Who is M.I.A, the hottest name in hip-hop right now?
Numéro looks into the M.I.A. phenomenon on the release of her new album “A.I.M” on September 9th. A rough guide in three points…
1. A LONG TERM COMMITTAL
Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (her real name) was born in 1975 in Hounslow, London with activism and energy to make things happen already carousing through her blood. Her father is Arul, an engineer and writer, her mother Kala, a seamstress (hence the taste for out-there styles favoured by her daughter, Kala later worked for the royal family). When she was six months old the family moved to Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, and her father found himself leading the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students who fought for independence in Tamil territory. When Jaffna was in the midst of civil war, Maya was taught how to hide and run in case of attack or if her school was destroyed in a raid. On returning to London aged 11 as a refugee Maya was confronted with numerous racial discriminations. Her father – with whom she has a conflicting relationship due to his frequent absences – continued to fight in Sri Lanka. M.I.A. (an abbreviation of “Missing In Action)” took up her own weapons in the form of song lyrics. The (appalling) situation of the refugees is a recurring theme in M.I.A’s work, from “Paper Planes” and the video for “Border” at the end of 2015 to her latest album A.I.M. Her mixing of musical genres resounds like a military act with this rapper who seamlessly blends electro, rap and world music. Firmly in touch with her origins, you can bump into the 41-year old star (now a mother) buying jewellery and chatting in the Tamil neighbourhood of Paris “Gare de l’Est/Gare du Nord/La Chapelle” also known as “Little Jaffna”.
2. AN UNUSUAL PATH
Following some complicated teenage years (when she hung out with a member of the notoriously dangerous Brick Lane Massive), M.I.A was accepted at the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s College. She specialised in video making and planned to make films about the inequality, violence and unfairness of society. She found her peers unconcerned about the world around them, but she did make friends with the lead singer of Elastica, Justine, through Damon Albarn, who asked her to do the album cover and a documentary about the tour. Inspired by the Dogme movement, Harmony Korine and Spike Jonze, the apprentice video-maker (who would later become very close to Romain Gavras) wrote a script that caught the eye of film maker John Singleton. But she decided to finish her thesis on a comic film rather than move to L.A. to join him. In 2001 Maya went back to Jaffna to make a documentary on the Tamil youth, but had to give it up due to political pressure. Instead she organised a “neo pop art” private view in London and showed graffiti and canvases mixing up Tamil images with visuals of UK consumerism. She won a prize, did a book and Jude Law bought one of her paintings. That same year she had a decisive meeting with Peaches who introduced her to the joys of the Roland MC-505 sequencer and this punk fan found a new vocation.
3. COURTING CONTROVERSY
M.I.A hasn’t just made friends during her career and isn’t scared to say what she thinks, particularly about the elite and the likes of Julien Assange, Missy Elliot, Rihanna, Jay-Z (who signed her) and Kanye West (who wanted to marry her according to rumours). Banned from visiting the USA and constantly receiving death threats (one of the reasons why A.I.M. will be her last album), this “citizen of the world” striving to raise awareness has been accused of sympathising with terrorists after featuring symbols used by the Tamil Tigers, the armed collective who fought against the Sri Lankan government. Among her enemies are the New York Times, the NSA, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga... and lots of footballers. After flipping the bird live with Madonna and Nicki Minaj (a powerful gesture against the sexual exploitation of woman, she would later explain) at the Super Bowl half time show in 2012, the league of American Football tried to sue her. In her “Borders” video she wore a customised PSG football shirt. The logo of the sponsoring airline company “Fly Emirates” was replaced by “Fly Pirates”. The club wrote to the artist asking her to remove these images and for compensation. Instead M.I.A went public on her Twitter account. A true pirate of pop, long before Beyoncé started doing politics she hasn’t said her final word. M.I.A. is now putting pen to paper with her first novel.
AIM from M.I.A (Polydor). Available from 9th september.
By Violaine Schütz