All Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam (better known as M.I.A.), wants to do is shoot you and take your money – or so she says on "Paper Planes"; a chorus of her track that is punctuated with shot gun blasts, and the "ka-chings" of cash registers being popped open. The fact that incredibly catchy "Paper Planes" is now officially in the running for the prestigious 'Record of the Year' at the 2009 Grammys, means that M.I.A will get at least part of her wish – she's heading for the big time and big bucks. However, we may not get to hear what would have no doubt been an interesting acceptance speech – the artiste has said she might not be able to attend the Los Angeles ceremony as she and her fiancée Benjamin Brewer are expecting their first child on the same day, February 8. For long time fans of M.I.A these developments are somewhat disconcerting; while motherhood, mainstream success and M.I.A seem strangely incongruous in the same sentence, there's no doubting that she has finally arrived.
M.I.A reacted to the announcement with what I have come to recognize as her own unique syntax, mostly involving a lot of slang, flexible spelling, emphatic capitalisation and a liberal helping of exclamation marks. Her Myspace blog dated December 5, 2008, declares: "Baby + Grammy…is due the same day!!!!, so either way I figured I’ll win. but OMG if i get it, I will never diss the Grammys evr again!" It's a rare concession for an artiste who delights in ruffling feathers. In the past, both musically and lyrically, M.I.A has made a point of bucking the system. Her previous album, the Mercury Prize winning 'Arular' courted controversy with content that referenced Sri Lanka's decades' long conflict. In deceptively pretty tracks like "Sunshowers," M.I.A sang about torture, suicide bombers, and widespread prejudice in an unexpectedly compelling British accent: "Quit bending all my Fingo/ Quit beating me like you're a ringo/ You wanna go?/ You wanna win a war?/ Like P.L.O I don't surrendo."
Even if you somehow missed the point there, all you need do is follow the headlines: "In my country you get killed if you report anything the government does to you!" she says on her oft-quoted blog, adding, "the first thing I would like to change about Sri Lanka, is freedom of press, Then we can send people in to find out the truth!" And for M.I.A this "truth" appears to be fairly straightforward. She can be rampantly anti-government and on occasion governments have been happy enough to reciprocate – the U.S administration, for instance, very nearly refused to give her a visa to come into the country and record with Timbaland.
But that delay transformed M.I.A's approach to making 'Kala' – her second album. Recorded across several continents – India, Trinidad, Liberia, Jamaica, Australia, Japan and the UK – 'Kala' is, in my opinion at least, a worthy successor to 'Arular.' It samples extensively from the traditional dance and folk styles of the countries she visited, including the frenetic beats of soca from Trinidad and the distinctive percussion of South India's urumee melam. On 'Kala' she also finds space for Bollywood rhythms a la A.R Rahman, reggae, hip-hop, dancehall, electro, baila, police sirens, dancehall beats, gun shots, car horns and the occasional squawking chicken. As a result tracks like "Bamboo Banga," "Bird Flu," "Paper Planes" and "Come Around" just can't be relegated to the background. So much so that the album has made it onto several best album of the year lists, including a number one spot on the Rolling Stone Top 50 Albums of 2007.
And M.I.A is still singing tough. In an interview with The Observer, London, she is quoted as having said that while 'Arular' was a "masculine" album, 'Kala' "is about my mum and her struggle – how do you work, feed your children, nurture them and give them the power of information?" Of course, much of her notoriety is based on her parentage, but in interviews M.I.A has said that she has "no ties to my dad, I had no communications with him, it didn't shape who I am or anything like that, I'm actually a product of my mom...you don't really get to choose where you're born and who you're born to." In the end, you've got to give M.I.A points for sheer style, and for creating the kind of music that inspires near obsessive listening. But for Sri Lankans, in particular, whether or not we can separate that from her inflammatory politics is yet to be seen.
Born: Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam, 17 July 1977, London.
Background: M.I.A's father Arul Pragasam was a supporter of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka, and a founding member of The Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS.) M.I.A lived in Sri Lanka briefly as a very young child. Due to the conflict surrounding her father's politics, the family moved around a lot during the first few years of her life, at one point taking refuge in India. Contact with her father was strictly limited, as he was in hiding. Eventually she, her mother Kala and her two siblings fled to Britain. She speaks English and the Tamil fluently
Stage Name: M.I.A. stands for both Missing in Acton and Missing in Action.
Discography: Piracy Funds Terrorism (mixtape, 2004), 'Arular' (2005), 'Kala' (2007)
M.I.A is also: a graphic designer with a degree in Fine Art, Film and Video; photographer; documentary film maker and owner of her own brand of clothing.