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M.I.A., No Loss For Words

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005

IN "PULL UP the People," M.I.A. raps "slang tang, that's the M.I.A. thang / I've got the bombs to make you blow / The beats to make you bang."

Which turns out to be both an encapsulation of the London-based singer's style and a source of controversy among some listeners who appreciate M.I.A.'s multicultural mashups (a pastiche of hip-hop, electro, Jamaican dancehall, reggaeton, garage rock, Brazilian baile funk, grime, Bollywood bhangra and video game soundtracks) and her penchant for slang, slogans and nursery rhyme couplets, even as they question the provocative political underpinning of her music, dismissing it as ditsy disco dressed up as revolutionary chic.

The thing is, M.I.A. embodies such contradictions -- culturally, politically and musically -- and it's probably what made her debut album, "Arular," one of the year's most hyped releases. Almost a year before its official March release, M.I.A.'s music was a hot Internet currency through the politically charged singles and videos for "Galang" and "Sunshowers," and New Yorker magazine, compelled by her back story, profiled her months before anybody in America could access the album.

M.I.A.'s father, a Sri Lankan intellectual who had moved to London in 1971 to work as an engineer, helped found the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) in 1975, just three years before she was born Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam. EROS was one of the first Tamil political organizations -- Tamil Hindus being the ethnic minority in Sinhalese Buddhist-dominated Sri Lanka -- to seek the creation of an independent state (Tamil Eelam), and it evolved into one of several militant groups engaged in a civil war now into its third decade (the most notorious group being the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as Tamil Tigers and regarded as the inventors of suicide bombing as a political tactic, though a disowned one since Sept. 11, 2001).

A.R. Arulpragasam reportedly trained in Lebanon with Palestinian militants before taking his family back to Sri Lanka when M.I.A. was 6 months old. Not surprisingly, he was constantly on the move, and M.I.A. saw her father only sporadically. Still, M.I.A. was surrounded by violence -- a school she was attending was destroyed during a government aerial bombing campaign -- and as the civil war worsened, she, her siblings and mother fled to India, while her father remained in Sri Lanka. After returning briefly to Sri Lanka, the family, without Arulpragasam, resettled in a London public housing project. M.I.A. was 11.

"I came to England with the understanding that he didn't really play a part in my life anymore," M.I.A. says of her father, now a writer. "And that's how I survived and why I've been really independent and getting on with life. I don't really stop to think about what it would be like if I met him again or had conversations with him."

Though she hadn't seen her father since 1990 -- about the time he was trying to mediate a peace process in Sri Lanka -- M.I.A. named her album "Arular," after his name within the Tamil independence movement, and her mother complained it was the only thing he'd ever given her. The title led to some rare communication: After reading about M.I.A. in the Sri Lankan Times, Arulpragasam sent her a note saying, "I'm very proud of you, but you have to change the name of the album. Dad."

She didn't.

"What can you do?" she asks pointedly. "There's many things I'm not pleased about that he 's done, so hey. . . . "

Arriving in London in 1986, M.I.A. knew only four words in English, two of them "Michael Jackson."

"I was really obsessed," she laughs, "but so was the whole nation. There were a lot of little Michael Jacksons walking around Sri Lanka."

She improved her vocabulary listening to the radio and watching television and soon fell under the sway of hip-hop.

"Where I lived, there was one black family and they lived next door to us," M.I.A. recalls. "And they had a kid who listened to hip-hop all the time with his mates. It was a bit rowdy, a bit dangerous, listening to unknown music, but eventually I wanted to hang out, and that's how I learned hip-hop -- there, and on pirate radio stations, at school and at the playground."

Continuing to absorb London's polyglot sounds -- "every flat had a different culture" -- M.I.A. attended Central St. Martin's School of Art and Design in London, studying documentary film, video and fine art, and eventually developing a mixed-media style that reflected her childhood experiences and feelings as a refugee: colorful, neon-bright, spray-painted stencils of tigers and palm trees, hand grenades and molotov cocktails, tanks, helicopters and war planes. You can see it on the cover and in the liner notes of her album and on her Web site, http://www.miauk.com/ . Besides playing on her nickname, the acronym M.I.A. took on multiple meanings: Missing in Acton (the tough London neighborhood she was living in), with an implied wartime meaning and still another for family circumstance.

Art would, ironically, provide a bridge to music. After M.I.A.'s first show (at which every painting was sold), a small publishing company produced a monograph of her graffiti-influenced artwork. It was nominated for the Alternative Turner Prize and caught the attention of Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who first commissioned an album cover (2000's "Menace"), then a video (for the single "Mad Dog God Dam") and finally a documentary of the group's 2001 American tour.

After that tour, M.I.A. went to Sri Lanka "to figure out what was going on. And I came back August 2001. A month after, 9/11 happened, and Britain and America were going through the same issues. In Sri Lanka, being a Tamil, I got to understand what it was to be feared. In England after 9/11, I understood what it was to fear someone else. But it was politics, it was all determined by politicians making choices on your behalf, yet no one was interested. That's why I thought, 'Why not?' "

"I wouldn't have done it if I didn't feel that what was buried in the past was being dug up again," she adds. "I felt like I'd adapted and become quite a normal human being. I was on the same wavelength as everybody else I knew in London, felt like I could make my opportunities similar to everybody else because, in the social structure of what was going on, I'd pulled my way up to a point where I could have equality.

"And then when all this talk of war started, that's when I felt different again, because it reminded me of things that happened in Sri Lanka."

It was on the Elastica tour that M.I.A. met electro-revivalist Peaches (she was the opening act), and it was Peaches who turned her on to the Roland MC-505 Groovebox, a programmable drum machine. M.I.A. says she'd tried to learn the drums when she was 13 "because it was the cheapest thing I could afford -- drumsticks! I'd come home and bang cardboard boxes until one day my mom got so pissed she broke my sticks and threw them out the window and I gave up. After that, I never thought about doing anything with music."

It is, she admits, much easier to program drums than to play them. "The first go I had on the 505 was January 2002. I sat down at somebody's house, bored and alone, and thought I could either sit and watch the telly or have a go at this machine. My first go was pushing all the buttons to see what happened, and it just went from there, which was good -- I think I'd automatically switch off if someone taught it to me because, okay, that's what they do. You can never really know how to develop something unless you do it."

M.I.A. built her own tracks at home with the 505, a cheap mike and a four-track tape deck. Though the tiny Showbiz label pressed only 500 copies of "Galang" in September 2004, Rolling Stone named it one of the year's best singles. After signing with the larger but still hip XL label (conveniently located around the corner from where she lived), M.I.A.'s tracks, fleshed out by Steve Mackay, formerly of Pulp, quickly became favorites of club DJs, music bloggers and file-sharers. The media bandwagon was off, with occasional bumps in the road.

"Sunshowers," sampling a vintage track by Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, was banned by MTV because of the lyrics "you wanna go? you wanna winna war? Like PLO, I don't surrendo." MTV also questioned the subtext of "salt and pepper my mango," which turned out to be culinary rather than sexual. Later, Philadelphia's DJ Diplo put together a mashup titled "Piracy Funds Terrorism" that became an underground hit and further fueled the hype, as did "Arular's" nomination for England's prestigious Mercury Music Prize (which last week was awarded to Antony and the Johnsons' "I Am a Bird Now").

On "Sunshowers," M.I.A. sang, "I bongo with my lingo / And beat it like a wing yo / From Congo to Columbo / Can't stereotype my thing yo," but that hasn't stopped some critics from dismissing her as "the love child" of Neneh Cherry and Che Guevara and harping on her exotic runway model looks. (She gets a lot of fashion spreads.) They also question her decision to temper revolutionary or terrorist references (particularly in videos that mix Tamil Tiger imagery with references to the Palestinian Intifada, Mexican Zapatistas and Black Panthers) with bouncy beats and generally infectious music. M.I.A. told the South Asian online magazine Nirali that she "wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing."

"When I did it, I felt, 'Am I seriously imposing some weird, strange way of seeing things on people?' " she adds. "Now it feels I was right all along. It's totally relevant, and it's what's going on, and if that was the most shocking, outrageous thing, then look what's happening every day. . . . It's not that I'm shocking and injecting into society some strange concept. I'm just reflecting, piecing it together in one piece of work so you can acquire it and hear it. All that information floats around where we are -- the images, the opinions, the discussions, the feelings -- they all exist, and I felt someone had to do something about it because I can't live in this world where we pretend nothing really matters.

"I have to show people what's going on in Sri Lanka. It's much better than me banging on about myself and where I get my hair done. It seemed more of a useful thing to do with my music."

M.I.A. -- Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 club.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company