms like Twitter (“‘Cause you be tweeting me like a Tweety bird on your iPhone”). The singer has explained that it’s a song that showcases her ability to create cheesy pop music, with “XXXO” being a “love letter to the music industry, or it’s my text message to the industry, because I feel like I can (conform) but I just don’t want to”.


M.I.A.’s rebuttal to Drake’s once-ubiquitous catchphrase Y.O.L.O., “Y.A.L.A.” stands for ‘You Always Live Again’ and appears as a single on her album Matangi. The musician teamed up with Paris-based fashion label Kenzo to create a video of flashing lights and exploding colours with M.I.A. coloured in gold makeup.


M.I.A. recently threatened to leak her new album AIM after her label kept delaying its release, but it’s not the first time leaks have occurred in her career. After Maya was released, an old outtake surfaced online, though not from the singer herself – she said a producer must’ve leaked it. You can listen to the track, “Zig-Zag”, here.