M.I.A. (artist)

M.I.A. (artist)

M.I.A. in 2009
Background information
Birth name Mathangi Arulpragasam
Born 18 July 1975 (1975-07-18) (age 36)[1]
Origin Mitcham, South London, England, United Kingdom
Genres Alternative dance, electronic, world, alternative, hip hop
Occupations Vocalist, singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, visual artist, activist, photographer, fashion designer
Instruments Vocals, drum machine, percussion
Years active 2000–present
Labels N.E.E.T., XL, Interscope, Showbiz
Website miauk.com

Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam (Tamilமாதங்கி 'மாயா' அருள்பிரகாசம், Mātaṅki 'Māyā' Aruḷpirakācam ?; born 18 July 1975),[1] better known by her stage name M.I.A. (both a play on her name and abbreviation for Missing in Act(i)on), is an English singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, painter and director of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. Her compositions combine elements of hip hop, electronica, dance, alternative and world music. M.I.A. began her career in 2000 as a visual artist and designer in West London. Since rising to prominence in early 2004 for her singles "Sunshowers" and "Galang", which charted in the U.K. and Canada and reached number eleven on the Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales in the United States, she has been nominated for an Academy Award, two Grammy Awards and the Mercury Prize.

She released her debut album Arular in 2005 and second album Kala in 2007 to wide critical acclaim. Arular reached number 20 in Norway and charted in Belgium, Sweden, Japan and the U.S., where it reached number 16 on the Billboard Top Independent Album Chart and number 3 on the Dance/Electronic Albums Chart. Kala was certified silver in the United Kingdom and gold in Canada and the United States, where it reached number 18 on the Billboard 200 chart and topped the Dance/Electronic Albums Chart. Upon release, Kala charted in several countries across Europe, in Japan and Australia. The album's first single "Boyz" reached number ninety nine on the Billboard Pop 100 in the United States in 2008, number seven on the Canadian Singles Chart and number three on the U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales in 2007, eight places higher than "Galang" and giving M.I.A. her first top-ten charting single. The single "Paper Planes" achieved much commercial success, peaking in the top 20 in countries in Europe, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, where it peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. As of October 2011, "Paper Planes" certified three times platinum in the U.S. and Canada, becoming the 29th most downloaded song in the digital era in the United States, and has been certified Gold in New Zealand.[2][3] It has become her label XL Recordings best selling single to date.

M.I.A.'s third album Maya was released in 2010 soon after the controversial song-film short "Born Free". In its first week of release, the album entered the UK Albums Chart at number 21, becoming her highest-charting album in the UK. It also became her highest-charting album in the U.S., reaching number nine on the Billboard 200, topping the Dance/Electronic Chart like its predecessor and debuted in the top ten in Finland, Norway, Greece and Canada. The single "XXXO" reached the top 40 in Belgium, Spain and the UK and "Teqkilla" entered the Canadian Hot 100 on digital downloads alone. She has embarked on four global headlining tours and is the founder of her own multimedia label, N.E.E.T.. In 2008, M.I.A. was listed in Esquire magazine's list of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century and in 2009, Time magazine included M.I.A. in its annual Time 100 list of the world's most influential people.[4]

M.I.A. is credited as an influence in the rise in popularity of female musicians and electronic music, heralded as one of the first acts to come to public attention via the internet and also for revitalising British and world music. M.I.A.'s early compositions relied heavily on the Roland MC-505 sequencer/drum machine, while her later work has presented layered textures of instruments, electronics and unusual sound samples to form her acclaimed distinctive music style. Her lyrics incorporate a range of political, social, philosophical and cultural references that have defied existing pop music conventions. A noted philanthropist and activist for many causes, her activism has been met with both appreciation and criticism. In 2002, she received an Alternative Turner Prize nomination for her art, and has been recognized for her work as a music video director, graphic and fashion designer. She is the only artist in history to be nominated for an Academy Award, Grammy Award, Brit Award, Mercury Prize and Alternative Turner Prize, and the first artist of Asian descent to be nominated for an Academy and Grammy Award in the same year.


Family and early life

M.I.A. was born in Hounslow, London to Arul Pragasam, an engineer, writer and activist, and his wife, Kala, a seamstress, who are of Hindu and Sri Lankan Tamil descent. Kala has been a practicing Christian since living in the United Kingdom, and is a commissioned seamstress for the British Royal Family. She works from her home in Tooting, South London. The couple had two daughters in England, Maya and Kali. When M.I.A. was six months old, her family moved to Jaffna, a town in northern Sri Lanka, where her brother Sugu was born.[5] There, her father adopted the name Arular and became a political activist and founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), a political Tamil group that worked to establish an independent Tamil Eelam in North Eastern Sri Lanka.[6][7][8]

The first nine years of M.I.A.'s life were marked by displacement caused by the Sri Lankan Civil War. Her family went into hiding from the Sri Lankan Army and contact between M.I.A. and her father was strictly limited.[9] In Jaffna, M.I.A. attended Tamil Hindu and convent schools such as the Holy Family Convent, Jaffna where she developed her art skills—painting in particular—to work her way up her class.[10][11] When the civil war broke out, she notes as "bullying exploitation" the way soldiers from Sri Lanka's military would put guns through holes in the windows and shoot at the school. Her classmates were trained to dive under the table or run next door to English schools that, according to her, "wouldn’t get shot".[11] M.I.A.'s family relocated to Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India where they lived in a derelict house and received sporadic visits from M.I.A.'s father, who was introduced to the children as their "uncle".[5][12] The family resettled in Jaffna temporarily, only to see the war escalate further in the north east and M.I.A.'s school was destroyed in a government raid.[8][13] After experiencing violence at the hands of soldiers,[5] M.I.A.'s mother moved with her children back to London in 1986 where they were housed as refugees. Arular remained on the island and became an independent peace mediator between the two sides of the civil war in the late 80's.[7]

M.I.A. grew up in the Phipps Bridge Estate in the Mitcham district of South London,[14] where she learned to speak English.[7] She attended Ricards Lodge High School in Wimbledon and graduated with a degree in fine art, film and video from London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.[15] Initially her application to the school was rejected, but she was eventually let in, being told that she "had chutzpah."[16] For two years, M.I.A. lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where she met her fiance, Benjamin Zachary Bronfman (aka Benjamin Brewer), an environmentalist, founder of Green Owl, musician and scion of the Bronfman dynasty.[17][18] M.I.A. owns a home in Brentwood, Los Angeles in the U.S. and splits her time between there and her mother's home in London. She gave birth to her son Ikhyd Edgar Arular Bronfman in February 2009.[19][20]


Visual art and film

While attending Central St Martins College, M.I.A. wanted to make films and art depicting realism that would be accessible to everyday people, something that she felt was missing from her classmates' ethics and the course criteria. At college, she found the fashion courses "disposable" and more current than the film texts that she studied.[16] M.I.A. told Arthur magazine "[Students there were] exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing...It missed the whole point of art representing society. Social reality didn’t really exist there; it just stopped at theory."[16] She cited "radical cinema" including Harmony Korine, Dogme 95 and Spike Jonze as some of her cinematic inspirations during film school.[21] As a student, she was approached by director John Singleton to work on a film in Los Angeles after he had read a script she had written, though she decided not to take up the request.[21][22]

M.I.A. befriended students in the college fashion, advertising and graphics departments.[16] She met Justine Frischmann, frontwoman of the British band Elastica, through her friend Damon Albarn, and Frischmann commissioned M.I.A. to create the cover art for the band's 2000 album, The Menace, and video document their American tour.[8][10][13] M.I.A. returned to Jaffna in 2001 to film a documentary on Tamil youth, but was unable to complete the project because she encountered harassment.[22][23] In 2001, M.I.A.'s first public exhibition of paintings after graduating took place at the Euphoria Shop on London's Portobello Road. It featured graffiti art and spray-paint canvasses mixing Tamil political street art with images of London life and consumerist culture.[13][24] The show was nominated for the Alternative Turner Prize and a monograph book of the collection was published in 2002,[1] titled M.I.A.. Actor Jude Law was among early buyers of her art.[10][24][25]

Early music career: 2000–2004

M.I.A. performing at Sónar on her Arular Tour

M.I.A. cites the radio broadcasts she heard emanating from her neighbours' flats in the late '80s as some of her first exposures to her earliest musical influences.[7] From there, she developed an interest in hip-hop and dancehall, identifying with "the starkness of the sound" in records by Public Enemy, MC Shan and Ultramagnetic MCs; and the "weird, distinct style" of acts such as Silver Bullet and London Posse.[26][27] In college she developed an affinity for punk and the emerging sounds of Britpop and electroclash.[28] M.I.A. cites The Slits, Malcolm McLaren and The Clash as major influences.[29][30]

By 2001, M.I.A. designed the cover for Elastica's last single "The Bitch Don't Work", and went on the road with the band to video document their tour. The tour's supporting act, electroclash artist Peaches, introduced M.I.A. to the Roland MC-505 and encouraged M.I.A. to make music, a medium in which M.I.A. lacked confidence.[8][28] While vacationing together in Bequia in the Caribbean, M.I.A. began experimenting with Frischmann's MC-505.[10][15] She adopted her stage name, "M.I.A.", standing for "Missing In Acton" during this time.[9] "I started going out to this chicken shed with a sound system. You buy rum through a hatch and dance in the street. They convinced me to come to church where people sing so amazingly. But I couldn’t clap along to hallelujah. I was out of rhythm. Someone said, ‘What happened to Jesus? I saw you dancing last night and you were totally fine.’ They stopped the service and taught me to clap in time. It was embarrassing" she recalled of her time in Bequia.[11] Returning to West London, where she shared an apartment with Frischmann, she began working with a simple set-up (a second-hand 4-track tape machine, the MC-505, and a radio microphone), composing and recording a six song demo tape that included "Lady Killa", "M.I.A.", and "Galang".[31][32]

In 2003, the independent label Showbiz Records pressed 500 vinyl singles of "Galang", a mix of dancehall, electro, jungle, and world music, with Seattle Weekly praising its a cappella coda as a "lift-up-and-over moment" evoking "clear skies beyond the council flats."[33][34] File sharing, college radio airplay, and the rise in popularity of "Galang" and "Sunshowers" in dance clubs and fashion shows made M.I.A. an underground sensation.[35] M.I.A. has been heralded as one of the first artists to build a large fanbase exclusively via these channels and as someone who could be studied to reexamine the internet's impact on how listeners are exposed to new music.[36][37][38] She began uploading her music onto her MySpace account in June 2004. Major record labels caught on to the popularity of "Galang", and M.I.A. was eventually signed to XL Recordings in mid 2004 by the head of the Showbiz label, Jonathan Dickins.[26][39] Her debut album, to be titled Arular, was finalized by borrowing studio time.

MIA's next single, "Sunshowers", released on 5 July 2004, and its B-side ("Fire Fire") described guerrilla warfare and asylum seeking, merging ambiguous references to violence and religious persecution with black and white forms of dissidence.[40] For "Sunshowers", M.I.A. wrote her first music video, filmed in the jungles of South India, which she has described as her favourite.[15][41] "Galang" was re-released in 2004. The music video for "Galang" made in November of that year featured art direction by M.I.A., showing multiple M.I.A.s against a backdrop of militaristic animated graffiti, and depicted scenes of urban Britain and war. Both singles appeared on international publications' "Best of the Year" lists and subsequently "Best of the Decade" lists. The songs "Pull Up the People", "Bucky Done Gun" and "10 Dollar" were released as 12-inch singles and CDs by XL Recordings, which along with the non-label mashup mixtape of Arular tracks, Piracy Funds Terrorism, were distributed in 2004.[12]

Arular: 2004–2007

M.I.A. made her North American debut in February 2005 at the Drake Hotel in Toronto where concertgoers already knew many of her songs.[13] In March 2005, M.I.A.'s debut album Arular was released worldwide to critical acclaim after several months delay.[42][43] The album title is the nom de guerre that M.I.A.'s father took when he joined the Tamil independence movement, and many of the songs acknowledge her and her father's experiences in Jaffna. While making Arular in her bedroom in west London, she built tracks off her demos, using beats she programmed on the Roland MC-505.[13][44] The album experiments with bold, jarring and ambient sounds, and its lyrics address the Iraq War and daily life in London as well as M.I.A.'s past.[30][45][46]

M.I.A. performing at the Prince in Melbourne in February 2006.

M.I.A. received praise from artists such as the rapper Nas, who in early 2005 called her sound "the future".[47] "Galang", "Sunshowers" and the funk carioca-inspired co-composition "Bucky Done Gun" were released as singles from Arular. The release of the latter marked the first time that a funk carioca-inspired song was played on mainstream radio and music television in Brazil, its country of origin.[48][48] M.I.A. worked with one of her musical influences Missy Elliott, contributing to the track "Bad Man" on her 2005 album The Cookbook.[45] Despite initial fears that her dyslexia might pose problems while touring, M.I.A. supported the album through a series of festival and club shows, including the Bue Festival, a free headlining show at Central Park Summerstage, the Summer Sonic Fest and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where she played an encore in response to crowd enthusiasm, a rare occurrence for the festival.[45][49][50] She also toured with Roots Manuva and LCD Soundsystem, and ended 2005 briefly touring with Gwen Stefani and performing at the Big Day Out festival.[51][52] On 19 July 2005, M.I.A. was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize for Arular.[53] According to the music review aggregation Metacritic, it garnered an average score of 88 out of 100, described as "universal acclaim".[42] They reported in 2010 that Arular was the seventh best reviewed album of 2005 and the ninth Best-Reviewed Electronic/Dance Album on Metacritic of the 2000–09 decade.[54][55] Arular became the second most featured album in music critics’ Year-End Top 10 lists for 2005 and was named best of the year by publications such as Blender, Stylus and Musikbyrån.[42]

Kala: 2007–2009

In 2006 M.I.A. recorded her second studio album Kala, this time named after her mother. Due to censorship and visa complications in the United States, the album was recorded in a variety of locations—India, Trinidad, Liberia, Jamaica, Australia, Japan, and the UK. Eventually the album was completed in the U.S.[56][57]

Kala featured live instrumentation and layers of traditional dance and folk styles such as soca and the urumee drum of gaana, rave music and bootleg soundtracks of Tamil film music, incorporating new styles into her avante-garde electronic dance music.[58][59] The songs, artwork and fashion of Kala have been characterized as simultaneously celebratory and infused with raw, "darker, outsider" themes, such as immigration politics, personal relationships and war.[57][60] The first track from the album to be made available to the public was "Bird Flu", which was posted on M.I.A.'s MySpace page, with an accompanying music video, in February 2007.[61][62] Later that year, M.I.A. featured in the song "Come Around", a bonus track on Timbaland's 2007 album Shock Value and a track on Kala.[56] The album's first official single "Boyz" was released in June 2007, accompanied by a music video co-directed by Jay Will and M.I.A., becoming M.I.A.'s first top ten charting song. The single "Jimmy", written about an invitation to tour genocide-affected regions in Rwanda that the singer received from a journalist while staying in Liberia, was released next.[56] The single "Paper Planes" and the EP Paper Planes - Homeland Security Remixes EP were released digitally in February 2008, the single eventually selling three times platinum in the U.S. and Canada, becoming the 29th most downloaded song in the digital era in the U.S. and earning a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.[63][64][2] In the same year, M.I.A. released the How Many Votes Fix Mix EP which included a remix of "Boyz" featuring Jay-Z.[65]

Like its predecessor, universal acclaim met Kala's release in August 2007 and the album earned a normalised rating of 87 out of 100 on the review aggregator MetaCritic.[66] Kala was a greater commercial success than Arular. To support Kala, M.I.A.'s Kala Tour featuring performances in Europe, America and Asia began soon after its release. Festival appearances included Rock en Seine, Get Loaded in the Park, the Electric Picnic, Connect, the Virgin Festivals, the Osheaga Festival and Parklife Festival, and the singer performed three dates opening for Björk in the U.S. and France.[67][68] M.I.A. provided guest vocals on tour supporting act Buraka Som Sistema's kuduro song "Sound of Kuduro", recorded in Angola with an accompanying video.[69] In the same year, M.I.A. and director Spike Jonze filmed a documentary in the immigrant neighborhood of Woolwich, South London, where they visited Afrikan Boy, a Nigerian immigrant rapper who appears on Kala track "Hussel." In Spike Jonze Spends Saturday With M.I.A., she disclosed her plans to launch her own record label, Zig-Zag, with Afrikan Boy’s track "Lidl" being its first release.[70][71] She ended the year with concerts in the United Kingdom.[72] By year end, Kala was named the best album of 2007 by publications including Rolling Stone and Blender.[73]

Best-Reviewed Electronic/Dance Album on Metacritic of the 2000–09 decade, one position below her debut album Arular.[54] M.I.A. performed on the People vs. Money Tour during the first half of 2008.[30] She cancelled the final leg of her tour in Europe through June and July after revealing her intentions to take a career break and work on other art projects, go back to college and make a film.[30] Her last performance of the tour was at the Bonnaroo Music Festival.[30]

In 2008, M.I.A. started her record label N.E.E.T. Recordings.[74] The first artist signed to the label was Baltimore rapper Rye Rye, who performed with M.I.A. at the Diesel XXX party at Pier 3 in Brooklyn in October 2008 where it was revealed that M.I.A. was pregnant with her first child.[75] M.I.A. contributed songs for A. R. Rahman's score of the film Slumdog Millionaire, which included the collaboration "O…Saya";[76] she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and a World Soundtrack Award for Best Original Song Written Directly for a Film for the song.[77][78] M.I.A. was due to perform at the Oscars ceremony two weeks after her Grammy Award performance, but could not as she had just given birth to her son.[79] M.I.A. is the first person of Asian descent to be nominated for an Oscar and Grammy award in the same year.

Maya: 2009–present

Seeking to promote new, underground music with N.E.E.T., M.I.A. signed more bands including Baltimore musician Blaqstarr, indie rock band Sleigh Bells and visual artist Jaime Martinez by late 2009.[80] 3D photographic images of M.I.A. by Martinez were commissioned in April of that year.[81][82] In August 2009, M.I.A. began composing and recording her third studio album in a home studio section in her Los Angeles house.[39] In January 2010, M.I.A. posted her video for the song "Space" from her forthcoming third album.[83][84] While composing it, M.I.A. co-wrote a song with Christina Aguilera called "Elastic Love" for Aguilera's album Bionic.[85]

M.I.A. performing a song at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in August 2009

By April 2010, the song and music video/short film "Born Free," a song from Maya, were leaked online and later released via M.I.A.'s official website and online music stores. The video-film short was directed by Romain Gavras and written by M.I.A., depicting genocide against red-haired adolescents being forced to run across a minefield and caused controversy due to its graphically violent content.[86][87] Although not an official single, the song charted in Sweden and the United Kingdom. M.I.A.'s third album, Maya—stylised as /\/\ /\ Y /\, a typographic equivalent of M.I.A.'s legal name—was released on 23 June 2010 in Japan with bonus tracks before its release in other countries.[88][89] Maya became M.I.A.'s highest charting album globally. Originally set to be released on 29 June 2010 in the U.S., her record label announced a new release date of 13 July 2010.[88] The album garnered a generally favourable, although divided, reception from critics.[66] Maya was a more internet-inspired album, illustrating how a multimedia artist such as herself worked within the music industry. Elements of industrial music were incorporated into M.I.A.'s sound for the first time.[90] She described the album in an interview with Dazed and Confused as a mix of "babies, death, destruction and powerlessness".[80][91][92][93]

The first official single from Maya, "XXXO", was released on 11 May 2010 and reached the top 40 in Belgium, Spain and the UK[94][95] "Steppin' Up", "Teqkilla", and "Tell Me Why" were also released as promotional singles exclusively on iTunes in the days leading to the release of Maya, with "Teqkilla" reaching the top 100 in Canada on digital downloads alone.[96] The video for "XXXO" was released online in August. M.I.A. hinted in an interview to Blitz that a music video is being made with director Spike Jonze for the single "Teqkilla."[97]

M.I.A. performed at the 2010 Virgin Mobile Festival, Festival Sudoeste, Way Out West Festival, The Big Chill, Underage Festival, Øyafestivalen, the Flow Festival and Rencontres Trans Musicales. She finished 2010 completing the European leg of the Maya Tour.[98][99][100]

From 2000–2010, she has directed the video for Elastica single "Mad Dog God Dam" and videos for her songs "Bird Flu", "Boyz", "S.U.S. (Save Ur Soul)", "Space" and "XXXO",[101][102] and a video for Rye Rye's "Bang".[103][104] She judged in the Music Video category at the inaugural Vimeo Festival & Awards in New York in October 2010.[105]

M.I.A. released her second mixtape, Vicki Leekx, on 31 December 2010.[106]

On 11 January 2011, Interscope released Internet Connection: The Remixes, an EP to a bonus track from Maya.

It was reported M.I.A. was in the recording studio with Swizz Beatz, Polow Da Don, Cataracs, and Chris Brown, hinting at new material for a possible fourth album.[citation needed]

In May 2011, M.I.A. performed on the song C.T.F.O. on SebastiAn's album Total.

Music style and image

M.I.A.'s music features styles such as electro, reggae, rhythm and blues, alternative rock, hip hop, grime, rap ballads and Asian folk and references to her musical influences such as Missy Elliott, Tamil film music, Lou Reed, The Pixies, Beastie Boys and London Posse.[29][31][40][107] She was a childhood fan of Boney M and pop artist Michael Jackson[16][31] and has been influenced by The Slits, Public Enemy, Malcolm McLaren and The Clash.[29] M.I.A. describes her music as dance music or club music for the "other", and has stressed her preference of being an "anti-popstar".[58] M.I.A.'s early compositions relied heavily on the Roland MC-505, while later M.I.A. experimented further with her established sound and drew from a range of genres, creating layered textures of instruments, electronics and sounds outside the traditional studio environment.[58][59]

Jimmy Iovine, chairman of M.I.A.'s American distribution label Interscope, compares M.I.A. to Reed and punk rock songwriter Patti Smith, and recalled, "She's gonna do what she's gonna do, I can't tell her shit."[108] "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."[109] Richard Russell, head of XL Recordings, states, "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.[110][111] As a vocalist, M.I.A. is recognisable by her distinctive whooping, chanting voice, which has been described as having an "indelible, nursery-rhyme swing."[48] She has adopted different singing styles on her songs, from aggressive raps, to semi-spoken and melodic vocals. She has said of the sometimes "unaffected" vocals and delivery of her lyrics, "It is what it is. Most people would just put it down to me being lazy. But at the same time, I don’t want [that perfection]," saying some of the "raw and difficult" vocal styles she used reflected what was happening to her during recording.[16][56] Sasha Frere-Jones, critic of The New Yorker praised the self made "unpretentious, stuck together with Scotch tape" style that M.I.A. achieves with her Roland MC-505 drum machine and keyboard unit, noting that many people had tried to copy the style since.[112] The Guardian critic Hattie Collins commented of M.I.A.'s influence, "A new raver before it was old. A baile funk/pop pioneer before CSS and Bonde do Rolê emerged. A quirky female singer/rapper before the Mini Allens had worked out how to log on to MySpace. Missing In Action (or Acton, as she sometimes calls herself) has always been several miles ahead of the pack."[113]

M.I.A.'s stage performances are described as "highly energetic", often with scenes of what Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield describes as "jovial chaos, with dancers and toasters and random characters roaming the stage."[93] Camille Dodero, writing in The Village Voice opined that M.I.A. "works hard to manifest the chaos of her music in an actual environment, and, more than that, to actively create discomfort, energy, and anger through sensory overload."[114] Her role as an artist in and voice lender to the subaltern is appreciated by theorists as having brought such ideas to first world view.[4][115][116][117] USA Today included her on its list of the 100 Most Interesting People of 2007 and she was named one of Time Out 's 40th Birthday London Heroes in 2008. The same year, Esquire listed M.I.A. as one of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st century, describing her as the first and only major artist in world music, and in 2009 she was cited in Time magazine's Time 100 as one of the world's most influential people for her global influence across many genres.[29][118][119] In December 2010, USA Today listed M.I.A. at number 63 on its list of the "100 People of 2010".[120] M.I.A. placed number 14 on Rolling Stone's Decade-End Readers' Poll of "Top Artists Of The Decade."[121]

Themes and artwork

M.I.A. has become known for integrating her imagery of political violence into her music videos and her cover art. Her politically inspired art became recognized while she exhibited and published several of her brightly coloured stencils and paintings portraying the tiger, a symbol of Tamil nationalism, ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and urban Britain in the early 2000s. Lyrics on Arular regarding her experiences of identity politics, poverty, revolution, gender and sexual stereotypes, war, and the conditions of working class in London were hailed as new and unorthodox, setting her apart from previous artists.[30][40] The album references the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Tamil independence movements and features culture jamming, multi-lingual slang, strident and subtle imagery. Her albums' social commentary and storytelling have incited debate on the "invigoratingly complex" politics of the issues she highlighted in the album, breaking taboos while the West was engaged in the 2003 Iraq War in the Middle East.[15][45][122][123] Government visits to her official website following her debut album's release in 2005, and a U.S. refusal to grant M.I.A. a travel visa coupled with her brief presence on the U.S. Homeland Security Risk List in 2006 due to her politically charged lyrics led to her second album Kala being recorded in a variety of locations around the world.[9][117][124][125]

Afrikan Boy, an Afrobeat/grime London MC with Nigerian roots supporting M.I.A. at the Rock en Seine Festival, 2007

On Kala, M.I.A.'s songs explored immigration politics and her personal relationships. Many related her experiences during recording sessions in Chennai, Angola, Trinidad shantytowns, Liberia and London, and were well acclaimed.[30][57] The album's artwork was inspired by African art, "from dictator fashion to old stickers on the back of cars," which like her clothing range, she hoped would capture "a 3-D sense, the shapes, the prints, the sound, film, technology, politics, economics" of a certain time.[126] I-D magazine described the "bleeding cacophany of graphics" on her website during this time as evoking the "noisy amateurism" of the early web, but also embodying a rejection of today's "glossy, professional site design" which was felt to "efface the medium rather than celebrate it."[127] Jeff Chang, writing for The Nation, described a "Kala for the Nation" and the album's music, lyrics and imagery as encompassing "everywhere—or, to be specific, everywhere but the First World's self-regarding 'here'," stating that against a media flow that suppresses the "ugliness" of reality and fixes beauty to consumption, M.I.A. forces a conversation about how the majority live, closing the distance "between 'here' and everywhere else". He felt that Kala explored poverty, violence and globalization through the eyes of "children left behind."[128]

Her third album, Maya, tackled information politics in the digital age, loaded with technological references and love songs, and deemed by Kitty Empire writing in The Observer to be her most melancholic and mainstream effort.[129] Her genocide-depicting 2010 video for the single "Born Free" was deemed by Ann Powers writing in the Los Angeles Times to be "concentrating fully" on the physical horror of gun butts and bullets hitting flesh, with the scenes giving added poignancy to the lyrical themes of the song.[116] Interpreted as a comment on the Arizona immigration law, America's military might and desensitised attitudes towards violence, others found that the video stressed that genocide still exists and violent repression remains commonplace.[130] Some critics described the film as "sensationalist". Neda Ulaby of NPR described the video as intended for "shock value" in the service of nudging people into considering real issues that can be hard to talk about.[131][132][133] M.I.A. revealed that she felt "disconnected" during the writing process, and spoke of the Internet inspiration and themes of information politics that could be found in the songs and the artwork.[134][135]

Her work has generated widespread acclaim. PopMatters writer Rob Wheaton felt M.I.A. subverted the "abstract, organized, refined" distilling of violence in Western popular music and imagination and made her work represent much of the developing world's decades-long experiences of "arbitrary, unannounced, and spectacular" slaughter, deeming her work an "assault" with realism.[7] Some detractors criticized M.I.A. early in her music career for "using radical chic" and for her attendance of an art school.[122] Critic Simon Reynolds, writing in The Village Voice in 2005 saw this as a lack of authenticity and felt M.I.A. was "a veritable vortex of discourse, around most likely irresolvable questions concerning authenticity, postcolonialism, and dilettantism".[136] Critic Robert Christgau described Reynolds' argument as "cheap tack" in another article written in the publication, stating M.I.A's experiences connected her to world poverty in a way "few Western whites can grasp". He questioned why M.I.A.'s 2001 Alternative Turner Prize nominated images of pastel-washed tigers, soldiers, guns, armored vehicles, and fleeing civilians that bedeck M.I.A.'s albums and videos were now assumed or analyzed as being incendiary propaganda, suggesting that unlike art buyers, rock and roll fans were "assumed to be stupid".[137] Reynolds later argued that M.I.A. was the "Artist of the Decade" in a 2009 issue of The Guardian.[138] Music culture writer Michael Meyer opined that M.I.A.'s record imagery, lyrical booklets, homepages and videos supported the "image of provocation yet also avoidance of, or inability to use consistent images and messages." Instead of catering to stereotypes, he felt that M.I.A. "played with them" creating an uncategorizable and hence unsettling result.[40] Critic Zach Baron felt that it had been shown in her career that M.I.A. had "always been adept at using a larger force against itself." M.I.A. has been hailed as demonstrating dislocation to be a "productive site of departure" and praised for her ability to transform such a "disadvantage" into a creative form of expression.[139]

M.I.A. views her work as reflective, pieced together in one piece "so you can acquire it and hear it." She states, "All that information floats around where we are—the images, the opinions, the discussions, the feelings—they all exist, and I felt someone had to do something about it because I can't live in this world where we pretend nothing really matters."[8] On the political nature of her songs she has said, "Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs. Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked."[140] Censorship on MTV of "Sunshowers" proved controversial and was again criticized following Kala release "Paper Planes".[8][141] YouTube's block and subsequent age gating/obscuring of the video for "Born Free" from Maya due to its graphic violence/political subtext was criticized by M.I.A. as hypocritical, citing the Internet channel's streaming of real-life killings.[5][91][142] She went on to state, "It's just fake blood and ketchup and people are more offended by that than the execution videos", referring to clips of Sri Lankan troops extrajudicially shooting unarmed, blindfolded, naked men that she had previously tweeted.[5] Despite the block, the video remained on her website and Vimeo, and has been viewed 30 million times on the internet.[132][142]


M.I.A.'s consistent addressing of several conflicts and oppressed peoples around the world, including the Tamils, Palestinians and African Americans has been both heralded and criticized.[143] Her complete control of her output is noted by Harpers & Queen in 2005 as the primary reason for her success.[40] M.I.A. notes that the voicelessness she felt as a child dictated her role as a refugee advocate and voice lender to civilians in war during her career, saying in an interview with music magazine Clash in June 2010:

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 ten-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'.[144]
M.I.A. performing on the Kala Tour in Newcastle

M.I.A. attributes much of her success to the "homeless, rootlessness" of her early life, and is considered to be a refugee icon.[145] The 2008 Experience Music Project's Pop Conference held in Seattle featured paper submissions and discussions on M.I.A. presented on the theme of "Shake, Rattle: Music, Conflict, and Change."[146][147] Throughout her career, M.I.A. has used networking sites such as Twitter and MySpace to discuss and highlight the human rights abuses and war crimes Sri Lanka is accused of perpetrating against Tamils. As the 2009 Tamil diaspora protests gathered pace, M.I.A. joined other activists in condemning the actions of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils as a slow "systematic" genocide. She stated that international governments were privy to Sri Lanka's use of widespread censorship and propaganda on the rebellion during the island's civil war to aid its impunity in numerous atrocities on civilians, but had no will to end it.[148][149] Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary denied that his country perpetrated genocide, responding that he felt M.I.A. was "misinformed" and that "it's best she stays with what she's good at, which is music, not politics."[150] Consequently, she has been accused of being a "terrorist sympathiser" and "LTTE supporter" by the Sri Lankan government, whose agents have threatened listeners with prosecution if they post her music videos on the internet.[5][151] Two weeks before his murder, the Tigers' Political Head B. Nadesan told Indian magazine The Week that M.I.A.'s humanitarianism had been a source of strength to Eelam Tamils and fearless, knowingly amidst the "all-powerful Sri Lankan propaganda machinery that demonises any one who speaks for the Tamils."[152] Miranda Sawyer of The Observer felt that M.I.A. was emotional and that this could be limiting her, stating that while she was well informed, "you're not meant to get involved when giving information out about war", and that the difficulty for M.I.A. was that the world "doesn't really care."[5] M.I.A. endorsed candidate Jan Jananayagam at the 2009 European Parliament election, a last minute candidate standing on a platform of anti-genocide, civil liberties, financial transparency, the environment and women's rights, who became one of the most successful independent election candidates ever despite her loss in the general election.[153] Death threats directed at M.I.A. and her son have followed her activism, which she also cited as an influence on the songs on her album Maya.[154] In 2010, she condemned the Chinese Government's role in supporting and supplying arms to the Sri Lankan government during the conflict in an interview with music magazine Mondomix, stating that China's influence within the UN was preventing prosecutions of war crimes committed during the conflict.[155]

M.I.A. with partner Ben Bronfman and Twitter founders Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams

The same year, M.I.A. voiced her fears of the influence of video game violence on her son and his generation, saying, "I don't know which is worse. The fact that I saw it in my life has maybe given me lots of issues, but there's a whole generation of American kids seeing violence on their computer screens and then getting shipped off to Afghanistan. They feel like they know the violence when they don't. Not having a proper understanding of violence, especially what it's like on the receiving end of it, just makes you interpret it wrong and makes inflicting violence easier."[156] In October 2009, she stated that the President of the United States Barack Obama should give back his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize "like John Lennon sent back his MBE."[157] She has joked about the irony further by playing on the famous Lenon phrase "Give Peace a Chance", explaining "I'm a bit beyond being an artist who says, 'Give peace a chance.' Part of me is like, 'Give war a chance,' just to stir it up, you know what I mean?".[58]

Prior to her 2008 Coachella festival appearance, M.I.A. filmed from her Bed Stuy apartment window and posted on YouTube an incident involving a black man being apprehended by white police officers, which in light of the Sean Bell shooting incident, elicited commentary debating the force used for the arrest.[158]

During the recording of the album Maya, she spoke of the combined effects that news corporations and search engine Google have on news and data collection, while stressing the need for alternative news sources that she felt her son's generation would need in order to ascertain truth.[156] She told Nylon magazine that social networking site Facebook and Google's development "by the CIA" was harmful to internet freedom.[159] Some criticized the claim as lacking detail.[5]

Media portrayals of M.I.A. throughout her career have been called "problematic" by some commentators.[115] M.I.A. confronted Pitchforkmedia over some of their writings in 2007.[115] In 2010, criticism was directed at the New York Times, which included a tweet by M.I.A. saying "Fuck the New York Times,"[160] after the paper published controversial articles about M.I.A. and Sri Lanka.[161] Following this, The New York Times Magazine published a controversial piece about M.I.A. and the conflict,[162] employing a "sneering" tone and making many points through implication.[5] M.I.A. and others raised concerns of misrepresentation by the magazine. They cited dichotomies between articles printed by the paper itself on the conflict as evidence of ignorance. M.I.A.'s response attracted considerable interest, due to her Twitter posting of a telephone number asking followers to ring and give feedback on the piece, the revelatory content of conversations she secretly taped, and the novelty of M.I.A. herself "turning the tables" on a yellow journalist.[5][163] In 2010, she expressed disappointment that Wikileaks distributed their documents to other news publications—including the New York Times—to gain wider coverage, as she stated their "way of reporting" did not work.[164][165][166]

Following the 2011 United Kingdom anti-austerity protests and the 2011 London riots, during which her cousin's jewelry shop in Croydon was attacked and looted,[167] M.I.A. criticized the UK Government's response to the rioters as failing to address the root causes of them. She recalled the importance of a council funded youth worker she had in her school years, the use of tax money to incentivise a new business job creation program amongst the working class and imprisonment conditions which encouraged consumerism. She stated that the top forty companies in Britain who banked offshore should be made to pay taxes in the U.K. and "cut the poor people some slack."[168]

Fashion and style

M.I.A. performing on the People vs. Money Tour

M.I.A. cites guerrilla art and fashion as major influences. Her mother works as a seamstress in London. An early interest in fashion and textiles—designing confections of "bright fluorescent fishnet fabrics"—was a hallmark of her time at Central Saint Martins College. M.I.A. was a roommate of fashion designer Luella Bartley and is a long-time friend of designer Carri Mundane.[169][170] Clothes from her limited-edition "Okley Run" line—Mexican and Afrika line jackets and leggings, Islamic-inspired and water melon-print hoodies, and tour-inspired designs—were sold in 2008 during New York fashion week.[30][171][172] She commented, "I wanted to tie all my work together. When I make an album, I make a number of artworks that go with it, and now I make some clothes that go with it too. So this Okley run was an extension of my Kala album and artwork."[171]

Contrary to her present style, M.I.A.'s Arular era style has been described as "tattered hand me downs and patched T-shirts of indigents", embodying the "uniform of the refugee" but modified with cuts, alterations and colours to fashion a distinctly new style and apparel line.[139] M.I.A. built on this during the Kala era with a "playful" combination of baggy t-shirts, leggings and short-shorts. She incorporated eccentric accessories in bold patterns, sparkle and "over-saturated" neon colour to fashion her signature style which inspired flocks of "garishly-clothed all-too-sassy" new-rave girls with bright red tights, cheetah-skin smock and faded 80's T- shirts. Her commodifying and performance of this refugee image has been noted to "reposition" perceptions of it in the wider public. Hailed as presenting a challenge to the mainstream with her ironic style, M.I.A. has been praised for dictating such a subcultural trend worldwide, combining "adolescent" frustrations of race and class with a strong desire to dance.[145]

M.I.A. was once denied entry into a Marc Jacobs party, but subsequently DJed at the designer's 2008 fashion show afterparty, and modelled for "Marc by Marc Jacobs" in Spring/Summer 2008.[58][173] M.I.A.'s fashion and style landed her on Vogue's 10 Best Dressed of 2008.[174] She turned down her inclusion on People magazine's list of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" the same year.[175] M.I.A.'s status as a style icon, trendsetter and trailblazer is globally affirmed, with her distinct identity, style, and music illuminating social issues of gender, the third world, and popular music.[145] Critics point out that such facets of her public persona underline the importance of authenticity, challenging the globalized popular music market, and demonstrating music's strive to be political.[145] Her albums have been met with acclaim, often heralded as "eclectic" for possessing a genre all their own, "packaging inherent politics in the form of pleasurable dance music."[40][145] M.I.A.'s artistic efforts to connect this "extreme eclecticism" with issues of exile, war, violence and terrorism are both commended and criticized.[40] Commentators laud M.I.A.'s use and subversion of her refugee and migrant experiences, through the weaving of musical creativity, artwork and fashion with her personal life as having dispelled stereotypical notions of the immigrant experience. This gives her a unique place in popular music, while demanding new responses within popular music, media and fashion culture.[139] M.I.A. has been the muse of designers Donatella Versace and Alexander Wang and photographers David Bailey and Rankin.


M.I.A. has funded Youth Action International and set up school-building projects in Liberia in 2006.[176] She supports the Unstoppable Foundation, cofunding the establishment of the Becky Primary School in Liberia.[177] During her visit to Liberia she met the then President of Liberia, rehabilitated ex-child soldiers and appeared as part of a humanitarian mission there, hosting a "4Real" TV-Series documentary on the post war situation in the country with activist Kimmie Weeks.[108][176][178] Following her performance at the 2008 MTV Movie Awards afterparty, she donated her $100,000 performance fee to building more schools in the country, telling the crowd, "It costs $52,000 to build a school for 1,000."[179][180][181] Winning the 2008 Official Soundclash Championships (iPod Battle) with her "M.I.A. and Friends" team, 20% of the following year's championship ticket sales were donated to her Liberian school building projects.[182] In 2009, she supported the "Mercy Mission to Vanni" aid ship, destined to send civilian aid from Britain to Vanni and controversially blocked from reaching its destination.[161] The country's navy announced that it would fire on any ship that entered its waters, and M.I.A. was singled out on the Sri Lankan army's official website after the singer announced her support for the campaign.[183] In 2011, following her performance at the Roskilde Festival, she donated $250,000 from the Roskilde Festival Charity Society to help bring justice to Tamil victims of war crimes and genocide and to aid advocacy and ensure legal rights for refugees and witnesses.[184]




Some awards and nominations M.I.A. has received are listed below.

  • Academy Award[77]
  • Alternative Turner Prize[24]
    • 2002: Shortlisted – M.I.A. – Maya Arulpragasam
  • World Soundtrack Awards
    • 2009: Nominated – "O... Saya"
  • ASCAP PRS Awards
    • 2009: Won – "Paper Planes"
    • 2009: Won – "Swagga Like Us"
  • BRIT Awards[185]
    • 2009: Nominated – British Female Solo Artist
  • BET Awards
    • 2009: Won – Best Female Hip Hop Artist[186]
    • 2009: Nominated – Best New Artist[187]
  • Grammy Awards[64]
    • 2009: Nominated – Record of the Year – "Paper Planes"
    • 2009: Nominated – Best Rap Song – "Swagga Like Us"
  • Groovevolt Music & Fashion Awards
    • 2005: Won – Best Alternative Album – Arular[188]
  • Mercury Music Prize
    • 2005: Shortlisted – Album of the Year – Arular
  • South Bank Show Awards
    • 2005: Nominated – Breakthrough Award – M.I.A.
  • Shortlist Music Prize
    • 2005: Shortlisted – Album of the Year – Arular
    • 2007: Shortlisted – Album of the Year – Kala
  • Q Awards
    • 2005: Nominated – Best New Act – M.I.A.
  • Independent Music Awards (Canada)
    • 2008: Nominated – International Album of the Year – Kala
    • 2008: Nominated – International Artist/Group/Duo of the Year – M.I.A.
  • UK Asian Music Awards
    • 2009: Won – Best Female Act[189]
  • Spin and URB magazines' "Artist of the Year" in 2005
  • Rolling Stone and Blender's "Album of the Year" 2007 – Kala
  • USA Today's "100 Most Interesting People of 2007"
  • The Village Voice's 2008 Pazz+Jop Poll: Singles Winner
  • TIME's 2009 Top 100 World's Most Influential People[4]


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