When [artist id="1803648"]M.I.A.[/artist] (a.k.a. Maya Arulpragasam) entered the scene back in 2004, her colorful Sri Lankan backstory was part of what made her such an alluring phenomenon. Her fiery, politically provocative lyrics (referencing tanks and bombs), her performance outfits and her artwork were all born of an environment rarely seen in entertainment, let alone hip-hop.
M.I.A. grew up a Tamil (a minority ethnic group) in Sri Lanka, an island nation entrenched in a quarter-century war between the majority Sinhala government and separatists (mainly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) seeking to carve out a Tamil homeland. Her father, for whom her first album Arular is named, was a Tamil militant sympathizer, who was sometimes on the run.
Despite her family history, M.I.A. says that she has always fought in the name of the defenseless civilians who are caught in the middle of the war. "It's a humanitarian situation," she told MTV News. "It's not about, 'Do you support the government, or do you support the Tigers?' which I think everyone is making this whole thing into, and has made it into for the past 30 years."
When we recently caught up with the rapper, she was on the set of the video for "Bang," the new single from her newly formed N.E.E.T. label's debut artist [artist id="1558723"]Rye Rye[/artist]. And it just so happened that that day, the U.S. government had joined the international community in calling for a ceasefire in her home country. As of late the balance in the Sri Lankan government's campaign against the Tamil separatist army has tipped tremendously in their favor: They've pushed the rebel army to a tiny stretch of land at the north of the island, most fear at a heavy humanitarian cost. Refugees pouring out of the battle zone number in the hundreds of thousands and aid agencies estimate that 50,000-100,000 civilians remain trapped in the war zone. Each side claims that the other is using civilians as tactical shields.
"America has stepped up and requested the ceasefire, so it's gonna be interesting to see what happens now," she said. "That's what we've got to see happen in the future — that those people are getting looked after and that those people are getting heard. When I speak about these things, it's for those people in the middle. And it's not for anyone else. I just want to be really clear about that."
Thus far, all international calls for a ceasefire — from France, Britain, the United States and the United Nations — have fallen on deaf ears, with Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa demanding an unequivocal surrender of rebel forces. All independent journalists have been barred from the country. Still, for the trapped civilians, M.I.A. maintains a glimmer of hope.
"My fingers are crossed. We'll wait and see what happens. Hopefully, there is a solution."