When she arrived in the U.K. from Sri Lanka at the age of 10, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam only knew two words of English: “Michael” and “Jackson.” Like her idol, Arulpragasam—now widely known as M.I.A.—has since knocked the international pop scene flat on its ass, using her critically acclaimed albums to introduce subjects like Third World injustice and sexism into the public discourse. While run-of-the mill pop stars rattle on about melting popsicles and euphemistic fireworks, M.I.A. tackles archaic gender roles (the video for “Bad Girls” features fast and furious, thugged-out Middle Eastern women shredding pavement while men cheer from the sidelines—a sardonic jab at laws banning female drivers in Saudi Arabia) and discrimination by way of ginger genocide (her harrowingly raw music video for “Born Free” dramatizes the execution of red-haired boys).
M.I.A.’s roots are largely responsible for the passion that motivates her. As a member of the Tamil community, an ethnic minority in northern Sri Lanka, M.I.A.’s childhood did not involve Crocs and strolls in the park. “I think my earliest memory of war was hearing the rattling of my windows and the adults telling us to go under our beds because there were bombs going off nearby,” she says of life in the small Tamil town of Jaffna. “That night no one went back to sleep. There was a full moon against the flames. Everyone thought the war would only last for a few hours. It ended up going on for 30 years.”
M.I.A.’s father, Arul Pragasam, a Tamil activist and former revolutionary, played a significant role in the birth of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), a now-defunct militant group formed to defend Tamil rights and foster an independent Tamil state. Growing up, M.I.A. was largely estranged from her father for her own safety. The few times she met him, he was introduced to her as an uncle. As the war grew nastier, EROS was swallowed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers, a more aggressive independence faction. Pragasam, weary of EROS’ violent tactics, ruptured his ties to the Tigers.
Before discovering her gift for sound, M.I.A. practiced visual arts and studied film at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. “For a working class immigrant in England, society’s expectations were that I’d become a cab driver or a supermarket attendant,” she says. “But then at home they wanted me to be a doctor. So for me, getting into art school was very liberating. It allowed me to get over the pressure. That’s why I didn’t care how I got in, I just wanted in!”
At the highbrow art institute, M.I.A. had trouble reconciling her syllabi with what was happening in the world outside of academia. “They would be talking about feminism in the ’70s context,” she says. “Meanwhile, I was raised in a culture in which I wouldn’t be caught dead shaking hands.” Failing to connect in the classroom, she preferred to wage a war of political discourse through art; she discovered that film and music could tackle social issues in ways that academic theory could not. She dug Dogme 95, the ’90s Danish, avant-garde filmmaking movement launched by directors including Lars Von Trier; the hyper-realistic, raw footage resonated with her. She preferred reality to abstraction or, in her words, “people running around in pigeon costumes.”
M.I.A. was trying to roll up and smoke her college diploma when she received a phone call informing her of her cousin’s disappearance back in Sri Lanka. “Up until that point, I was like, Fuck the war,” she says. “Fuck Sri Lanka. I live in England now—fuck all the bad shit. But when I got that phone call I was so angry that it motivated me to find out more about what was going on there.” Arulpragasam’s stage acronym stands for the moment she learned of her cousin’s fate—in a way, “M.I.A.” represents an alternate reality to her own life, the one she could have led had she remained in Sri Lanka.
To confirm her cousin’s death, M.I.A. chased down the only source that might have given her family closure: VHS tapes recorded by Tamil Tigers. The tapes included footage of war victims, interviews with Tiger leaders, and homemade propaganda clips, and were distributed through local grocery stores in Tamil immigrant enclaves. Tamil families used these tapes like newsletters that would hopefully provide insight into the safety of missing Tamil civilians. Determined to verify the circumstances of her cousin’s disappearance, M.I.A. traveled to Sri Lanka, and later Germany, visiting immigrants seeking political asylum and collecting all the tapes she could locate. At the time, they were the Tamils’ only means of disseminating and preserving their stories.
The communities she encountered in her search were supportive but hopeless. “They were never offered any therapy and the things they saw were just really raw,” M.I.A. says. “No one was really asking them about what happened, nobody really cared. So when they saw that I cared, they thought I was mad.”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed everything. By 2002, all Tamil tapes were considered terrorist property. “The Sri Lankan government exploited the hot topic of the 21st century to silence this whole ethnic group,” she says. “All the personal stories were lost.” Although M.I.A. hid her tapes in her mother’s attic, termites eventually consumed them.
Through the tapes she managed to amass, M.I.A. learned more about the Freedom Birds, an all-female faction of the Tamil liberation movement. She was instantly drawn to Nisa, one of many young girls tasked with guarding the Tamil communities. “Freedom Birds were all women who had no families. In Sri Lanka, when your parents die, it’s tougher for a young woman—because all decisions are traditionally made by their parents. When the decision-makers go, you become just an empty vessel.”
It was Nisa’s detached attitude, her unmistakable beauty, and her less-traveled path that grabbed M.I.A.’s attention. “All these girls had been raised in such overprotective environments,” she says. “They weren’t raised to have opinions, to be individuals, or to believe in feminism. Most of them were raised to be subservient, passive housewives. So when this dominant structure was suddenly lifted, they became the most vulnerable human beings. People were getting bombed, shelled, and droned everyday. And these women were like, ‘Fuck it! I’m just going to join so other kids won’t be in the same situation as me, and that’s what I am going to live for.’”
M.I.A.’s subsequent attempts at visual art were motivated by her desire to keep the memory of these women alive. She took stills from video closeups, particularly of Nisa, and enlarged them with the intent to summon their stories. Her first gallery show took place in 2001 at the Euphoria shop at London’s Portobello Road Market, a year after she designed the cover art for Elastica’s 2000 album, The Menace (her friend Justine Frischmann was the band’s lead singer). Most of her fine art work consisted of traditional Tamil revolutionary symbols juxtaposed with images of London’s consumerist culture. Actor Jude Law was one of her early buyers.