Pioneering rapper, singer, producer, and activist M.I.A. ignores musical and geographical boundaries in favor of an outspoken, globally minded perspective. Her innovative fusion of hip-hop, electronic, punk, and sounds that criss-cross the globe reflect her rootless upbringing as a Sri Lankan refugee who grew up in London and provide a vibrant soundtrack to her commentary on identity, war, immigration, and politics. A digital trailblazer, M.I.A. was one of the first artists to gain viral popularity online with her 2004 singles “Galang” and “Sunshowers.” They sounded celebratory and confrontational at the same time, an approach that extended to her widely praised 2005 debut Arular. She remained restless despite her acclaim, emphasizing the hip-hop and electronic aspects of her music on 2007′s Kala and its multi-million selling single “Paper Planes” and incorporating abrasive industrial textures into her explorations of technology’s impact on everyday life on 2010′s /\/\/\Y/\. Later in the decade, she scored another hit with “Bad Girls” from 2013′s Matangi, and eventually reached the top of the U.S. charts with her 2020 Travis Scott collaboration “Franchise.” Though her accolades include being appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire and Grammy, Oscar, and Mercury Prize nominations, she continued to challenge conventions on albums such as 2022′s spiritually minded MATA.
Maya Arulpragasam spent the early years of her life in a number of places. Born in London, England, she moved to her parents’ native Sri Lanka at the age of six months, only to relocate to Madras, India. During a return stay in Sri Lanka, the civil war taking place within the country escalated to the point where Arulpragasam began to lose family members and friends. She didn’t see her father — a devout and active separatist as part of the Tamil rebellion, which has clashed with the Sinhalese majority — often throughout these years, but her life stabilized once she, her mother, and brother were able to make it back to London just before she turned 11.
Arulpragasam attended the Ricards Lodge High School in Wimbledon and Central Saint Martins College of Art, from which she graduated in 2000 with a degree in fine art, film, and video. After befriending Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, Arulpragasam designed the artwork for the band’s 2000 album The Menace. The following year, she had the first public exhibition of her paintings, which were heavily influenced by the Tamil rebellion as well as the consumerism of life in London. Nominated for an Alternative Turner Prize, the collection was also published as the monograph book M.I.A. in 2002. While on the road documenting Elastica’s American tour, Arulpragasam learned about the Roland MC-505 sequencer from opening act Peaches, who encouraged her to make music. Taking inspiration from artists spanning Michael Jackson, Björk, Public Enemy, the Slits, the Clash, and Malcolm McLaren and adopting the name M.I.A., she used the MC-505, a four-track tape recorder and a radio microphone to create a demo tape. Her songs caught the attention of Ross Orton and Pulp’s Steve Mackey, who tweaked “Galang,” song that was then pressed into 500 copies and released by the Showbiz label in 2003. It didn’t take long for the song — a bold, righteous amalgamation of hip-hop, electro, dancehall, grime, and baile funk — to make an impact with DJs. M.I.A. began sharing her music online, and the viral popularity of “Galang” attracted label attention. She soon signed a contract with XL, which issued the single “Sunshowers” in July and re-released “Galang” that September.
At the end of the year, M.I.A. released Piracy Funds Terrorism, a mixtape she put together with Diplo. He, along with Switch, Richard X, and other producers, contributed to her debut album, March 2005′s Arular. Named after the political code name of M.I.A.’s father, the album won rave reviews for its danceable, socially conscious songs. Reaching number 98 on the U.K. Albums Chart and 190 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart in the U.S., Arular was nominated for the Mercury Prize and the Shortlist Music Prize. To support the album, M.I.A. toured with LCD Soundsystem and Gwen Stefani; not long after Arular’s release, an online mixtape of remixes made by fans dubbed Online Piracy Funds Terrorism appeared on XL’s website.
In the wake of Arular’s success, M.I.A. appeared on Missy Elliott’s 2005 album The Cookbook and started work on her own second album. However, U.S. visa issues thwarted her plans to make the album largely with Timbaland. Instead, she and co-producer Switch recorded in countries including India, Liberia, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Japan as well as the U.K. before finishing the album in the U.S. once her visa was approved in late 2016. While in Liberia, M.I.A. hosted a televised documentary series about the country’s post-war situation and helped rehabilitate former child soldiers. Appearing in August 2007, Kala — named for M.I.A.’s mother — also featured contributions from Diplo, Blaqstarr, Timbaland, and Afrikan Boy and paired its themes of immigration and capitalism with influences from Bollywood, funk carioca, and African music. The album was another critical success and a bigger commercial hit than Arular: A Top 40 hit in the U.K. and a Top 20 hit in the U.S. and Sweden, it was certified gold in the U.S., silver in the U.K., and platinum in Canada. Along with extensive touring that included opening dates for Björk, the Kala era also saw M.I.A. release 2008′s How Many Votes Fix Mix EP, which featured a remix of “Boyz” with a cameo by Jay-Z, and the Paper Planes — Homeland Security Remixes EP, which along with its placement in the film Pineapple Express, helped make “Paper Planes” a multi-million selling smash hit that earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Also in 2008, M.I.A. collaborated with Buraka Som Sistema on the song “Sound of Kuduro” and filmed a documentary with Spike Jonze that also featured Afrikan Boy. Late in the year, the soundtrack for the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire featured new music from M.I.A. and was the first disc issued on her N.E.E.T. label. Her contribution to the soundtrack, “O… Saya,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, making M.I.A. the first person of Asian descent to be nominated for an Oscar and Grammy award in the same year. She continued her charity work, donating her performance fee from the 2008 MTV Movie Awards to building schools in Liberia.
By mid-2009, M.I.A. was at work on her third album in her home studio in Los Angeles. Inspired by her motherhood as well as the threats directed at her and her family because of her activism, /\/\/\Y/\ appeared in July 2010. Preceded by the single “Born Free” — which featured a violent video portraying genocide that was ultimately removed from YouTube — the album included contributions from Diplo, Switch, Blaqstarr, Rusko and M.I.A.’s brother Sugu Arulpragasam. Featuring industrial influences as well as more sung vocals, /\/\/\Y/\s critical reception was more polarized than that of her previous albums. However, it became her highest-charting effort, cracking the Top Ten in the U.S. and Canada, reaching number 21 on the U.K. Album Chart, and entering the Top Ten in several European countries. That December, MM.I.A. issued her second mixtape, Vicki Leekx, and released the EP Internet Connection: The Remixes in January 2011. That year, she also appeared on SebastiAn’s album Total and completed her tour in support of /\/\/\Y/\.
Along with working on her fourth album, M.I.A. co-wrote songs for and appeared on Madonna’s album MDNA. In February 2012, she performed one of the songs, “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” with Madonna and Nicki Minaj at Super Bowl XLVI’s halftime show; during the performance, she extended her middle finger at the camera. A month later, the NFL responded by suing her for $1.5 million, claiming that she breached her contract and tarnished the organization’s image (the lawsuit was eventually settled in 2014). Around this time, M.I.A. released the single “Bad Girls,” a reworked version of a Vicki Leekx song that featured production by Danja. Charting in several countries around the world and earning nominations for Video of the Year at the 55th Grammy Awards and the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards, it became one of her most popular songs. Later in the year, M.I.A. signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management and published M.I.A. , a book featuring the artwork she created during the Arular, Kala, and /\/\/\Y/\ years as well as essays she wrote. Several other singles, including “Bring the Noize” and “Come Walk with Me,” were released before the November 2013 arrival of Matangi. Recorded in locations including New York City, Miami, and Hollywood, the album was named for a Hindu goddess (as well as a variation of M.I.A.’s real first name). Featuring co-production by Sugu, Switch, and Surkin as well as Danja, Matangi emphasized the mix of western hip-hop and eastern musical influences in M.I.A.’s style. In the U.K., the album peaked at number 64; in the U.S., it reached number 23 on the Billboard 200 and topped the Dance/Electronic Albums chart, becoming her third consecutive album to do so. At the end of 2013, M.I.A. left Roc Nation.
Late in 2014, M.I.A. began a period of prolific creativity that included several collaborations as well as the release of politically charged tracks that heralded her fifth album. She appeared on A$AP Ferg’s 2014 mixtape Ferg Forever, following it with cameos on A$AP Rocky’s 2015 album A.L.L.A. and Baauer’s 2016 effort Aa. “Can See Can Do,” her first new music since Matangi, arrived in March 2015. That July, she released the video “Matahdatah Scroll 01 Broader Than a Border,” which featured traditional dancers from India and Côte d’Ivoire dancing to the Matangi track “Warriors,” and “Swords,” a song from the provisionally titled Matahdatah album. “Borders,” which was inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis, appeared that November. Even more new material surfaced in 2016, including April’s “Rewear It,” a part of M.I.A.’s Global Recycle Week campaign with retailer H&M; May’s “MIA OLA” and “Foreign Friend”; and June’s “POC That Still a Ryda.” That July, she released the single “Go Off,” which featured production by Skrillex and Blaqstarr. A.I.M., which also included collaborations with Diplo and Zayn Malik, arrived in September 2016. The album reached number 63 in the U.K. and number 66 in the U.S., and also topped Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart. In February 2017, she issued the A.I.M. outtake “P.O.W.A.” The following year, the documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award and found a wider release later in 2018. When the film appeared on streaming services that December, M.I.A. presented the video for “Reload,” a song she co-wrote with Frischmann in 2004 that appeared on the soundtrack.
In 2019, M.I.A. was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire. She delivered her first new music in three years in March 2020 with “OHMNI 202091.” That September, she released another single, “CTRL,” on her website, and appeared alongside Young Thug on Travis Scott’s “Franchise,” which topped the singles chart in the U.S. In November 2021, M.I.A. issued the single “Babylon,” releasing it and Vicki Leekx as NFTs to benefit the Courage Foundation, an organization that raises funds for the legal defense of whistleblowers. The following May, she returned with “The One,” the easygoing first taste of her next album, October 2022′s MATA. Featuring production assists from Diplo, Rick Rubin, Rex Kudo, and more, the album explored the conflict between ego and spirituality and reflected M.I.A.’s newfound Christianity. ~ Heather Phares & Andy Kellman