M.I.A.'s Early Life:
Born Maya Arulpragasam July 17, 1977, in London, M.I.A. is the daughter of militant activist Arul Pragasam, a leader in Sri Lankan's Tamil rebellion. Her family lived in Sri Lanka when M.I.A. was very young, but due to the escalation of the Sri Lanka civil war, she was forced to live as a refugee with her mother and siblings first in India, then in England. Living in London, M.I.A. learned English and eventually graduated from the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
M.I.A. set out for a career as a visual artist. The first exhibition of her paintings was held in 2001. Her art utilized spray paint and stencils to produce a graffiti style depiction of images associated with the Sri Lanka civil war. She was nominated for the prestigious Alternative Turner Prize. M.I.A. also worked on projects involving fashion design and film.
M.I.A. was commissioned to create the album cover for the band Elastica's album The Menace. She was also invited to film the band on tour and direct a music video. Peaches, another artist on the tour, encouraged M.I.A. to experiment with music. Among the first demos M.I.A. recorded was the song "Galang." Her creations quickly spread among the dance underground, and she was eventually signed to the label XL Recordings. Re-released by XL, "Galang" edged on to the UK pop singles chart in 2004 and became an underground dance hit in the US in 2005.
The Sound and Political Content of M.I.A.'s Music:
M.I.A.'s music is a pastiche of hip-hop, pop, funk, and electro influences, among others. Lyrically, her music is frequently highly political. M.I.A. told Fact Magazine, "The thing is, you have to reflect your life. I have to be true to that – I can’t take certain things away. I do have a political background. I’m only in England, learning this language and building a life in this society, because of political reasons. Why would I deny that?" Among the topics she takes on are war, poverty, and immigration. All of the content is frequently wrapped up in irresistibly catchy, danceable grooves.
M.I.A.'s first album, Arular, was released in March 2005. It is titled after her father's name used in the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka. The album was an instant critical success ending up on many year-end lists of the best albums. It edged on to both the UK and US album charts, creating an underground buzz. M.I.A. performed the song "Bucky Done Gun" on Jimmy Kimmel Live in May 2005, introducing herself to US TV audiences.
M.I.A.'s Critical Success:
M.I.A.'s Arular placed #2 on Village Voice's annual prestigious Pazz and Jop poll of music critics. Amazon named the album their #2 of the year as well. GQ magazine listed Arular as the sixth "coolest" album of all time. M.I.A.'s second album, Kala, was received even more positively in many quarters. Both Rolling Stone and Blender listed it as the top album of 2007.
Kala and Pop Breakthrough With "Paper Planes":
M.I.A.'s second album, Kala, named after her mother, was released in August 2007. This time sales were stronger and critical acclaim was deafening. The album reached the top 20 of the US album chart. The first two singles from the album failed to have a major impact on the charts, but the third single, "Paper Planes," gained some traction. Although initially released in February of 2008, it was the summer before the song began a significant climb in the US pop charts. By late summer, the song was a true pop breakthrough for M.I.A. reaching the top 20.