One of the most musically-diverse and perplexing artists of the 2000s, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam is arguably the decade’s best representation of Hip-Hop in its truest form and artistry in its broadest, most diverse format. Her lyrics are as political as Public Enemy, her sound is more eclectic than Stankonia-era Outkast, and she is as aesthetically-driven as Kanye West.
The road that M.I.A. was forced to travel to international stardom was not an easy one. Born on July 18th, 1975 in Hounslow, West London to Sri-Lankan Tamil immigrants, she moved to her parents' homeland when she was only six months old. However, it was the Sri Lankan Civil War which came to shape her childhood. During her formative years, she witnessed many atrocities: her father was hunted as an enemy of the state, her schools were bombarded, and her impoverished family was constantly in hiding. In 1986, her family moved back to London to find stability and a sense of relative peace.
In England, she discovered her artistic talents and completed several years of secondary education in fine art – eventually gaining attention as a visual artist, painter, and musician. In the early-2000s, Maya began to seriously explore her musical talents and used the internet and underground radio as the means to build her reputation as a unique and talented firebrand. Amidst her no-nonsense politics, however, critics from around the world heard a talent in the making.
By 2007, her first two albums, Arular and Kala, became two of the most highly praised of the decade. 2010’s Maya culminated in her infamous and characteristic Super Bowl XLVI performance alongside Nicki Minaj and Madonna. Matangi, released in 2013, was her most ambitious project to date, incorporating collaborators from Hit-Boy to Julian Assange. In 2015, among much controversy, she released the anthemic “Borders” as a promotion single for her latest album, AIM. These contributions to music are so great that in June of 2019, M.I.A. was given the honor of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.); she accepted the honor – no doubt fully aware of the irony of the situation.
The world’s elite will mostly remember M.I.A. as a dangerous dissident and relentless critic. Her fans will remember her as a woman of the people. She will be celebrated as a legend who incorporated her unforgettable chic, tongue-in-cheek humor, and stereotype-shattering artistry into everything she did. However, the real truth is a little of both. As of 2017, M.I.A. continues to put out music and engage in her passion for visual artistry; her time as a worldwide-inspiration and a virtuoso is nowhere near over.