M.I.A - The Tamil rebel with a cause!
Text by Ashanti OMkar (www.omkari.net)
Photos by Akin Falope (www.aworan.net)
To categorise her music would mean inventing a whole set of new musical terms, but for Sri Lankan Tamil MC, M.I.A AKA Mathangi Arulpragasam AKA Maya Arul, a self taught, tone deaf, mega energetic ‘mike controller’; music is a way of connecting with various people by way of highly politicised views mixed with nonsensical lyrics and vicious beats that entrap the listener into being hooked immediately and wanting more of her infectious art blended music.
You may wonder where the moniker M.I.A comes from - according to the 28 year old, who looks no more than 20: “It stands for Missing in Acton, the suburb in West London, a place where many Asians reside, as I have done my time in the company of young British Asians in my past. The MIA acronym which usually stands for the war term, ‘Missing in action’ also has military connotations to me, as war is something that moves me and inspires my work, having been in the very centre of shells, bombing and the like, in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, the place my Parents moved back to, after my birth in Hounslow, West London. Having had a politically inclined, academic father who had to pose as an Uncle for the 2 weeks or so of my life I spent with him, war and its implications have made me into the person I am now – I have turned all my negativity towards it, to make my statement and my points heard, by labelling myself to meaning something, a move that has made people in the US and UK take notice of me and the thinking behind my creativity.”
Having had such a difficult past not just in her motherland of Sri Lanka but also as a refugee in the UK, where Maya Arulpragasam faced all sorts of problems, mainly stemming from racism, she tells us: “Jaffna suffered in a way that someone who hasn’t lived it would not understand, in terms of the massacre from Governments and the Army, the fear for life, caused by human beings who don’t even care that every life is worth something to someone, a total disregard for human life, the terror that comes from not knowing if it is your house that is going to be shelled down, if it is your Mother or sister or indeed yourself who is going to be raped, the gunshots that come from anywhere, the fact that one has to be on alert at every given moment, for fear of dying.” The empathy with this very passionate young lady immediately comes out, as war in any capacity is never acceptable, but the genocide of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, that has turned a whole set of generations into gypsies as refugees around the world is no doubt something many of us identify with her pain at some level. Maya goes on to tell us of her difficult relationship with her father and the need to escape to the UK: “As my father was a highly educated intellectual, who had his ideology from his higher studies in Russia, but also a very impractical man, who had worked as a consultant not only to the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), who are the rebels, the freedom fighters, who want a separate state in Sri Lanka, Tamil Eelam, but also then moving onto a different and opposing movement, to work closely with a different philosophy, creating EROS (Eastern Revolutionary Organization of Students), which not just clashed with the Sri Lankan government, but also with the Tamil Tigers, who are the dominant insurgent group in Jaffna. This caused our lives to be in severe danger and though we were not living with our Father, my Mother and my siblings (older sister Kali and younger brother Sugu) and I had to take political asylum in the UK. This was a hard path to take, with me knowing about 5 English words and moving to the most notorious council estate in Mitcham, Surrey which was to become our home for many a year to come. I got abuse from a racial standpoint, from being called a ‘Paki’, to my very own relatives and fellow Sri Lankans, who felt that their prestige came above all human emotion, from being put down at every given opportunity, I was a rebel with a cause, shunning the Bharathanatyam (South Indian style traditional temple dance) and South Indian Classical Carnatic Veena (an instrument similar to the Sitar) lessons, my her Mum could not afford them anyway and the parents of the other children were not impressed with me, a Tamil girl who got thrown out for colouring my hair in the Wimbledon colours of blue and yellow because Wimbledon had won the FA cup.”
Indeed, having struggled along, with her identity, leaving her Tamil-ness as far away as possible, Maya went onto to reaching her creative brilliance, by listening to a plethora of rap music from the loudness coming from her neighbours homes, because their radio at home was stolen anyway. She was intrigued by the strong beats and bass lines, but kept that as a side thing, while pursuing her artistic talents, which were more than apparent in school. She definitely made good and in her eloquent and very well enunciated English, says: “I got a much coveted place at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, which enabled me to explore my creativity and even win the alternative Turner prize, but it was my trip to Sri Lanka, when I went in search of a close cousin who was feared missing and also part of the Tigers, that I took in the state of my homeland and also turned my video images into art that I identified with.” When asked about who may have bought such art, she coyly admits: “my work has been bought by the likes of Hollywood actor Jude Law.”
From designing CD covers and video editing for some very prominent bands like ‘Elastica’ (their final album cover was done by her), she toured with them and it led to meeting with MC Peaches, one of the people who inspired her to use her undoubtedly enticing spoken voice, to trying out rap styles and experimenting with beats. The rest as they say is history, with her being headhunted by XL Recordings, home to other top names like Dizzee Rascal and now leading to her being touted as the best thing to come out of the pop world. This is an enormous amount of achievement for a young lady who truly deserves it, just for the fact that she persevered with her beliefs and sheer hard work.
Having toured with South London’s premier music maker, ‘Roots Manuva’, if you were lucky enough to see her and indeed, she is an artiste that makes the stage come alive, M.I.A dazzled the crowds at Brixton Academy, by being the warm-up act. She performed a brilliant set to a full house, getting the revellers dancing to her contagious beats, politicised lyrics and inimitable style, which is what separates her from all the other Asian females artistes out there. Having recently been signed to Interscope records, home to many premier artistes like Will Smith and Dr Dre and owned by Universal, the world’s biggest record company, although the ‘Arular’ album (her latest) will be released by XL Recordings with Interscope dealing only with the distribution side, all her future work will be coming out of the Interscope label from a complete record lifecycle perspective.
Her imminent and much awaited album, ‘Arular’ a name which has a whole lot of meaning behind it, again related to her father, who she seems to so want to be in touch with in some way, as she knows he is still very much embroiled in the Tamil struggle: “The name ARULAR has many meanings for me, it is the shortened form of my Father’s name and one that he is well known as, within the Tamil people – I do hope that he stumbles across it and knows that it is his daughter who is behind the album. Word play also comes into it, as it can also be read as ‘A Ruler’, which again points to his political standing not to mention that it is also a Tamil word, which has a translation that has something to do with sunshine and enlightenment.” The album contains tracks like her popular ‘Galang’ and Sunshowers’, both songs well known to listeners of UK and US radio, as they have been huge underground and club hits. The US listeners have been most taken by M.I.A simply because post 911, politics have been on every American’s mind and her music is evocative with such deep political meaning, in between the lines, not to mention her artwork and imagery which is plastered on all her videos, album and single sleeves and even projected on screens at her live shows, which seems to be the draw to what may sound like ‘nonsense’ in terms of words.
On her trip to the US last year, she hooked up with DJ, re-mixer and all round super producer, Diplo, who is not just a partner in music, but also someone who has captured the heartstrings of this very beautiful MC. It seems that M.I.A has found her “constant” in life, with a partner who is on her wavelength. She admits that she doesn’t get to spend enough quality time with him (as he is in Philadelphia and she is based in Shepherds Bush, UK), but also says: “I have been going through many changes, this is the beginning of what I am and I want him to know what he’s getting, as I am beginning to know who I really am.” Her much praised mixtape, ‘Piracy funds terrorism’, which was co-produced with Diplo has been touted as essential listening in various circles and alongside her album, ‘Arular’, is something that should be in any discerning listeners collection, as it deals with hard hitting topics such as teenage prostitution, drug dealers, extreme poverty, consumerism and of course, war. In the intro skit, she tells of the importance of education, saying “education number 1, get yourself an education”, a very important precedence indeed.
Whether it is for her opinionated views or the catchy rhythms, which are a mix of many cultures, M.I.A is one to watch out for in a big way, she is one of the primary embodiments of urban music and youth culture and an artiste to keep tabs on, if you haven’t already heard of her.
‘Arular’ is out on 25th April in the UK and it is already making waves in the US. To find out more about M.I.A and also see some of her stunning videos, like the amazing Rajesh Touchriver (the man behind the controversial and realistic film, “In the name of Buddha” a film that made Maya cry buckets, in reminiscence of her past in Jaffna, Sri Lanka) video of ‘Sunshowers’, go to www.miauk.com or www.xlrecordings.com/mia/
MIA with Geetha AKA Ashanti OMkar
As published in The Asian Post UK newspaper
All images are (c) AWORAN (www.aworan.net) and are not to be taken off this Blogspot without photographer's permission. The words are by Ashanti OMkar (www.omkari.net) - please contact via website email for permission if they are to be reproduced and credit must be given to the author and photographer if reproduced anywhere else on the web. They are subject to UK copyright laws and as this was a piece published in a UK newspaper, the words are copyrighted too. Thank you.
Text by Ashanti OMkar (www.omkari.net)
Photos by Akin Falope (www.aworan.net)