By John Fortunato
Gifted Sri Lankan refugee M.I.A. (a.k.a. Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam) has faced savage bloodshed, racial tension and hurtful injustice her entire life. But that heartbreakingly scandalous turbulence only provided serious ammunition for the foxy, dark-skinned artisan.
Alongside her mother, M.I.A. fled to England’s lower-class council estates at her renegade father’s insistence, escaping the war-torn nation of Sri Lanka for the less violent segregationist subclass of London’s poverty-stricken Surrey section. Graduating from the prestigious Central St. Martins College, where she studied film and created graffiti art, M.I.A. soon acquired a cheap ’80s-derived Roland TR-505 beat machine and began to cut and paste minimalist, dub-style, dancehall-related hip-hop while reluctantly becoming an exotic fashion plate.
M.I.A. received underground praise, then worldwide recognition for her exhilarating, multi-culti electroclash playground rhyme, “Galang,” the highlight of her compelling, Caribbean-accented, Bollywood-styled debut album, Arular (2005).
Born in the United Kingdom and raised in Sri Lanka and then in nearby India, M.I.A. appropriated the nickname of her father, Arul Pragasam, as album-title fodder. A militant guerrilla battling the majority Sinhalese Buddhists as the leader of the autonomous Eelam Revolutionary Organization, Arul thereafter aligned himself with the larger secessionist Tamil Tigers sect of northern Sri Lanka, fighting for equal rights while resisting the unfavorable federal settlements that have oppressed the native Hindu minority for decades. Resorting to roadside suicide bombings and other violent acts, the Tigers’ vicious terrorist tactics are intended to combat the inequity of heavy-handed government enslavement. Unlike radical Islam, the Tamil Tigers fight for sovereignty and independence, not tyrannical subjugation Ã la the fundamentalist murderers of the Taliban. However, in recent days the controversial Tigers broke a 2002 cease-fire agreement, launching a few deadly air attacks on the military from M.I.A.’s hometown of Jaffna, blowing up a civilian bus and bombing the Sri Lankan capitol, Colombo, in 2007 alone.
“I feel sad the Sri Lankans that make it out can’t talk about [the troubles]. There were two million military soldiers against 5,000 Tigers—which is now only 2,000. Something’s seriously wrong,” M.I.A. insists. “The week I got my graduate certificate from art school, someone said my cousin, whom I’d copied off in school, was dead. It was devastating.”
M.I.A. attempted to enlighten the outside world about the subjugation and repression she witnessed firsthand via a documentary, but fearful ultraconservatives lynched the anticipated film while absurdly aligning her with the terrorist uproar.
“I was constantly harassed by the police; I had to register at police stations just to get a hotel room. Tamil people are lined up like herds of animals in 100-degree heat. The army empties their goods into the mud; the babies are all gonna be dead by age five. They were disposable—it felt horrible. The Tamils are banned from census reports. The government could wipe out the whole race and there’d be no account. If you’re talking about terrorists, the group is as good or bad as the government they’re struggling against.”
M.I.A.’s combative, Cockney-cadenced lyrical discontent contrasts with Arular’s primal upbeat sway and crackling tropical riddims. Sure-handed Philadelphia DJ Diplo, her old flame, provides a few stomping beats and talented collaborators. A tone-deaf wild child with no prior musical skills, the scrappily resourceful M.I.A. became—startlingly—a universal superstar.