The truth is only known by guttersnipes. -- the Clash, "Garageland," 1977
London calling and speak the slang now. -- M.I.A., "Galang," 2004
Cult of personality: If Khrushchev hadn't coined the phrase to describe Stalin, someone might've had to invent it for M.I.A. The source of the loudest international underground music buzz of the last two years, her wildly compelling life story had already been recounted in publications from Blender to The New Yorker months before the public had a chance to hear her music.
Broad outline for the uninundated: Born in Sri Lanka in 1977, Maya Arulpragasam emigrated to England with her seamstress mother at age 11 as a refugee from the turbulent Tamil liberation movement, while her father stayed behind to fight alongside the militant revolutionary Tamil Tigers.
Settling in a West London council flat (read: public housing), Maya led a hardscrabble immigrant adolescence, eventually receiving a university degree in film. Directionless after leaving school, her life made a sudden turnaround when she started writing music using an ultra-primitive Roland MC-505 Groovebox drum machine, which she'd found by chance while working on a film for her friends in the band Elastica. She soon renamed herself M.I.A., finding musical and career encouragement from such compatriots as Peaches and DJ Diplo of Hollertronix, and eventually winding up signed to Interscope Records, which released her debut CD, Arular (named for her father's nom de guerre), in April of this year amid the aforementioned buzz.
The music on Arular is crazed yet inviting, born of a kitchen-sink musical sensibility that manages to encompass hip-hop, world music, electroclash and dancehall while neatly skirting every pigeonhole. Arulpragasam's lyrics are as incendiary as the beats are infectious, filled with violent revolutionary posturing ("it's a bomb, yo / so run, yo / put away your stupid gun, yo") along with stark imagery of prostitution and mutual exploitation ("Lolita was a maneater / clocked him like a taxi meter"). Given her familial and economic background, it's difficult not to wonder how much of this stuff is autobiographical.
"Well, f'instance," she drawls on the phone in her oddly melodious (if somewhat Ali G-esque) accent, "the song 'Amazon' is lit'rally, completely true to what was going on with me at the time I was writing it. I write by myself 'cause I wouldn't put anyone through that, y'know? 'Cause otherwise I couldn't be desperate in peace. And the words are basically what I found in my room. It's all there: earrings, bracelets, instruments. At one point the lightbulb broke, so I just wrote in the dark." She goes on to say that the song is about finding herself in the artificial world of L.A. showbiz. "Out there it's all about what you're wearing and the whole image was like this photo with palm trees and a couple kissing in the moonlight. Like on telly, that sort of Sex and the City mentality. But at the same time you're hardened by stuff and told, y'know, 'Go out and get yours, girl,' as part of that sort of fast 'n' furious, gold-digging hoochie culture. In the West it seems like it's all about how forward you can be, one way or another. And if you're in the middle you're just fucked." She also says that the recording of "Amazon" contains a sample from her earlier song "Galang." "You're the first one I've mentioned that to," she says with a grim laugh. "Nobody's called me on it so far."
"When I was originally writing 'Galang,' though, that was the most desperate time for me. I used to think I couldn't help the way I felt, and there was absolutely nothing I could do. Couldn't resolve any of it. But since the records've come out, things've changed. Now I feel, like, really luxurious, like it's a new dawn."
Of course, a new dawn brings new challenges. "I can't sing properly," she says matter-of-factly. "At first I tried to hire proper singers to sing my songs, and they would do all these vocalizing tricks that just messed up the whole feeling." When she took the plunge and stepped up to the M.I.C., the M.I.A. vocal style emerged as a multitracked assault weapon, sharing as much with U.K. grimesters like the Streets as with Flowers of Romance-era John Lydon. But this still left the problem of memorizing the words to all those songs. "It's very difficult because I'm dyslexic and can't remember words. In school I had issues with using words and memorizing. As it happens, I've sort of learned lyrics back from the audience. Like for example, when I first went out on tour, everyone wanted to hear 'Bucky Done Gun.' But it was one of the most recent ones I'd written for the record, and at first I couldn't remember it at all. But getting out among all those people who really like the song, it's almost like they taught it back to me."
Several critics have identified M.I.A.'s music as part of a new form of technologically supported folk music, and Arulpragasam seems to concur. "What makes music more interesting," she says, "is when you dig deeper into the underground and then just keep going down further. In the Caribbean there's this thing called the Parang Festival, and it exists with no media, no news, no nothing. And back in Sri Lanka there was a man who traveled from village to village with an instrument that he just strums with a bow and tells a story. No knowledge of charts or popular culture, just honesty. No style or formal method, just human beings, voices. I only ever used the 505 out of need."
Maya has found the audience response to her own music both surprising and gratifying. "It's so strange to spend so much time in a room with strangers who know so much about you. Before I started doing live shows, I had no concept or awareness of who was gonna get it. Before that, the reaction was a mishmash, really. I mean, I got the recording contract, so there's that. But otherwise it was just fuckin' around with market researchers, you know. Not really people."
Interscope's publicist abruptly breaks into the conversation to tell Maya that our time is up, and also that they need to "have a little talk" before moving on to her next batch of interviews. It seems like this hotted-up street waif with the homemade clothes and rebel background might not be doing a good enough job of toeing the publicity line to please the suits. But she seems to know it and not be all that concerned. "Everything I own is on IOU," she chant-sings toward the start of Arular. "But I'm here bringing y'all something new."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.