Hello and welcome to Hot Girls. This week we’re going to be exploring the life and journey of a very unique artist. Someone who taught me a lot about what it really means to be creative and an individual. The accolades she’s been awarded include being named one of the defining artists of the noughties, by Rolling Stones and an MBE by the Queen. M.I.A. Rapper, singer, painter, musician, MIA is a creator and an activist who captured the attention of everyone from her early work with legendary DJ and Producer Diplo, to the Indian Composer A.R. Rahman with who she collaborated on the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ soundtrack, to Kanye who sampled her on ‘Swagga Like Us’, to Madonna. As well as being revered and celebrated MIA has also struggled with being out of alignment with the ‘fame’ industry. Part of what makes her so great but also part of why some of you may be thinking, hmm, MIA, is she still making music? Where she at? Well you’re about to find out. Through this, sometimes I’ll call her Maya, sometimes M.I.A but it’s the same person. I really felt she was a great next artist to spotlight because she comes at I guess hip-hop in a totally different way and has had a much less conventional star style introduction to music. Hope you enjoy learning about her as much as I did.
On the 18th July, 1975 a young lady named Mathangi was born to Arul and Kala in London. She was their second child, they moved out to Sri Lanka when Mathangi was 6 and here they had a third child so Maya was the middle child.
The early part of Maya’s life was spent in Sri Lanka, before then moving initially to India for a year or so and then back to the UK just before she turned 11. So by the age of 11 she’d already lived in three countries. She came to the UK as a refugee with her mother and sister. While she was in Sri Lanka her father became heavily involved with a political protest group and had to go into hiding from the Sri Lankan army. They lived in very basic conditions and near poverty but Maya loved the country deeply. The situation in Sri Lanka, the genocide and civil wars that have been going on there have been a huge part of Maya’s life and activism. I’m not going to talk about them in detail because I want to focus this on her music, but it’s definitely something to be aware of in understanding her spirit and what motivates her.
In the UK and into senior school, Maya grew up on a predominantly white estate in Mitchum in South London. She lived in a very small flat with her mother, sister and brother. After she graduated high school she went to central st martins which is one of the best creative colleges in the UK, to study fine art, film and video. She didn’t get in through applying. She apparently got in instead through begging. She called up the head of admissions there everyday at the same time and begged him to take her. I would not recommend this. It generally won’t work but in her case it did. Unfortunately her time at the college didn’t inspire her to continue working in fine art specifically. I found a really old interview where she explains how she felt on graduating:
By the time I left St. Martin’s, I could not justify myself being an artist at all, because I did not meet anyone there who was doing interesting art that was also getting through to everyday people. [Students there were] exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing. My life did not allow it: My mom was getting evicted, my brother was going to jail, I’d get my first phone call from my dad in twelve years confirming he’s still alive. So making ripples in the water, to aesthetically represent beauty, just didn’t make sense [to me].
Lol. Fair. So what she did instead, basically at a similar time when she graduated, she got a call from her relatives in Sri Lanka who told her that her cousin had been shot and left brain dead. She flew out to Sri Lanka and decided to pursue film, so started interviewing people who were living through what was essentially a political civil war out there. A lot of the footage that she captured ended up being used in a Documentary about her life which was released in 2018 – very interesting watch, would recommend. Film and art became the focus of her output for a time. She ended up meeting Justine Frischmann, just in creative scenes, who was the lead singer of a successful BritPop band called Elastica. Justine commissioned Maya to create the cover art for the band’s 2000 album, The Menace, and video document their American tour. That really was the entry point for Maya into the music industry.
I want to pause on that relationship for a bit because I really think, if Justine had not met Maya, MIA and her music may never have been created. It makes me think about the importance of the people we bring into our lives and how they shape us. We think so often that nepotism is an issue because of opportunity but for Maya, a Tamil refugee it was much more about someone telling her that she could create, that she could write a song and it would be valid.
She didn’t enjoy touring because she felt very alienated, I mean she was super young I think about 20, 21 and was a very different person to the bands that she was around. She was very much there as Justine’s friend, even if she did have a role in filming, that wasn’t as serious or important then as it can be considered now. After tour and for this early 20s period of her life I think she was very much trying to find herself and felt like musicians she met on tour were the same but she wasn’t really like them and then she also would go back to Sri Lanka but not quite be right for there either.
When she moved back to London and was living with Justine, she wanted Elastica to make more music and so was saying to Justine I’ll write you a song. She had this restlessness and Justine made Maya stay put and through having to stay put she got bored and taught herself how to make music.
She was introduced to the basic equipment she then used to create her early music. The first song she wrote, she wrote on a four track. A four track was basically a tape recorder that lets you record one sound on top of another. For example, you can record yourself strumming the guitar chords to your new song, rewind the tape and then record yourself singing along what you just played without erasing the guitar. Very simple, very cheap, very home made. She didn’t get spotted at a talent show and given hours in the studio, she just kinda hacked it at home. She definitely got hooked on this creative process of writing and to continue making and playing around.
“I’d go for days without brushing teeth, feeling like I’m learning so much, getting up at 8 in the morning and on the four-track all day. Lost all my friends, wouldn’t comb my hair for days, just stick on my sweatshirt and have a go.”
She ended up making a six song demo tape, which was the equivalent of an EP and this included Galang which I’ll go on to talk about but M.I.A.went to Coachella with that song.
So it was around 2001, she started making music, then in 2003, she signed a small deal with Showbiz records who she actually just went in and was like, I’m gonna perform my stuff for you. Showbiz liked her music, it was undoubtedly fresh and a complete fusion of cultures. They created 500 Vinyls of her music and gave her more exposure then in 2004, she began uploading her music onto MySpace “Galang” kinda got on the radar of bigger audiences from there. A few months later , she was signed to XL Recordings. Once signed they then promoted Galang. At this point, music critics liked her, and the underground internet scene liked her who were hearing it through file sharing and at graduate fashion shows and stuff.
Release of her first album
The music video for Galang was made in November 2004, nearly a year after it had been growing traction in the underground – it ain’t a fancy vid, it’s not like they were waiting for big budget, i just think Maya was more focused in getting her music out into the world and heard, than necessarily fame or being a popular artist. In 2005 Arular, her debut album was released. She named the album after her father – it wasn’t her father’s birth name but the one he adopted when he joined the Tamil independence movement.. It was released more or less simultaneously in the states and the UK.
The album included all the singles she originally created, packaged up properly as an album. It was an 11track album with skits through which she just kinda mocks the world.. I’ve mentioned Galang a lot already but the other tracks I’d recommend from that album are: pull up the people, 10 dollar and fire fire. Arular just entered the billboard top 200, reaching 190 and got to 92 in the UK so you wouldn’t have heard it on the radio 1 chart show BUT it became the second most featured album in music critics’ Year-End Top 10 lists for 2005 and was nominated for a mercury music prize.
Diplo was involved in the production, producing Becky Done Gun and supporting on some of the other songs. This was pretty early on in Diplo’s career as well – him and MIA actually were together for about 5years after meeting on a night out in London so they were a couple as well as creative collaborators. It’s quite amazing really these partnerships. In the Missy Elliot episode I spoke about how closely her and Timbaland worked and really developed one another and I think in a similar way, MIA and Diplo really became known together. Diplo you could say has been for electronic music what Timbaland has for hip hop. He’s behind so much of what became popular creating an incredibly broad range of music. He’s one third of Major Lazer and the founder of Mad Decent. Semi-ironically, given how famous he is now, they actually broke up because Diplo hated the take-off of MIA. He didn’t want to see her signed to a major label, he wanted her to be his creative partner.
The song that really changed Maya’s life they did write together and that was Paper Planes. It came from her second album, released in 2007 when Maya was 32. It was released by XL recordings and it was named Kala after her mother. Her mother’s life and struggles were a key theme of the album and it was this album where the world really paid attention to MIA. Despite obviously learning a lot about music from being around the Brit Pop crew, growing up she was hip hop and dancehall inspired listening to a lot of public enemy and then she also was drawn to the rock side of things through the clash and the slit and paper planes actually sampled the clash song “Straight to Hell”. The track had originally been recorded in 2006, and was released as a single in February 2008. In true Maya style, she invited street kids she came across in Brixton to sing the song’s chorus. She finished the song when she was living in Brooklyn, where she’d moved to. She apparently originally recorded her vocals without paying much attention to her singing and finished the song in one take. Critics went mad for M.I.A at this time and I think, more than any artist I can think of, the press have been both her best friends and her worst enemy. The industry publications like NME and Rolling Stone, really LOVED her but then news outlets couldn’t understand her politics at all. I love reading the contrast between Maya’s descriptions of her work and the press. Maya is just like, so casual and the industry press so specific.
In 2008 she contributed to the soundtrack of one of the biggest films of the year, which was Slumdog Millionaire. Paper Planes was used but also O…Saya which is a tune.. In 2008, M.I.A. became the first person of Asian descent to be nominated for an Oscar and Grammy award in the same year.
“You have a microphone, use it to say something”
So at this point MIA is very well known and in August 2009, M.I.A. she starts working on her third studio album, now from a home studio in her Los Angeles house. A long way from London home and Jaffna home. The reason I just played that clip is because this period of time is where Maya really became increasingly known as an activist. Sceptics would say that she was using politics and controversy to increase her fame. Anyone who’s seen her journey, I think, could comfortably agree that’s not true at all. And I think the next maybe 5years of Maya’s life and music become very much about this love/hate relationship with the world and the music industry. Her success, and she signed also to a bigger label, meant she had money for that home studio and the eyes of mainstream, scale media. But she loved the underground – at the same time she launched her own record label, signing underground artists – and had I think quite a few experiences where she realised how little the press and the world of LA seemed to care about what was really going on with the violence in Sri Lanka. And remember her extended family were still living there. I also said that she was the first person of asian descent to be nominated for a grammy and an oscar in the same year. The world had not seen a female Tamil rapper before at all, and so for her to have the audience she did, I think she felt a tremendous sense of responsibility.
Her third album, Maya, became M.I.A.’s highest charting album globally, though i wouldn’t say it’s her best music – I think just coincided with when she was the hottest i guess. My fave song off that was Teqkilla and Nicki Minaj dropped a verse for a remix of the track. This album also included the song Born Free. In 2012, MIA and Nicki featured on a Madonna track called Give me all your loving which they then joined Queen Madonna on stage to perform at the Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show. Instead of singing the lyric “shit” in the song, M.I.A. seemingly spontaneously decided to flip off the camera and basically she was attacked. The N.F.L. filed a lawsuit suing her for millions in damages and demanding a public apology from M.I.A. This controversy at the time went totally over my head but it features a lot in her documentary as a real highlight of the confusion of our morals as a society because no-one wanted to hear about the fact people were being killed in another country, they wanted to know why she felt it was ok to show a middle finger at an NFL game. Fuckin’ ridiculous.
Her last formal studio album was released in 2012 and featured my two favourite songs of hers, Bring the Noize and Bad Girls. She signed to Roc Nation, which is Jay-Zs label and Rihanna said “welcome home MIA.” The video for Bad Girls is why Maya is a Queen in my eyes. It is everything. A fusion of a million cultures. It’s powerful. It’s powerful for women and men. It’s glamorous but in an accidentally creative way. I absolutely love it. It was actually released by Noisy which is the hip-hop arm of Vice and that was when Vice magazine was like the home of alternative but popular culture.
In the period of time through her second and third album’s a think Maya’s life really intensified and that wasn’t how she started in the industry. I did one of these episodes on Nicki Minaj, and Tory Lanez is another artist right now or you can see they have a relentlessness to them where they dont want to get off the treadmill. …. Maya was never like that – she was promoting the same single for a few years, she was 37 when she signed to Roc Nation and I think after that third album she just kinda slowed the treadmill and shifted focus onto other things which were interesting her. She released a book and documentary about her life with extensive footage starting from thirty years ago with Maya and her siblings dancing around a cramped London flat. She has continued making music and is now using Patreon to connect more with a smaller community of her fans, releasing music on there. I guess she made enough money, realised even with all the eyes in the world she couldn’t necessarily get people to care about what she cared about so is now back to creating from a more authentic creative space. She’s also become quite pally with Julian Assange of all people -the founder of wikileaks who is also friends with Pamela Anderson. What a dinner party.
Given Maya’s success there are undoubtedly lessons to learn from the characteristics Maya embodies and the way she’s pursued the world. So these are my top lessons from MIA.
Number 1. Be Yourself
“After I decided that I was an individual I think I got signed like six months after” — M.I.A
“you can’t really pin yourself to the identity that you’re forced to create within a certain social environment that’s based on a geographical piece of land, you know, a country, and then gender on top of that” — M.I.A
No. 2. Taking Meaning From Experience
One of the moments which really struck me in her documentary was when Maya’s sister is struggling to accept the way their father has chosen to fight in Sri Lanka and left them to cope in his absence. The way Maya responds to this says a lot about her character and signals one of the reasons she’s become so successful. While her sister is understandably downbeat, Maya sees things differently: “I’m glad… he’s made us so strong for what he’s put us through”.
Approach to creativity – just make stuff
No. 4 Stand for something
Whilst there’s a level of complexity in most arguments when it comes to politics and humanity, Maya doesn’t let that stop her from expressing the truth as she’s experienced it.
No. 5 – go beyond the music – be creative in all the ways that appeal to you
Thanks Maya. You’re a rockstar.
And thanks listeners – next week is a guest episode and then the week after we’ll be talking the first lady of hip-hop. Lil Kim.