M.I.A. Pushes Lyrical Boundaries, Lines Up Tour

Sri Lankan musician forges her own path, reflects her world in challenging lyrics.

If you're looking for M.I.A. in America, your search will soon pay off. Barely on U.S. shelves one month, 27-year-old Maya Arulpragasam's debut album, Arular, has scored M.I.A. a co-headlining gig with LCD Soundsystem as well as warm reception from critics.

While M.I.A.'s video for "Sunshowers" has been getting its fair share of airplay, it's "Galang" that will actually be her first single, according to a Beggars Group label rep. Part of the confusion over the release date for the single and tour schedule is because M.I.A. was also just picked up by Interscope here in the States.

"I think Jimmy Iovine heard the album and went 'Oh my God, she's got the beats!' " M.I.A. imitated, using her best American accent. "He rang and said, 'If I can't beat you, I'm going to join you.' "

A stew of dancehall and raga electronic beats, M.I.A.'s music defies all efforts for true classification. Is she worried that label bigwigs will try to change her look and sound to make it fit one genre? "They can only start meddling in my stuff if they knew what to do with me, but they don't. Nothing has come before me like me, and they have nothing to compare it to," she explained, adding that it isn't as if they can say, " 'Well the other Sri Lankan girl is doing it like this, so we should do it like that.' They don't have that, so I'm pretty much forging my own path."

Carving her own path isn't something that Arulpragasam is afraid to tackle. At the age of 10, the London-based MC was forced to flee her native Sri Lanka, where her father, a Tamil freedom fighter, remains to this day. Arriving in Britain, she and her mother and two siblings were housed on a notoriously racist council estate south of London (see "Her Name May Be M.I.A., But Her Career Is Anything But").

Much has been made about her background simply because it has infused so many of the songs on her album. Surely talking about revolution is nothing new for musicians, but M.I.A. believes that gender also plays a role. "It's really difficult to come out, as a female who's artistically driven, to make sense of your world and discuss it and put something out that's to do with your life experience — everything you've learnt and all the people you've seen," she explained.

M.I.A. compared herself to rappers who can get away with talking about street violence. "We've been talking about gangsta culture in hip-hop," she said. "It's mainstream, and it's easily acceptable for 50 Cent to come on and say he's been shot nine times. But what I was talking about was a bit more current than that."

Arulpragasam believes that her lyrics shock so much because they are so heavily politicized. "It was a bit of a jump for people," she explained. "It was like, 'Hold on — we're still dealing with being a gangsta on the front page. What are you doing talking about terrorism?' "

The way she sees it, not talking about her experiences for that reason would disqualify her as an artist. "The other point I was making referencing the violence I had seen in Sri Lanka is, if we're going to invest so much money in creating wars around the world, that's quite a given thing. If you've seen somebody get shot and if you've seen a bomb go off, then you've given me total access to talk about it — because you've made that a part of my life. I didn't ask for nobody to bomb my school, but if they did, I would have the right to talk about it. And if people are uncomfortable, then they should think twice before they go off and hit random buildings."

All the attention and success won't make M.I.A. ever truly change who she is, especially when it comes to her looks. "Sometimes I think people look at me and go, 'Why is it you? Why did Interscope sign you?' " she revealed. "It's because I don't do the dollybird thing. It's easy to do it now. It's like a checkbook, that's all I need. I could look posh tomorrow if I wanted to, but that's really not what it's about."

M.I.A. tour dates, according to her label:

  • 5/1 - Indio, CA @ Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

  • 5/10 - Vancouver, BC @ Commodore Ballroom

  • 5/11 - Seattle, WA @ Showbox

  • 5/13 - San Francisco, CA @ The Independent

  • 5/14 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore

  • 5/15 - Los Angeles, CA @ TBA

  • 5/19 - Chicago, IL @ Metro/ Smart Bar

  • 5/20 - Detroit, MI @ Majestic Theatre

  • 5/21 - Toronto, ON @ TBA

  • 5/22 - Montreal, QC @ La Tulipe

  • 6/9 - Boston, MA @ Avalon

  • 6/12 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club