Maya Arulpragasam sighs into the phone. I’ve asked her if journalists have accurately depicted her life story, and she seems tired of the question.
“My story?” she asks. “Which one? There are so many.”
Arulpragasam has been called many things in her short career: refugee, revolutionary; terrorist, tastemaker. To activists, she is a musician with a message. Online, she represents the positive side of file-sharing. To music magazines like Urb and Spin, she is 2005’s Artist of the Year, with her debut album “Arular” topping dozens of influential must-have lists.
Arulpragasam, known to fans as M.I.A., has for many come to represent a new generation of inspired musical nomads, fusing disparate regional styles into a distinctive and globally understood sound that revels in its lack of a fixed abode. Her life as a refugee has informed her music, making it, as she puts it, “for the refugee in all of us.”
One day, she explains, she “realized that such a huge cross section of human beings identify with” her feelings of displacement. To her, the expat, the immigrant, the backpacker and the downloader all share the same ideal: Ignore the borders, and focus on the ideas.
In M.I.A.’s case, many of her musical ideas come from the street: chant-heavy dancehall from Kingston, Jamaica; grime, East London’s warped offshoot of hip hop; baile funk, the samba-inflected drum ‘n’ bass party music of Brazil’s overcrowded slums. “Arular” is filled with such sounds, many of which could come from any ghetto in the world: gunshots, cheap electronics and the crackle and thump of hip-hop.
Like the neighborhoods it draws from, her music is loud, fast and, to some critics, potentially dangerous. The album is a dancefloor scorcher, but listen closely and you’ll hear polemics among the beats.
No stranger to controversy, Arulpragasam is the daughter of a Tamil freedom fighter who spent most of her childhood in the middle of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Friends and family members died in front of her, and the military was constantly hunting for her father. Then, after emigrating to London with her mother at the age of 11 in 1988 she lived on council estates, England’s version of the Projects, at a time when racial harmony wasn’t a common catchphrase.
Despite the dangers, she thrived, eventually attending art school, where her friendship with Justine Frischman of the band Elastica resulted in Arulpragasam designing an album cover for the band, as well as filming their American tour. While on the road, both Frischman and Elastica’s opening act, the electro-raunch queen, Peaches, taught Arulpragasam how to make beats on a Roland 505 drum machine. Already a hip-hop fanatic from the council estate days, Arulpragasam was hooked, and the resulting mixes became the basis for “Arular.”
The album’s political pronouncements never dampen it’s jubilance, nor turn it into a soapbox. Take the single “Sunshowers” — its loping beats and vocal samples make it perfect for clubs and radio play — but listen carefully, and you hear a tale of how racial profiling turned fatal. MTV America has refused to play the video because of lyrics such as “Like PLO I won’t surrender!” Her visual art shares this dichotomy: tanks, grenades and burning palm trees figure prominently in her work, but are usually in bright, kaleidoscopic colors using stencils and Day-Glo spray paint.
Her childhood experiences have made her fear little in life. She briefly moved to the ganglands of South Los Angeles merely to experience gansta-rap culture, and on a recent tour of South America, she strolled unaccompanied into favelas, the hillside ghettos around Rio de Janeiro known for their squalor and random bloodshed.
“I don’t see it as dangerous,” she says, “but I do feel like I have a passport into places like that. People know.”
She first took interest in the favelas after she met Diplo (nee Wesley Pentz), an American DJ (and present boyfriend) who introduced her to the areas’ baile funk music. “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” a bootleg mixtape the two produced and spread through the Internet, is a mix of her vocals laid over everything from Jay-Z to baile funk to The Bangles. MP3 files of “PFT” spread quickly across the globe, making M.I.A. and Diplo the topic of countless music blogs and boosting the allure of “Arular” months before its actual release. Many critics believe this kind of homespun promotion demonstrates the present power of Web media, and is a sign of things to come.
Surprisingly, she downplays the impact of “PFT,” but adds that she’s happy that bloggers and journalists paid attention: “Whatever they need to do to contextualize my music and my story, that’s fine with me. I just know that if I wait long enough — and I’m good at patience — they will eventually get to the music,” she says.
Most of last year was spent on the road or in the studio, including a cameo appearance on hip-hop queen Missy Elliot’s most recent album, “The Cookbook.” When I asked her about the experience, Arulpragasam said that Elliot has long been an idol, but adds, without elaborating, “Sometimes it’s best to admire from a distance.”
After her Pacific Rim tour, Arulpragasam plans to record new tracks and make a return trip to Sri Lanka — her first in over four years. Why?
“I want to remove myself from the industry for a while and remind myself of why I’m doing this in the first place — I want to see how simple you can live. I have to learn how to make gasoline out of coconut oil, or none of it matters.”