A universally respected musical and visual artist with a two-decade-long career spent writing music with the world’s most talented producers, topping international charts, and touring every corner of the globe. A survivor of a bloody and seemingly endless civil genocide, an outspoken civil rights advocate, and passionate social activist. A woman of color, an artist, a leader, and a mother. Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam has lived an entire lifetime several times over; so much so that all of the titles listed above seem like they couldn’t all possibly belong to the same woman. But those, along with an extensive list of other accomplishments and accolades, barely scratch the surface of what it means to be M.I.A. in all of her glory.
Just this year, NPR named her claim-to-fame, chart-topping hit "Paper Planes" as number one in their article titled "The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+," beating out American-born pop icons like Lana Del Rey and Beyonce. Even international sensations like Grimes and Amy Winehouse couldn’t stack up to Maya and capture the coveted top spot on that list. In 2006 the song “Paper Planes,” written by Maya and acclaimed producer Diplo, went triple platinum in the U.S. and Canada. It plays like a light-hearted rap ballad about weed and acquiring currency, but the underlying subtext portrays a satirical commentary on the prevailing stereotypes which burden immigrants when seeking asylum in a new land. Truly, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know every word of this anthem’s chorus, complete with hand motions and gunshot sound effects—but the subtle political message escapes people in the moment. The light-hearted singalongs aren’t without a deeply personal and profound political message.
The small island country of Sri Lanka, like many non-European countries, was colonized under British rule and used as a capital-generating enterprise for Britain. Ceylon, as it was known by the colonizing forces, exported many crops like coffee and rubber until the people won independence from Great Britain in 1948 and demanded to be recognized as Sri Lanka. The country is home to three major ethnic groups; 82% of the people are Sinhalese, about 10% are of Tamil ethnicity, and the remaining majority is Sri Lanka Moor. Sri Lanka has been embroiled in civil war since time immemorial, beginning shortly after the end of colonization. Despite being born in the U.K., Maya and her family are members of the Tamil ethnic group and at six months of age, she and her family moved from Great Britain to Jaffna, a predominantly Tamil cultural hub in northern Sri Lanka. Her father became deeply involved in political resistance as a leader of a Tamil militant organization known as Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, closely affiliated with the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), whose leader was executed by the Sri Lankan government in 2009. During the bloody Tamil resistance spanning from 1972 to the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2009, over 70,000 lives were lost on both sides of the conflict.
Maya, who was a school-aged child during the worst of the conflict, can clearly recall she and her classmates being conditioned to take shelter under desks from flying bullets while trying to focus on her art lessons, master the English language, and find time to play with the other kids her age. When she was nine years old, an explosive government attack completely leveled the building that once housed Maya’s primary school, bringing the gravity of the situation into a new light. Because of her father’s involvement in the Tamil resistance efforts, Maya’s mother constantly feared for the safety of her children, and for a while the family had to go into hiding and move into dilapidated living quarters for their own protection. For years, Maya and her siblings knew her father only as an “uncle” whom they rarely visited or communicated with. When Maya was eleven and the family was faced with a life-altering decision to stay put amidst the horrendous social unrest or to flee. As tensions came to a boiling point and the violence escalated, the family returned to the U.K. and settled in South West London, where Maya completed her education and received a degree in film in 2000. Cultivating an early love of music and visual art, Maya had spent her formal education years creating visual art through the lense of realism, which led her to form a close friendship with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann, who soon became Maya’s roommate and mentor. Justine commissioned her to design an album cover and document their American tour with supporting act and fellow female pop icon Peaches.
From here, Maya’s musical inclinations carried her through the construction of her first album, named “Arular” after the father she had barely known. She spent the better parts of 2003 and 2004 writing and composing a dancehall, electro-jungle sound that was totally unique. This was the height of the MySpace era, in which the end-all-be-all of coolness was dictated by the social networking and music streaming site; M.I.A. was catapulted into the public eye as her effortless flow, unrefined style, and unapologetic attitude brought her to the foreground of the music industry. To put this in perspective, M.I.A. was a non-white music icon known not for her sexual provocativity or physical appearance but for her raw individuality, her avant garde fashion sense, and her universal understanding of how to make music with a massive global appeal. In 2009, a very pregnant M.I.A. took the stage at the 51st Grammy Awards Ceremony to perform with Kanye West and T.I., long before performances by pregnant women became commonplace amongst prevalent artists like Cardi B and Beyonce.
Since the dawn of musical composition, there has always been an element of opposition and resistance in music. Music as an art form lends creative license to say what the artist feels they could never or would never dare convey otherwise. M.I.A.’s music and accompanying video content have always pushed the envelope and forced people to explore complex and double-sided issues. When M.I.A. released her video for the single “Born Free” depicting a gruesome, imaginary genocide of people with red hair and freckles, the public responded with horror. This affirmed that Maya’s objective had been fulfilled successfully; present a horrifying topic that people have become apathetic to, but frame it in a way that forces people to object to the fundamental principle of the content they are viewing. Drawing attention to human-rights violations internationally has been a major focus for Maya’s work, both past and present, as she references a variety of issues in her music including extreme poverty, the treatment of refugees, and immigration.
In a way, Maya’s story is reminiscent of a growing number of young people who have been displaced due to violence, civil unrest, and unstable political regimes in their homelands. In order to make informed decisions when it comes to the treatment of refugees and the way we regard injustice in countries outside our own, it is important to hear the first-hand accounts of those affected. As early as 2001, Maya had planned on using her knowledge of filmmaking and her lived experiences to tell the story of the Sri Lankan youth trapped in the crossfire of the Tamil resistance. When she initially returned to Sri Lanka to film, she was met with resistance. Now, over 17 years later, Maya’s aspirations are coming to fruition, and her biographical documentary film will be released on September 21st in the U.K. and in select theaters on September 28th in the United States. Directed by Steve Loveridge, the film details Maya’s upbringing, her rise to international stardom, and the obstacles she has had to overcome along the way. Yes, the film will painfully detail heartbreaking accounts of the terror and destruction brought about by the civil war in Sri Lanka. It is important to understand the gravity of a political genocide widely ignored by the mainstream media where young lives are being lost every day. Included in this staggering figure are the lives of several members of Maya’s immediate family. Once you can understand the emotional state of the artist, you can appreciate the art so much more. A day prior to attending the advanced screening of “MATANGI/ MAYA/ M.I.A.,” I watched Maya perform at the All My Friends music festival in Downtown Los Angeles. I was deeply struck by her powerful stage presence, the glow of confidence that surrounds her, and her deep loyalty to her cultural roots. She performed adorned in traditionally inspired garments, bringing the crowd to a deafening ovation with each song in her set. Her youthful presence, boundless energy, and tangible gratitude place her among the most legendary and memorable artists of our lifetime; to add this film as yet another accomplishment to her long list of achievements is a testament to the resilience, versatility, and timelessness of all that is M.I.A.