For someone with a moniker that’s an acronym for “missing in action,” M.I.A. sure isn’t living up to her name.
Her debut album, Arular, is turning critics’ heads, and her video for the song “Sunshowers,” which manages to sound simultaneously traditional and cutting-edge with its spare beat and electronic glitches, is picking up steam. In it, M.I.A. spashes in a river, rides an elephant and hangs with a jungle cat.
The 27-year-old Maya Arulpragasam moved from London to Sri Lanka and back again but that doesn’t begin to explain what’s behind the amalgam of adjectives that can be used to describe her music.
“Growing up in Sri Lanka are some of my best memories and some of my worst memories but I’m totally grateful for the time I had there,” said Arulpragasam, who was brought there when she was a baby and whose father was part of the Tamil Tiger militants, an extremist guerrilla movement who spurred a bloody civil war in the hopes of gaining sovereignty in Sri Lanka. “It will always keep me grounded. It just gives you a sense of being part of something and part of being a community and thinking in terms of ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I,’ ” said Arulpragasam.
As the violence escalated in 1986, Maya, her mother, brother and sister narrowly escaped the country with their lives intact and made their way back to England. As poor refugees, they lived in a council flat at the Phipps Bridge Estate south of London, the British equivalent of the projects.
The struggle to find her own identity and fit in, combined with her exposure to multiple cultures, helped form a unique creativity that landed her a spot at the esteemed Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London. Exhibiting and selling her work to support herself after graduation, Arulpragasam was surrounded by artists and musicians.
She eventually met Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and designed cover art for their second album. While documenting the group’s American tour, she was encouraged by electro-punk-rap opening act Peaches to start dabbling on a Roland MC505 Groovebox mixing up different rhythms and world sounds.
While in the Caribbean she picked up on dancehall and raga, which she believes is the most progressive form of music. “I just like their fast turnaround, it’s the rawest form,” she said. “As an artist I wanted to be that honest. It was just about being as honest as possible and being brave enough to be honest.”
Mashing up the global sounds of her childhood locales with dancehall and hip-hop, Arulpragasam pushed her way into the music industry with the same guerrilla DIY style that she was raised on until she was signed by XL Records, home of Peaches, Basement Jaxx and Dizzee Rascal.
“I had to draw from influences from lots of places and bring together how life is for me,” she said. “You do hear variations of genres and variations of cultures and identities, and I just felt like I was a walking sponge, and that’s what I regurgitated.”