#20 TOP FEMALE RAPPER
ACTIVE: 2000 TO PRESENT
Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (born 18 July 1975), better known by her stage name M.I.A., is a British recording artist of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage.
She is also a songwriter, painter and director. “M.I.A.” is both a play on her own name and a reference to the abbreviation for Missing in Action.
Her compositions combine elements of electronic, dance,alternative, hip hop and world music. Arulpragasam began her career in 2000 as a visual artist, filmmaker and designer in west London before beginning her recording career in 2002.
Since rising to prominence in early 2004 for her singles “Sunshowers” and “Galang”, charting in the UK and Canada and reaching number 11 on the Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales in the US, she has been nominated for an Academy Award, two Grammy Awards and the Mercury Prize.
She released her début album Arular in 2005 and second album Kala in 2007 both to universal critical acclaim. Arular charted in Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Japan and the US, where it reached number 16 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart and number three on the dance/Electronic Albums chart.
Kala was certified silver in the united Kingdom and gold in Canada and the United States, where it topped the Dance/Electronic Albums chart. It also charted in several countries across Europe, in Japan and Australia.
The album’s first single “Boyz” reached the Top 10 in Canada and on the Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales in 2007, becoming her first Top 10 charting single.
The single “Paper Planes” peaked in the Top 20 worldwide and reached number four on the billboard Hot 100. “Paper Planes” was certified gold in New Zealand and three times platinum in Canada and the US where, as of November 2011, it is ranked the seventh best-selling song by a British artist in the digital era.
It has become XL Recordings’ second 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”. This became her highest-charting album in the UK and the US, reaching number nine on the billboard 200, topping the Dance/Electronic Albums chart and debuting in the Top 10 in Finland, Norway, Greece and Canada.
The single “XXXO” reached the Top 40 in Belgium, Spain and the UK. M.I.A. has embarked on four (soon to be five in 2013) global headlining tours and is the founder of her own multimedia label, N.E.E.T.. Her fourth studio album, Matangi, was released in 2013.
Arulpragasam’s early compositions relied heavily on the Roland MC-505 sequencer/drum machine. Her later work marked an evolution in her sound with rare instruments, electronics and unusual sound samples.
Critics have acclaimed a distinctive style to her music. Lyrically incorporating a range of political, social, philosophical and cultural references that have defied existing pop music conventions, Arulpragasam was one of the first acts to come to public attention through the internet. She posted many of her songs and videos from 2002 onwards on platforms such as MySpace.
In 2001, she received an”Alternative” Turner Prize nomination for her visual art.
In both 2005 and 2008, M.I.A. was artist of the year by Spin and UR Band Arulpragasam is named as one of the defining artists of the 2000s decade by Rolling Stone in its “Best of the Decade” list in December 2009. Esquire magazine ranked M.I.A. on its list of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century in January 2010 and also in January 2010 Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Life and career
1975–2000: Early life and education
Arulpragasam was born on 18 July 1975 in Hounslow in west London to Arul Pragasam, an engineer, writer and activist, and his wife, Kala, a seamstress. When Maya was six months old, her family moved to Jaffna, the cultural, political, and economic capital of the predominantly Tamilnorthern Sri Lanka, where her brother Sugu was born.
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 affiliated with the LTTE.
The first eleven years of Arulpragasam’s life were marked by displacement caused by the Sri Lankan Civil War.
Her family went into hiding from the Sri Lankan army, and Arulpragasam had little contact with her father during this period. She has described her family as living in “big-time” poverty during her childhood but also recalls some of her happiest memories from growing up in Jaffna.
Maya attended Tamil Hindu and Catholic 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.
During the civil war, soldiers would put guns through holes in the windows and shoot at the school, what she notes as “bullying exploitation.”
Her classmates were trained to dive under the table or run next door to English-language schools that, according to her, “wouldn’t get shot.”
Arulpragasam lived on a road alongside much of her extended family and played inside temples and churches in the town.
Due to safety concerns, Arulpragasam’s mother, Kala, relocated herself and her children to Madras in Tamil Nadu, India, where they lived in a derelict house and received sporadic visits from their father, Arular, who was introduced to the children as their “uncle” in order to protect them.
The family minus Arular then resettled in Jaffna temporarily, only to see the war escalate further in the northeast. During this time 9-year-old Arulpragasam’s primary school was destroyed in a government raid.
Kala then moved with her children back to London in 1986 a week before Arulpragasam’s eleventh birthday 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 1980s–2010.
Arulpragasam spent the rest of her childhood and teenage years living on the Phipps Bridge Estate in the Mitcham district of southwest London, where she learned to speak English, whilst Kala brought the children up on a modest income.
Arulpragasam entered the final year of primary school in the autumn of 1986 and quickly mastered the English language. Despite being the only Sri Lankan family in the area, the family were made welcome and faced no racial abuse during their time on the estate.
While living in the United Kingdom and raising her children, her mother became a practising Christian in 1990 and worked as a commissioned seamstress for the Royal Family for much of her career.
She currently works from her home in Tooting, south London.
Arulpragasam has had a difficult relationship with her father, due to his political activities in the 1980s and complete absence during much of her life. Prior to the release of the first album, which Arulpragasam had named after her father, Arular emailed her: “This is Dad. Change the title of your album. I’m really proud. Just read about you in the Sri Lanka Times. Dad.”
Maya chose not to change the album title.
Arulpragasam attended the Ricards Lodge High School in Wimbledon. After leaving school, she completed a degree in fine art, film, and video in June 2000 from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
Her initial application to the school was rejected, but she was finally admitted and received a scholarship, being told that she “had chutzpah”.
2000: Visual art and film
While attending Central St Martins College, Arulpragasam wanted to make films and art depicting realism that would be accessible to everyone, 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. Maya told 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.” She cited “radical cinema” including Harmony Korine, Dogme 95 and Spike Jonze as some of her cinematic inspirations during film school.
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 offer.
For her degree, M.I.A. prepared her departmental honours thesis on the film CB4.
Arulpragasam be friended students in the college fashion, advertising and graphics departments. She met Justine Frischmann, front woman of the British band Elastica, through her friend Damon Albarn at an Air concert in 1999, and Frischmann commissioned Arulpragasama to create the cover art for the band’s 2000 album, The Menace, and video document their American tour.
Arulpragasam returned to Jaffna in 2001 to film a documentary on Tamil youth, but was unable to complete the project because she encountered harassment.
In 2001, Arulpragasam’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.
The show was nominated for an Alternative Turner Prize and a monograph book of the collection was published in 2002, titled M.I.A.. Actor Jude Law was among early buyers of her art.
2000–07: Musical beginnings and Arular
Arulpragasam cites the radio broadcasts she heard emanating from her neighbours’ flats in the late 1980s as some of her first exposures to her earliest musical influences.
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.
In college she developed an affinity for punk and the emerging sounds of Britpop and electroclash. M.I.A. cites the Slits, Malcolm McLaren and the Clash as major influences.
By 2001, Arulpragasam 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 Arulpragasam to the Roland MC-505 and encouraged her to make music, a medium in which Arulpragasam lacked confidence.
While holidaying together in Bequia in the Caribbean, Arulpragasam began experimenting with Frischmann’s MC-505. She adopted her stage name, “M.I.A.”, standing for “Missing In Acton” during this time.
In her 2012 book Arulpragasam writes, “M.I.A. came to be because of my missing cousin. 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.”
Of her time in Bequia, she told “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”.
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”.
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.”
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.
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.
Major record labels caught on to the popularity of “Galang”, and M.I.A. was eventually signed to XL Recordings in mid-2004.
Her debut album, to be titled Arular, was finalized by borrowing studio time.
M.I.A.’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. These themes inspired her treatment for the music video, the first she wrote. It was filmed in the jungles of South India, which she has described as her favourite. “Galang” was re-released in 2004. In September 2004, M.I.A was first featured on the cover of the publication The FADER, in its 24th issue.
The music video for “Galang” made in November of that year showed multiple M.I.A.s against a backdrop of militaristic animated graffiti, and depicted scenes of urban Britain and war that influenced her art direction for it. 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 “” were released as12-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 to positive critical acclaim.
M.I.A. made her North American live debut in February 2005 in Toronto where concertgoers already knew many of her songs.
In March 2005, M.I.A.’s debut album Arular was released worldwide to critical acclaim after several months delay.
The album title is the nom de guerrethat 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. 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.
“Galang”, “Sunshowers”, “Hombre” 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.
M.I.A. worked with one of her musical influences Missy Elliott, contributing to the track “Bad Man” on her 2005 album The Cookbook.
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 summer stage, 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 generally and the first encore following a tent performance at Coachella.
She also toured with Roots Manuva and LCD Sound system, and ended 2005 briefly touring with Gwen Stefani and performing at the Big Day Out festival.
On 19 July 2005, M.I.A. was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize for Arular. According to the music review aggregation Metacritic, it garnered an average score of 88 out of 100, described as “universal acclaim”.
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.
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.
2007–09: Kala and world recognition
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 US.
“I think traveling really helps. I know some musicians who have studios in Trinidad. There’s a collective of artists and painters there now who went to Central Saint Martins College [in London] with me. They live there and make art. It’s neat to see that-[people] not led by money or pretentiousness. It’s a small community, but you really have the space to observe and digest the culture. You go to a place where social commentary is rare and important and you can serve people. That’s what’s inspiring to me-finding someplace where people haven’t already seen themselves in a certain light.”
—M.I.A., Interview with Kehinde Wiley
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 avant-garde electronic dance music.
The songs, artwork and fashion of Kalahave been characterized as simultaneously celebratory and infused with raw, “darker, outsider” themes, such as immigration politics, personal relationships and war.
In February 2007, the first track from the album to be made available to the public was “Bird Flu”, which was posted with an accompanying music video to her MySpace. 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.
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.
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 US and Canada, certified Gold in New Zealand, and becoming the 29th most downloaded song in the digital era in the US and earning a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. “Paper Planes” is to date XL Recordings’ second best selling single, and by November 2011 it had sold 3.6 million copies in the US, currently the seventh best-selling song by a British artist in the digital era.
In 2007, M.I.A. also released the How Many Votes Fix Mix EP which included a remix of “Boyz” featuring Jay-Z.
“Paper Planes” is one of M.I.A.’s most popular songs. On this song she collaborated with Florida-based DJ Diplo. Their work on this song landed him a Grammy nomination for Record of the year and got number three in the U.S. Charts.They also worked together on her first album “Arular” Like its predecessor, universal acclaim met Kala’s release in August 2007 and the album earned anormalised rating of 87 out of 100 on the review aggregator MetaCritic.
Kala was a greater commercial success than Arular. To support Kala, M.I.A. performed at a series of music festivals on the Kala Tour featuring performances in Europe, America and Asia. She performed three dates opening for Björk in the US and France.
In 2008, M.I.A. provided guest vocals on Buraka Som Sistema’s kuduro song “Sound of Kuduro”, recorded in Angola with an accompanying video. The same year, M.I.A. and director Spike Jonze filmed a documentary in Woolwich, South London, in which they both appeared with Afrikan Boy, a Nigerian immigrant rapper and she disclosed plans to launch her own record label, Zig-Zag.
She ended the year with concerts in the United Kingdom. By year end,Kala was named the best album of 2007 by publications including Rolling Stone and Blender.MetaCritic reported in 2010 that Kala was the tenth Best-Reviewed Electronic/Dance Album on Metacritic of the 2000 – 09 decade, one position below her debut album Arular.
M.I.A. performed on the People vs. Money Tour during the first half of 2008. 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.
In 2008, M.I.A. started her independent record label N.E.E.T. Recordings. 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.
M.I.A. contributed songs for A. R. Rahman’s score of the film Slumdog Millionaire, which included the collaboration “O…Saya”; 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.
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.
M.I.A. is the first person of Asian descent to be nominated for an Oscar and Grammy award in the same year.
M.I.A. performing at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in August 2009
At the 2009 BRIT Awards in February, M.I.A. was a nominee for Best British Female Artist. 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.
3D photographic images of M.I.A. by Martinez were commissioned in April of that year. In August 2009, M.I.A. began composing and recording her third studio album in a home studio section in her Los Angeles house.
In January 2010, M.I.A. posted her video for the song “Space”. While composing it, she helped write a song with Christina Aguilera called “Elastic Love” for Aguilera’s album Bionic.
By April 2010, the song and music video/short film “Born Free” were leaked online. 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.
Although not an official single, the song charted in Sweden and the United Kingdom. M.I.A.’s third album, Maya — stylised as/\/\ /\ Y /\ — was released on 23 June 2010 in Japan with bonus tracks before its release in other countries.
Maya became M.I.A.’s highest charting album globally. Its release in the US was delayed by two weeks. The album garnered a generally favourable, although divided, reception from critics.
A more internet-inspired album illustrating how a multimedia artist worked within the music industry, elements of industrial music were incorporated into M.I.A.’s sound for the first time.
She described the album in an interview with Dazed & Confused as a mix of “babies, death, destruction and powerlessness”.
On 11 May 2010, the first official single from Maya, “XXXO”, was released and reached the top forty in Belgium, Spain and the UK. “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.
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.” She completed her live tour dates on the Maya Tour in summer of 2011.
From 2000 until 2010, she 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” as well as personally choosing the directors for the videos of her songs Galang, Sunshowers, which she described in 2005 and again in 2011 as being her favorite video experience and favorite video adaptation of a song of hers, in her words as of 2011, “If you watch only one of my videos, please try Sunshowers”, “Jimmy,” “Born Free,” and “Bad Girls.” (which she described as her second favorite).
She directed a video for Rye Rye’s “Bang”. She judged in the Music Video category at the inaugural Vimeo Festival & Awards in New York in October 2010.
M.I.A. released her second mixtape, Vicki Leekx, on 31 December 2010, and followed this with Internet Connection: The Remixes, an EP to a bonus track from Maya in January 2011. M.I.A. performed on the song “C.T.F.O.” on SebastiAn’s albumTotal.
On 21 April 2011, it was reported that M.I.A. had been in the studio with Chris Brown, the Cataracs, Swizz Beatz and Polow da Don.
She co-wrote the song “Give Me All Your Luvin'” with Madonna and Nicki Minaj for the album MDNA and performed it at the Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show.
Controversially, instead of singing the lyric “shit” in the song, M.I.A. extended the middle finger to the camera. The N.F.L. responded by filing a lawsuit suing M.I.A. for million in damages and demanding a public apology from M.I.A.
Maya and her legal team also responded by saying that the league’s claim of “wholesomeness” in the lawsuit is hypocritical since the N.F.L. itself has had multiple situations of their own players and coaches behaving badly as well as health problems within the league, particularly concussions.
In September 2013 Maya released a video statement regarding the lawsuit. In her statement Arulpragasam said, “They’re basically [saying] it’s OK for me to promote being sexually exploited as a female, than to display empowerment, female empowerment, through being punk rock. That’s what it boils down to, and I’m being sued for it.”
She’s also featured in “B-Day Song”, another song included on MDNA.
The first buzz track of her fourth album, “Bad Girls”, taken from her Vicki Leekx mixtape, premiered on 30 January 2012, was released globally the day after, and was followed by a music video directed by Romain Gavras on 3 February 2012.
This received nominations for Video of the Year at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards and at the 55th Grammy Awards. The song become one of M.I.A.’s most successful singles, charting in the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Canada, United States, Switzerland, South Korea and Belgium.
On 29 April 2012 she posted a preview of a new song to YouTube, titled “Come Walk With Me”. The full version of Come Walk With Me was shared one and a half year later, on September 2013.
M.I.A. officially signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management in May 2012. Rihanna welcomed her to the family, tweeting, “welcome home MIA.”
She guested during Jay-Z’s set at the Radio 1 Festival in Hackney on 23 June 2012.
In October 2012, M.I.A. released an autobiographical book titled M.I.A. documenting “the five years of M.I.A. art that spans across three LPs: Arular, Kala, and Maya.” The book contains artwork as well as a foreword by frequent collaborator Steve Loveridge and various essays by M.I.A. On 3 March 2013, she released an 8-minute mix recording as part of a Kenzo fashion show in Paris.
Matangi, was recorded across the world with different collaborators. In relation to her previous albums, she described her fourth as “basically all of them together”, akin to an anthology.
The album was released on Interscope and M.I.A.’s label N.E.E.T. Recordings.
Release dates of 31 January 2013 and later, 15 April 2013 were announced, but the album remained unreleased. M.I.A. later revealed that the original project for Matangi was not accepted by Interscope, which claimed that the record was “too positive”.
“Bring the Noize”, produced by French producer Surkin and Switch, was announced as the second single and was released on 17 June 2013.
Soon after the single was released, the official video for “Bring the Noize” premiered on 25 June via Noisey.
On 9 August 2013, the album received an official release date of 5 November 2013 after M.I.A. threatened to leak the album due to the numerous delays by Interscope.
Matangi received generally positive reviews from music critics. In its first week of release, the album sold 15,000 copies and peaked at number 23 on the Billboard 200, falling to number 90 in its second week.
Overall, Matangi is M.I.A.’s lowest charting album worldwide.
On 31 December 2013 M.I.A. announced that she’s leaving Roc Nation.
M.I.A.’s music features styles such as electro, reggae, rhythm and blues, alternative rock, hip hop, grime, rap ballads and Asian folkand references to her musical influences such as Missy Elliott, Tamil film music, Lou Reed, Pixies,Timbaland, Beastie Boys and London Posse.
She was a childhood fan of Boney M, composer A. R. Rahman and pop artists Michael Jackson and Madonna, also she has cited Björk as an inspiration and has been influenced by The Slits,Public Enemy, Malcolm McLarena nd The Clash.
Noting her early inspirations, she said “When I would go to bed, I’d listen to the radio and dream about dancing and Paula Abdul and Whitney Houston, and that’s how I fell asleep. When my radio was burgled, I started listening to hip hop”. She has revealed her ideal karaoke song would be “Germ-Free Adolescents” by X-Ray Spex. M.I.A. describes her music asdance music or club music for the “other”, and has been described as an “anti-popstar” for refusing to conform to certain recording industry expectations of solo artists.
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. Artists including Nas, Chuck D and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana have praised her work.
She has also stated she is a fan of Beyoncé Knowles, stating “she’s like harder, faster, stronger. In our lifetime, she will be a classic, like how people talk about Aretha Franklin.”
Jimmy Iovine, the 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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Her considerable influence on American hip hop music as an international artist is described by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois in The Anthology of Rap as making her an “unlikely hip hop” celebrity, given that the genre was one of several influences behind M.I.A.’s “eccentric and energizing” music and that the musician’s unclassifiable sound was one example of how hip hop was changing as it came into contact with other cultures.
Similarly, Jeffrey H. Wallenfeldt writes in The Black experience in America : from civil rights to the present that no single artist may have personified hip hop in the 21st century better than M.I.A., in her “politically radical lyrics drawing from widely diverse sources around the world”.
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.”
The twisting of western modalities in her music style using multilingual, multiethnic soundscapes to make electroclash-pop albums is noted by Derek Beres in Global beat fusion: the history of the future of music (2005) to defy world music categorization.
In the book Downloading Music (2007), Linda Aksomitis notes the various aspects of peer-to-peer file sharing of music in the rise in popularity of M.I.A., including the advantages and disadvantages of the internet and platforms such as MySpace in the launch of her career.
Andy Bennett and Jon Stratton highlight in Britpop and the English Music Tradition (2010) how M.I.A. alongside musicians such as Sway and Dizzee Rascal created music that explored new soundscapes with new technologies, with lyrics expressing anger at Britain’s “racialized subordination of minority groups” and that the innovation that generates new musical forms like grime and dubstep are, inevitably, politically engaged. The chart success of grime-influenced artists like M.I.A. is heralded as a signal in the way that white Britons adapted to a new multicultural and plural musical mix in contrast to bands of the Britpop genre.
Furthermore, her work being used as a global resource for the articulation of differently located themes and its connections to many music traditions is noted by Brian Longhurst in Popular music and society (2007) to illustrate such processes of interracial dialogue. Gary Shteyngart writing in GQ notes that “M.I.A. is perhaps the preeminent global musical artist of the 2000s, a truly kick-ass singer and New York-Londony fashion icon, not to mention a vocal supporter of Sri Lanka’s embattled Tamil minority, of which she’s a member.”
M.I.A.’s stage performances are described as “highly energetic” and multimedia showcases, often with scenes of what Rolling Stonecritic Rob Sheffield describes as “jovial chaos, with dancers and toasters and random characters roaming the stage,” bringing various crowds with interests in art, music and fashion.
Camille Dodero, writing in The Village Voiceopined 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.” 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.
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.
In December 2010, USA Today listed M.I.A. at number 63 on its list of the “100 People of 2010”. M.I.A. placed number 14 on Rolling Stone ’s Decade-End Readers’ Poll of “Top Artists Of The Decade.”Rolling Stone named her one of eight artists who defined the 2000s decade.
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 Arularregarding 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.
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 during the Presidency of George W. Bush.
Government visits to her official website following her debut album’s release in 2005, and a US refusal to grant M.I.A. a travel visa coupled with her brief presence on the US 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.
The American Civil Liberties Union described the actions as part of a trend of ideological exclusion by the state which was detrimental to democracy by “censoring and manipulating debate”.
Afrikan Boy, anAfrobeat/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 Madras, Angola, Trinidad shantytowns, Liberia and London, and were well acclaimed.
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. 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.”
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.”
Her third album, Maya, tackled information politics in the digital age, loaded with technological references and love songs, and deemed by Kitty Empire writing inThe Observer to be her most melancholic and mainstream effort. Her genocide-depicting 2010 video for the single “Born Free” was deemed by Ann Powerswriting 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.
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. Some critics described the film as “sensationalist”. Neda Ulaby ofNPR 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Censorship on MTV of “Sunshowers” proved controversial and was again criticised following Kala release “Paper Planes”.
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. 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.
Despite the block, the video remained on her website and Vimeo, and has been viewed 30 million times on the internet.
Lisa Weems writes in the book Post colonial challenges in education how M.I.A. pointed out in her music how immigrants, refugees and persons of the third world can and do resist through economic, political and cultural discursive practices.
In light of her influence in modern culture and the historical and political significance embedded in both the instrumental music and lyrics of her songs, J. Gentry ofBrown University instructs a course from summer 2012 titled “Music & Politics: From Mozart to M.I.A.”, with the objective of academically exploring and examining the political messages and contexts of music and the way “music has consistently participated in and reflected the political debates of its time”.
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 Bartleyand is a long-time friend of designer Carri Mundane.
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.
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.”
Spin described her designs as “1000 watt Malcolm McLaren-meets-Basquiat”, that complimented her personal style that could “run from futurist aerobic instructor to new wave pirate to queenly candy raver”.
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.
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 1980s 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.
Eddy Lawrence of Time Out commented how her multi genre style contributed to her being beloved of the broad sheet fashionistas yet simultaneously patron saint and pin-up for the Day-Glo nu-rave kids.
Similarly, Mary Beth Ray, in the book Rock Brands: Selling Sound in a Media Saturated Culturewrites that M.I.A.’s hybrid style addressed a number of social and political issues including power, violence, identity and survival in a globalized world, while using avenues that challenged “traditional” definitions of what it meant to be a contemporary popartist.
M.I.A. was once denied entry into a Marc Jacobs party, but subsequently DJed at the designer’s 2008 fashion show after party, and modelled for “Marc by Marc Jacobs” in Spring/Summer 2008.
M.I.A.’s fashion and style landed her on Vogue’s 10 Best Dressed of 2008. She turned down her inclusion on People magazine’s list of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” the same year.
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.
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.
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.”
M.I.A.’s artistic efforts to connect this “extreme eclecticism” with issues of exile, war, violence and terrorism are both commended and criticized. 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. M.I.A. has been the muse of designers Donatella Versace and Bartley and photographers Rankin and David Bailey, whose spread documents the British musicians who defined the sound and style of rock ‘n’ roll.
On 1 July 2012 Maya attended the Atelier Versace Show in Paris, wearing clothing inspired from the designer’s 1992 collection.
In 2013 she released her own Versace Collection.
M.I.A.’s albums have generated widespread acclaim. Pop Matters 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.
Some detractors criticized M.I.A. early in her music career for “using radical chic” and for her attendance of an art school.
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”. He continued that while swayed by her chutzpah and ability to deliver live, he “was also turned off by the stencil-sprayed projection imagery of grenades, tanks, and so forth (redolent of the Clash with their strife-torn Belfast stage backdrops and Sandinista cred by association)” while the “99 percent white audience punched the air”, admonishing what he perceived as a “lack of local character” to her debut album.
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”.
Reynolds later argued that M.I.A. was the “Artist of the Decade” in a 2009 issue of The Guardian. 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.
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.
M.I.A.’s commentary on what she takes to be the oppression of Tamils, Palestinians and African Americans has drawn praise and criticism. The United States has restricted her access into and out of the country during her career since the release of her debut album.
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.
“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’.”
M.I.A. attributes much of her success to the “homeless, rootlessness” of her early life. A refugee icon, the EMP Museum’s 2008 Pop Conference featured paper submissions and discussions on M.I.A. presented on the theme of “Shake, Rattle: Music, Conflict, and Change.” She has used networking sites such as Twitter and MySpace to discuss and highlight the human rights abuses and war crimes that Sri Lanka is accused of perpetrating against Tamils, citing news articles, human rights group reports, government reports, her own experiences as a child and on her return to the island in 2001 to support calls for a cease fire.
M.I.A. has spoken of discussions with witnesses during and after the war as reinforcing the need for international intervention to protect and provide justice to Tamil people. As the 2009 Tamil diaspora protests gathered pace, she joined other activists in condemning the actions of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil populace as a slow “systematic” genocide. Telling TIME that she didn’t see anything wrong in sticking up for 300,000 trapped and dying people, M.I.A. 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. 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.” Consequently, she has been accused of being a “terrorist sympathiser” and “LTTE supporter” by the Sri Lankan government. Two weeks before his death, the Tigers’ Political Head B. Nadesan told Indian magazine The Week he felt 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.” Miranda Sawyer of The Observer highlighted 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.”
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.
Hate mail, including death threats directed at M.I.A. and her son, has followed her activism, which she also cited as an influence on the songs on her album Maya.
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.
“I’m not coming at it as a politician, it’s my own personal experience. And I just think that that’s just what people want to put out there, you know, ‘You don’t have the right to talk about this’. And they use me as a puppet to explain that to you, that only people who, you know, have a PhD in this shit are allowed to talk about this. Or that only politicians are allowed to talk about politics, and that’s why we’re fucked, because the cycle is constantly kept within that fucking framework. There aren’t more people standing up and telling their personal experience… if a normal civilian comes up and says ‘Hey, this happened in my village and I’m not happy about it’, we’re not allowed to talk about it. You have to follow this bureaucratic bullshit to get any sort of action, and it’s all part of this cycle. Like back in the day, we had ideals of revolution and fighting back, and most of the time that shit starts with individual people having personal relationships, these experiences. And now it’s so disconnected and the media can paint a picture for you…they make so much bureaucracy and politics, and I think taking away the personal aspects, the human aspects of these political issues is really wrong. Whether it’s the floods, or starving people in Africa, or whatever. It’s all funnelled through this channel, you really are not getting it from the horse’s mouth, you know?”
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.”
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.” She said in one interview, playing on the famous Lennon phrase “Give Peace a Chance” – “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?”.
In 2008, M.I.A. filmed from her Bed Stuy apartment window and posted on YouTube an incident involving a black man being apprehended by white policemen, which in light of the Sean Bell shooting incident, elicited commentary debating the force used for the arrest. She has spoken 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.
She told Nylon magazine that social networking site Facebook and Google’s development “by the CIA” was harmful to internet freedom. Some criticized the claim as lacking detail.
Following the 2011 United Kingdom anti-austerity protests and the 2011 London riots, during which her cousin’s jewellery shop in Croydon was attacked and looted, M.I.A. criticised 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 UK and “cut the poor people some slack.”
M.I.A. has been a supporter of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. In her own book, M.I.A. wrote regarding Wikileaks, “So obviously I love Wikileaks because, after I’d gone through the whole backlash, they were the first news information site to confirm any news on the Sri Lankan war in the truest form; they were the first to release information stating the truth about what had happened to the Tamils as I knew it and to reveal that the United Nations was aware that the Sri Lankan government was lying—war crimes had been committed but their hands were tied because any time anyone tried to impose sanctions, governments would walk out. I support Wikileaks because of that.”
She composed the theme to Assange’s television show The World Tomorrow and later stood by Assange’s side as he held a press conference at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where Assange was successfully granted political asylum by Ecuador in August 2012. “I ask President Obama to do the right thing. The United States must renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks,” Assange said at the press conference. She posted a photo of Assange from within the embassy, and later tweeted, “hummmm after this day 2 things have 2 happen….., either 500 cops turn up outside every rape case reported even if its without charge. or we get raped by the powerz that be and we deal 4 eva.” The tweets were in reference to an arrest warrant the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office issued in August 2010 for Assange on two charges: rape and molestation. Earlier in 2012 Britain’s Supreme Court denied an appeal by Assange to avoid extradition to Sweden to face these charges.
In November 2013, Assange appeared via Skype to open M.I.A.’s New York City concert. Also, on 18 September 2014 Maya tweeted a link to a documentary on YouTube entitled “The Internet’s Own Boy: Aaron Swartz”. The documentary is about the life of Aaron Swartz, who was a computer programmer, writer, political organizer and Internet hacktivist. In the same tweet Maya included a link and invitation to RSVP to a party to launch Julian Assange’s new book “When Google Met WikiLeaks”.
Ann Powers, in conversation with Billboard revealed that in trying to handle political issues and creating art, the musician did not want to compromise or keep silent. She notes that this method worked for The Clash, but that this was at a certain time and a certain place, that they benefitted from being a band, and that audiences were more used to seeing men being confrontational.
Conversely, Denise Sullivan writing in Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop (2011), noted that in contrast to other rock musicians, M.I.A. furthered the legacy of The Clash, “creating a controversy while doing so”.
Critic Jon Dolan of Spin noted M.I.A. may be a “confused revolutionary? brilliant provocateur?” and one of the most polarising yet thrilling figures in pop music today.
Sarahanna, writing in Impose magazine cited composer Igor Stravinsky in describing M.I.A.’s role as an artist who challenged the audience into breaking their mind from a conservative cycle of familiarity.
Baron writing in the Village Voice felt that although M.I.A.’s bloodline, politics and grievance meant that she was more informed than most and gave her “every right to be a partisan and were reason for caution,” he praised her efforts for leading thousands of American writers including himself to know of the situation in Sri Lanka as “brilliant”, noting her mainly humanitarian angle in her protesting of civilian casualties that had been vastly and disproportionately inflicted on Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and her courage in “putting her success and fame on the line to use every opportunity and avenue possible to remind Americans and people around the globe of this conflict” is pretty much the most admirable thing going in pop music.
On 20 November 2013 M.I.A. appeared on The Colbert Reportand was asked by host Stephen Colbert what she thought of America. After attempting to evade the question Maya ultimately responded with, “Well you know, in my mind, there’s no countries, you know it’s like; we’re all one, we all live on this planet.”
On 2 December 2013 Time asked M.I.A. who she would pick for its “Person of the Year” and she said her pick would be N.S.A. whistleblower Edward Snowden.
M.I.A.’s relationship with some media outlets has been controversial. M.I.A. confronted Pitchforkmedia in 2007, citing sexism and racist mechanisms as possible reasons for misattribution of some of her work in her career.
In 2010, M.I.A. tweeted “Fuck the New York Times,” after The New York Times published a critical article by Lynn Hirschberg about M.I.A. and the conflict that portrayed the musician as politically naive and hypocritical. Both M.I.A. and several pop culture media outlets were highly critical of Hirschberg’s article and reporting. Hirschberg later published a correction, apologizing for reporting quotes made by the artist out of order.
Rob Horning, writing for Pop Matters, believed that Hirschberg’s incorrect quotes were a deliberate effort to defame the artist. M.I.A. responded on her Twitter account, posting of a telephone number and asking followers to call in and give feedback on the piece, and the revelatory content of the conversations, which she secretly taped.
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.
M.I.A. supports a number of charities, both publicly and privately. She funded Youth Action International to help youth break out of cycles of violence and poverty in war torn African communities and set up school-building projects in Liberia in 2006.
She supports the Unstoppable Foundation, cofunding the establishment of the Becky Primary School in Liberia. During her visit to Liberia she met the then President of Liberia and rehabilitated ex-child soldiers. She also 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.
Following her performance at the 2008 MTV Movie Awards afterparty, she donated her performance fee to building more schools in the country, telling the crowd, “It costs to build a school for 1,000.” 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.
M.I.A. has also donated to The Pablove Foundation to fund paediatric cancer research, aid cancer families, and improve the quality of life for children living with cancer through creative arts programmes.
In 2009, she supported the “Mercy Mission to Vanni” aid ship, destined to send civilian aid from Britain to Vanniand controversially blocked from reaching its destination.
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.
In 2011, following her performance at the Roskilde Festival, she donated 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.
After approaching American DJDiplo at the Fabric Club in London, the two became romantically involved for five years.
From 2006 to 2008, M.I.A. lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesantneighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where she met Benjamin Bronfman (a.k.a. Benjamin Brewer), an environmentalist, founder of Green Owl, musician and member of the Bronfman family.
They became engaged and she gave birth to their son, Ikhyd Edgar Arular Bronfman, on 13 February 2009, just three days after performing at the Grammy Awards. In February 2012, it was announced that she and Bronfman had split.
In a 2013 interview with Ferrari Sheppard, M.I.A. commented on her relationship with Bronfman and his family’s wealth: “I think it’s weird. It’s not that I got with Ben and then suddenly I was a billionaire. You know? I got with Ben, and I realized that we do come from different worlds, but it’s interesting that it is more about the concepts of, again, elitism and power. Who Ben is on paper sounds way more powerful than who I am because of where he comes from.”