Upon landing in Australia for her 2007 world tour, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam was asked by customs officials to sign an official document assuring the Australian government that she wouldn’t say or do anything politically damaging. Though still fairly unknown to the general mass of pop consumers, the Sri Lankan-Tamil rapper had earned a reputation for stirring up trouble, flaunting a fringe brand of freedom-fighter politics. If things went unchecked, the rising star known to her loyal fan base as M.I.A. could really embarrass the nation.

According to her account in Papermag magazine, the customs document officially maintained Australia’s commitment to free speech rights but suggested there was a definite limit to what the government would tolerate from the foreign-born, trash-talking celebrity. In other words, “watch it.” Many traveling performers might have erred on the side of caution after encountering such an ominous request from a host government, but M.I.A had no intention of holding back on her fans. She would set fire to the official entry documents in front of a live audience in Brisbane. By her account, the crowd went wild.

Since then, M.I.A. has proven again and again that she’s riding much more than a passing pop wave. As her albums continue to play throughout music festivals, radio stations, movie soundtracks, and dance halls around the world, it’s clear that beyond the pounding beats and grabbing lyrics, her work resonates deeply with a lot of people, like she’s saying something that they wanted to express themselves but couldn’t because they didn’t have the right sound effects.

Her 2007 album, Kala, along with her first album, Arular (2005), siphon both style and substance from the most unlikely enclaves of third world kitsch, flaunted for all their tawdry glory. Her inexplicable combinations of dance hall grooves, hip hop style rapping, gunshot samples, African tribal beats mixed with sub-continental truck horn melodies, didgeridoo riffs, and Bollywood hooks not only get catchier with each listen, but rally a real sense of pride from the margins. It’s her unabashed embrace of a sort of junkyard-refugee aesthetic which ignites a growing world politic, one which celebrates and elevates the “other,”—the backwards, the marginal, the tribal, the black and the dark.

M.I.A.’s work draws countless influences from the turbulent events of her life. The daughter of a Tamil revolutionary, little Maya grew up among the sounds of gun shots and bomb blasts in rural Sri Lanka. The on-and-off civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the government forced her family to live in refugee conditions for much of her childhood. For years she, along with her mother and siblings, lived in a cramped hut on her grandmother’s farm where there was no electricity or running water. When the war escalated and it was clear the family was in danger, the family relocated to India, where they somehow managed to find even worse living conditions. They then went back to Sri Lanka for a period before finally immigrating to London.

There, Maya-the-teenager had to learn English, relying on television sitcoms and local hip hop stations as her tutors. She eventually found a sense of belonging within the varied subcultures of the London street scene, embracing the diverse styles and sounds of the city. The sing-song cadence of spoken Patois, the power chords of punk rock, and the flowing rhymes of London rap would all find their way into her work. She found her way into the prestigious Central Saint Martins Art School where she studied film, fine art, and video. After graduating and making headway in the art world with some well-received paintings and graphic design gigs, she purchased a Roland MC-505 sequencing machine and began making beats. With that, she was able to create a six-song demo tape which would eventually get her noticed by London producers. She would soon complete her first album, Arular, which would almost immediately ignite the world of pop music, then fortified mostly by gangsta rap and bubble gum pop, sealing M.I.A.’s meteoric trajectory.

A legacy of revolution

When reviewing Arular, many critics were not sure how to categorize the music: Is it hip hop? Dance hall? World fusion? More obvious than the style of music was the nature of its content, so a few critics categorized it as a political album. Arular was simultaneously hailed and criticized for its deeply subversive content. The album’s title refers to M.I.A.’s father’s nickname which he got during his work with the Tamil Independence Movement. On the surface, the album glorifies M.I.A.’s revolutionary heritage. Her lyrics are obsessed with violence, disaster, revolt, and bombs. She expresses sympathy with labeled terrorists who, from her perspective, are freedom-fighters forced to use violence as a means to liberation. Most infamously, in the song “Sunshowers,” M.I.A. communes with her inner suicide bomber, chanting: “It’s a bomb yo / So run yo / Put away your stupid gun yo / Cause see through like a protocol call / Which is why we blow it up ‘for we go!”

Earlier in the track, she compares herself to the P.L.O., singing, “You wanna go? / You wanna win a war? / Like P.L.O I don’t surrendo!” The Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) has been found responsible for blowing up buses and sending suicide bombers into civilian clusters. Any type of association with suicide bombers remains a touchy subject for Western audiences, but it didn’t stop people from buying her CDs and waiting in long lines to see her perform. Despite Arular’s flaunted sympathies with terrorist organizations, drug dealers, and generic thuggery, M.I.A. retained political credibility among her fans and critics.

Listening to the album, it’s pretty clear that Arular doesn’t inspire a thirst for violence, but rather sorts out the scarring themes of a violent world and puts them to beats that people can’t help but want to dance to. In a Nirali magazine interview, M.I.A. said of her lyrics, “Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs. Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked.”

You don’t know the power of the dark side

The flaccid attempt by Australian customs officials in 2007 to subdue M.I.A.’s performance was not the first time M.I.A. had a negative run-in with customs. In 2006, while getting ready to produce her much-anticipated second album, Kala, alongside hip hop guru Timbaland, the United States denied her visa. For the record, it’s unclear why her visa was rejected; however, most journalists and bloggers speculated it had much to do with the seditious content of Arular. When she heard the news she posted this message on her Myspace page: “ROGER, ROGER DO YOU HEAR ME? OVER!!!! THE US IMMIGRATION WON’T LET ME IN… NOW I’M STICTLY [sic] MAKING MY ALBUM OUTSIDE THE BORDERS!!!”

Her message suggests real glee over the freedom to create a new sound. M.I.A. would travel to India, Trinidad, Jamaica, Australia, and Liberia to compile the immense range of beats, performances, and samples that would make up Kala. Where Arular points toward the more violent, warrior lifestyle of her revolutionary father, Kala, named after her mother, speaks to a more vulnerable side of M.I.A.’s past.
It’s no accident that among South Asians, the word “kala” means “dark” or “black.” Throughout much of South Asia, darker skin carries a stigma of undesirability. During her childhood in Sri Lanka, M.I.A. grew up within the fair/dark dichotomy, rooted in thousands of years of sub-continental race politics. She consumed Indian pop culture, while belonging to a nation, Sri Lanka, which, in many Indian minds, represented racial. ethnic, and political “darkness.”

Kala seeks justice for those marginalized by darkness. In the song “Jimmy,” she samples the song “Jimmy Aaaja Jimmy,” from the 1983 Bollywood masterpiece, Disco Dancer. As a child she would frequently perform a dance routine which she choreographed to the song for friends and family, blasting it at full volume on a portable tape player. The video for “Jimmy” introduces M.I.A. dressed in gold, waving a collection of gold goddess arms to the beat. Bollywood aesthetics often exclude darker skinned actors and actresses from the best roles. But M.I.A., a brown-skinned Sri Lankan, appropriates the typically fair-skinned glamour of Bollywood and turns the pigment hierarchy on its head.

Kala cranks up the volume on marginalized cultures and traditions that would otherwise remain on the fringes. The bulk of the album showcases work done in developing countries, performed and recorded by local artists and producers. In the song “Mango Pickle Down River,” M.I.A. records The Wilcannia Mob, a hip hop group of five aboriginal boys who rap about life on the river. Throughout the track, one of the boys toots on a homemade didgeridoo made from a gum branch. The Wilcannia Mob represent their outback town of Wilcannia, in South Wales, Australia, where Aborigines make up more than half of the 760-person town. M.I.A.’s rhymes flow so perfectly with the Wilcannia Mob’s trance inducing groove; it’s easy to forget there was ever any distance between them.

Since when is brown the new black?

Grammy night, 2009, the same night Maya Arulpragasam expected to deliver her first baby. She came out donned in carefully placed black and white polka dots, swinging her pregnant belly to the sounds of gunshots, bumping fists, and slapping hands with screaming fans jumping up and down next to the stage. The curtain opened to reveal Jay Z, T.I., Kanye West, and Lil Wayne, who took turns showing off their respective flow as M.I.A repeated the sample, “No one on the corner has swagga like us, swagga swagga like us” probably 100 times throughout the performance.

Even though nobody was really sure whether she would even perform or not—she arranged for transportation to the hospital in case her water broke during the ceremony—M.I.A. managed to rock her one lyric routine hard enough to seal the Grammy Awards-performance as a smash. Of course, she had help from the cacophony of A-list rappers, but looking back, it’s hard to remember what they did, really. Not that they were dull, it’s just, how do you top a performer who could literally, at any second, have a baby on the stage?

Just hours after the performance, Arulpragasam gave birth to her first son, Ikhyd. It’s hard to fathom a nationally televised performance at the Grammys being the second most important event of anyone’s day, but M.I.A pushes new limits of hardcoreness. She would have to miss the Oscars (she was nominated for best song) to take care of the baby, but she wasn’t slowing down for long.

Her next live performance was the Saturday show at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, the second year in a row she played the show, the third time in only the last five years, each time on a bigger stage. True, she was booked after the main lineup was announced, replacing a troubled Amy Winehouse. But really? Two years in a row at Coachella? 20 months after the release of Kala, M.I.A. can’t help getting bigger and bigger, loving the attention like a peacock in heat. With all this happening, can M.I.A. still be the revolutionary, brash, trash-talking, political instigator?

She addresses that question head on, writing on her blog:

“I want you to know that, everyone has been asking me on the shows to talk about the sudden popularity im experiencing, the babies, the grammies the oscars etc, and i want you to know that this has been part of the plan from day 1. this is the only oppotunity i have had to do something about the genocide in Sri Lanka and im seizing that opportunity so for a lil while im gonna go from being M.I.A. TO I.Y.F.
IN YA FACE!!!!!!!!!!!” [sic]

Dev Das is a freelance writer and script consultant for UTV Motion Pictures.