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M.I.A.


Outspoken, rebellious and unpretentious hip-hop rapper/activist, M.I.A. – meaning “missing in action” – would probably much prefer to let her avant-dance/pop music do the talking. However, stemming from a displaced upbringing via her Tamil refugee status, the London-born/Sri Lankan-raised “Maya” encountered subsequent phishing/bullying from high-brow parts of the manufactured media; that indeed made her even more determined and dedicated. Long before a certain chief put in place his “travel ban”, Maya’s politically-charged views resulted in her receiving an exclusion order from US Homeland Security. As a result, from 2006 the rapper could not obtain a travel visa to work or perform just as her breakthrough into the limelight looked imminent; ironically, she later relocated to L.A. with her child. If there were three tracks that defined M.I.A. the artist, these would simply be The CLASH-sampled `Paper Planes’ (a transatlantic smash in 2008), `Bad Girls’ (the subsequent theme to many a TV drama from 90210 to Class) and the anti-establishment stunner, `Borders’.
Born Mathangi Arulpragasam, 18 July 1975, Hounslow, London, at only six months old she was whisked away to stay in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, the birthplace of her seamstress mother, Kala. Mathangi’s activist father, Arul Pragasam, meanwhile, became a founding member of EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students), a political group siding with LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Extreme poverty for her family and the surrounding people culminated when she and her mother (her father now estranged) had to go into hiding from the Sri Lankan army. In the bloody troubles and civil war that ensued, her mother briefly took Mathanga and the family (including sister Kali and brother Sugu) to live in a derelict house in Madras, India, before returning to what they though was a safer environ in northeast Sri Lanka; her father would only visit when he could do so as her “uncle”. The last straw for the family was when 9 year-old Mathangi’s primary school was destroyed in a government raid; they then became refugees after moving lock, stock and barrel to the Phipps Bridge Estate in the Mitcham district of London. Her father, meanwhile, became a mediator between the warring factions of his home country, and as a result, Mathangi hardly saw him. Her mother had become a Christian in 1990, so while attending Central St. Martins College, Maya studied art, films and fashion. From there she met ELASTICA’s Justine Frischmann, who encouraged her to project and publish her works at London galleries. M.I.A. designed the cover of ELASTICA’s swansong single, `The Bitch Don’t Work’, in 2001.
Maya had always been fascinated by the music business, having been inspired by punk rock, hip-hop, and electroclash (The SLITS, PUBLIC ENEMY, MISSY ELLIOTT and BOW WOW WOW were just a taste of her likes). She then toured supporting PEACHES. Maya/M.I.A. shared an apartment with Justine, so access to a Roland MC-505 was the incentive to create experimental music. `Galang’ (a hybrid of dancehall, grime and world music) was one of the tracks that emerged from the pack and, with the backing of PULP’s Steve Mackey, Ross Orton and indie label, Showbiz, 500 limited-edition copies flew off the shelves in 2003. Subsequent airplay on college radio and file sharing meant that XL Recordings (via Interscope Records in the States) signed her almost immediately. They booked her studio time to work upon an album.
M.I.A.’s distinctive not-of-this-world look and tongue-twisting tribal hip-hop sound, guaranteed her at least minor chart spots for pseudo pro-terrorist `Sunshowers’, a re-vamp of `Galang’ and her debut album, ARULAR (2005) {*8}; named after the adopted name of her father. Released a few months on from her controversially-titled “Piracy Funds Terrorism Volume 1” mix-tape, and also spawning dance-floor faves such as `Bucky Done Gun’, `Fire, Fire’, `Hombre’ and `10 Dollar’, the record was nominated for both a Mercury and a Shortlist Music Prize. Further accolades from The Wire, Pitchfork and Slant Magazine, prompted NELLY FURTADO to sing her praises, whilst the rock/pop book, 1001 Albums To Hear Before You Die, described it as “the most sparkling debut since Madonna’s first album”.
Subsequently co-producing her sophomore set alongside Switch; and assisted by Blaqstarr, Diplo and Timbaland respectively, M.I.A.’s debut groundwork was such that anticipation was rife for KALA (2007) {*9}; complementing this time around, her mother. A transatlantic Top 40 entry, the record featured Nigerian MC, Afrikan Boy (on `Hussel’), The Wilcannia Mob (on `Mango Pickle Down River’) and the aforesaid TIMBALAND (on anchor track, `Come Around’). Miles more accessible than her first effort, opening salvo `Bamboo Banga’ sampled JONATHAN RICHMAN’s “Roadrunner” and a couple of Tamil-language movie soundtracks. The Burundi/BOW WOW WOW-esque `Bird Flu’ and `Boyz’, plus a chintzy cover of Bollywood’s “Disco Dancer” film, had the pure pop element attached, but it was in big hitter, `Paper Planes’, that proved her worth on the world stage. A sing-a-long-a catchy cut that combined The CLASH’s “Straight To Hell” with WRECKX-N-EFFECT’s “Rump Shaker” and soundbites from stellar boom-boom-boom-boom shotguns/cash registers, M.I.A. extended the longevity of the smash hit by donating it to the soundtracks for Pineapple Express and Slumdog Millionaire.
The symbolized and sample-tastic set, MAYA (2010) {*7}, proved that the artist could only stretch the pop experimentation so far. Though it reached the Top 10 in America despite her ban (and near Top 20 in the UK), her Midas touch effect couldn’t turn out a big enough single (bar `XXXO’) to take it a step further. Scaring a local laundromat half to death by way of multiple bricks and silverware in a tumble-dryer was too clever by far, and at times `Teqkilla’, `Steppin Up’ and the reggae-fried cover of Spectral Display’s `It Takes A Muscle’, were simply grating, not gyrating. Putting that to one side, M.I.A.’s re-interpretation of SUICIDE’s “Ghost Rider” on `Born Free’ and her throbbing hard-rock collaboration with Derek E. Miller on `Meds And Feds’, saved the album from a critical backlash.
A commercial sound deriving from an uncompromising star not yet at the top of her game, M.I.A. was learning fast the pitfalls of irking the establishment. On the back of her Julian Assange-inspired “Vicki Leekx” mixtape, and probably her best track-to-date, `Bad Girls’ (one of the first records on her self-financed N.E.E.T. label), an ill-informed invitation to perform at 2012’s Super Bowl XLVI’s half-time show, went somewhat awry. Whilst rapping out `Give Me All Your Luvin’, alongside MADONNA and NICKI MINAJ, Maya extended her middle finger to the camera; it cost her over $1m from the NFL sponsors who sued for breach of contract.
Sales slumped slighted by the time her heavily-delayed fourth set, MATANGI {*6}, emerged in the fall of 2013. Still, it was hardly a fail mark against her in the conservative or blue-collar America, though in Britain, the record only just scraped into the Top 75. Featuring the overtly- suggestive `Bad Girls’ single from a year and a half back, and relative flops `Bring The Noize’ and `Come Walk With Me’, the Switch and Surkin-produced album could be explicit, abrasive and claustrophobic at times. Despite `Exodus’/`Sexodus’ showcasing The WEEKND, MIA’s “brick”-rockin’-beats, so to speak, rapped with an almost unadulterated R&B coda that could be described as improv-hip-hop.
Numerous collaborations and cameos looked to be keeping 40-something MIA from getting back on track with own career. Whether this was the immediate cause-in-effect of poor-ish sales for MIA’s fifth set, AIM (2016) {*7}, one could only surmise. Making a Bollywood type video for 2015’s `Matahdatah Scroll 01 Broader Than A Border’ – featuring traditional Indian dancers – was noteworthy. However singles success eluded her for opener, `Borders’, a record which concerned her empathy for the war-torn Syrian refugees. The one-that-got-away was a seminal Brit hip-hop classic, whilst `Go Off’ and `Bird Song’ were quirky/kooky cuts that inspired a Marmite effect. Featuring Zayn from ONE DIRECTION on `Freedun’ and Dexta Daps on `Foreign Friend’ (produced as they were by SKRILLEX/BLAQSTARR), there was a sense that if this set failed the costs would outweigh her enthusiasm to carry on in her quest to cross the borders between politics and pop. To retire now at a time when she could add so much more to the political melting pot would be sacrilege.
© MC Strong/MCS Dec2018

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