Rapper MIA—born Mathangi Arulpragasam—shirks mold and convention. With her first album, Arular, in 2005, MIA made clear: she made music, designed visuals, and dressed in her own way. That eccentricity influenced the sound and look of music through the second half of the 00s and right up to now. (Think electronics and a return of 80s color explosion.)
If the name “MIA” doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve surely heard the earworm-like “Paper Planes,” off her breakout Kala (2007).
Or perhaps you heard or saw her infamous Super Bowl performance with Nicki Minaj and Madonna of the latter’s “Give Me All Your Luvin.” She was the one who flipped off the camera.
Though born in London, MIA spent much of her first 11 years in Sri Lanka, where her father, Arular, was an activist and founder of a dissident Tamil group in the lead-up to the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war. (The Tamils wanted to break free of Sri Lanka and form their own state.) The conflict, which saw Arular serve as an independent mediator, ultimately ended with the Tamils’ defeat in 2009. Those 26 years were marked by terrorism, assassinations, and extrajudicial executions. Her family’s connection to the Sri Lankan civil war was formative to her music and her activism.
It’s that experience, her affection for 80s synthpop, and influences of Public Enemy and The Clash, that birthed her controversial and acclaimed video for “Born Free.” With scenes inspired by viral cell phone videos of Sri Lankan army extrajudicial killings of Tamil men and obvious references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Born Free” sounds like I think Crass would had they formed in the 2000s.
In a time when a common criticism of pop music is that it’s without meaning, without real message, there’s no critic that’s leveled such a charge against MIA. Her art is so often statement, subversions, and protest.
With all this compounding history, a report came out this week that MIA’s label XL/Interscope called her yet-to-be-released album Mantangi “too positive” and asked her to “darken it up a bit,” because they’d been building her up as “public enemy No 1.” An example where the artist clashes with the salesmen. It’s unclear what, precisely, “too positive” means. It’s also unclear what, if anything MIA will change.
Regardless, until Mantangi’s release, I’m happy with returning to her most recent single “Bad Girls,” from her Vicki Leekx mixtape.
…as well as other old favorites like “Sunshowers”