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10 Times M.I.A. Redefined What It Means To Be A Popstar

Written by Michael Carr on June 25, 2018

Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam or M.I.A. as most of us know her is one of the most iconic,influential and outspoken artists of the 21st Century. Entering the music industry with an explosion of excitement around her debut singles Galang and Sunshowers in 2003, her soon-to-follow debut album Arular and follow-ups has cemented her place in the pantheon of pop music.

And all the while, she’s never stopped pushing the envelope of what a popstar can be, from pulling world music influences and radical politics into the mainstream, to just not giving a f#$%.

While this isn’t exactly what you’d expect from the likes of Brittany Spears or Katy Perry (no shade, love you both), looking at M.I.A.’s life it’s clear she was never going to fit the mould set by others before her. Spending her youth in Sri Lanka, she and her family returned to London – where she spent the first 6 months of her life – after her father became involved with the Tamil independence movement.

Studying visual art and film at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and being awarded and Alternative Turner Prize for her 2001 debut exhibition, her journey to finding a career in music is as unconventional and exciting as her music is.

And so with the documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. screening as part of Revelation Perth Film Festival, we thought why not list of 10 Times M.I.A. Redefined What It Means To Be A Popstar.

1. Choosing Her Name

Before the world had even heard of her, M.I.A. was set on no compromising of her political identity in order to gain fame, choosing the acronym for ‘missing in action’ as her artist name in honour of her cousin who was killed in the conflict in Sri Lanka. She had initially hoped to make a film about him under the title M.I.A., but after the music industry came calling she took it up herself and the rest is history. And while the name is also a play on her own name, Maya, this wouldn’t be the last time that the artist would use her family and their political history in her music, the title of her debut album Arular also being the name her father took up when helping found the Tamil Tigers.

2. Getting Blocked From Entering The US

We all know that having an album banned from sale — or a song censored — will always lead to more interest and hype. Well, M.I.A. took this a step further when she herself was banned from the entire nation of the United States when trying to enter to record sessions for her second album, Kala, with Timbaland. Turned back on arrival, the always outspoken star took to MySpace (its was 2006 after all) to have her voice heard, exclaiming “I’ve been locked out!”

3. Paper Planes

By the time ‘Paper Planes’ was released as a single off Kala in 2008, M.I.A. had already established herself as a highly political and unapologetically radical artist. She wasn’t name-checking the Palestine Liberation Organisation just for kicks, after all. However, with the worldwide success and recognition that came with the release of Kala — and with ‘Paper Planes’ becoming her most successful single to date — her political voice was suddenly being heard by a lot more people, not all of whom liked what she had to say.  The song itself, however, re-wrote the rules on what a pop song can be, it’s satire of immigrant stereotypes and her general rejection of the moral primacy of western values being tied up in one of the catchiest hooks of the 21st century so far.

4. Calling Pitchfork Sexist

If you thought that the online wave of proto-MRAs and other reactionary conservative shut-ins was going to slow M.I.A. down, you obviously haven’t been paying attention. While promoting Kala in an interview with Pitchfork, rather than try and play down her combative image, the ever-irrepressible artist attacked the website for its sexist assumption that her collaborator Diplo produced all of Arular.

“I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female”, she said, also pointing out that Diplo only ever sent her a loop for ‘Bucky Done Gun’.

5. Playing The GRAMMY’s While 9 Months Pregnant

Sticking with sexism for a moment, M.I.A. struck a huge blow for women everywhere when she performed at the 2009 GRAMMY awards while 9 months pregnant. Not only did this challenge the stereotype of what a popstar should look like – i.e. lots of lycra and skin – but she also proved that, even while carrying a growing life inside her, she can still hold a stage alongside huge artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z. Hell — she pretty much stole the show, showing more energy and charisma than any of the men she shared the stage with, despite her very prominent baby bump, and the night of the performance being her actual due date.

6. ‘Born Free’

You’d think that after two albums so soaked in controversy and debate that M.I.A. might’ve taken a step back and tried something a little more low-key with her third album. You’d be very, very wrong, with 2010’s Maya surpassing both Arular and Kala in terms of how many people it pissed off. This time, however, it wasn’t words but images that had the online message boards and talk back radio phone in lines a blaze ,with outrage at the Romain Gavras-directed video for the album’s first single ‘Born Free’.

Showing groups of red-haired and pale-skinned people being rounded up and executed by a generic military/police force, people were up in arms over the violence shown or in some cases the ‘anti-ginger sentiment’ — the allegory for persecution of Muslims going straight over there heads apparently. As always, M.I.A. refused to back down, pointing out that people were more offended by her video than the actual execution videos coming out of the Middle East.

7. Superbowl 2012

Who could ever forget the golden moment when, after being given a chance to perform at the Superbowl as part of Madonna’s half time show, M.I.A. used the opportunity to flip everyone the bird. Not exactly on the same level as Janet Jackson’s notorious nipple-gate incident, but M.I.A. gets extra points here for just being so blasé about it, the whole thing happening so quickly it’s hard to imagine the scale of the furore to follow.

This is made even more enjoyable by how pissed-off pretty much all of middle America was, proving once again how fragile western senses of propriety can be. And the fact that she caused so much controversy while performing alongside queen of pop-controversy Madonna with nothing more than a tiny flick of the finger, she showed that — as a popstar — you don’t have to bare your body to piss people off. You can catch the moment at 0.13 in the video below, but blink and you’ll miss it.

8. From Mozart To M.I.A.

Not many popstars can claim to have a University course named after them, but M.I.A. is among that rarefied few. She joined this special set in 2012 when Brown University began offering a course called Music & Politics: From Mozart To M.I.A. A watershed moment in the history of both pop music and academia, let’s hope this is a trend that catches on, as I would love to see something like Sound, Subjectivity and The Self: Kierkegard To Kanye.

9. Skype-ing With Assange, Supporting Snowden

Back to the world of outspoken politics again for the final leg of this article, the past five years of M.I.A.’s career has seen her double down on her views. This was never more evident than when in 2013 at the start of her Matangi tour she opened proceedings with a 10-minute Skype-sesh with old mate Julian Assange who was hiding out at the Ecuadorian Embassy. She also told Time Magazine in an interview that NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden was her person of the year, and signed a statement supporting both Snowden and Wikileaks along with other musicians such as PJ Harvey and Rage Against The Machine.

10. Calling For Former Sri Lankan President To Be Tried for War Crimes

This might be my favourite entry on the whole list, just because it is so audacious. Going on Channel 4 News earlier this year to talk about the Sri Lankan election, M.I.A. wasted no time in speaking her mind. Calling for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to be tried for war crimes, the artist was unflinching in her conviction. And while you might scoff at this as just another example of an entitled celebrity throwing their weight around when she should just stick to entertaining, in a world where our journalists seem loathe to hold governments accountable for their actions and speak truth to power, thank the gods we have public figures like M.I.A. who can speak their mind. Let’s just hope more follow in her footsteps.

Documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A is showing at Revelation Perth Film Festival, telling the incredible life story of M.I.A.

Starting from her youth in Sri Lanka, to her flight to London with her mother and family after her father became associated with the Tamil Tigers, the film follows all the way through her global success as a genre defying popstar and the controversies that have followed in her wake. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Almost as much an expose on the reactionary nature of conservative society as it is a bio on one of the world’s most exciting artists and vital voices, this is one hell of a film and a must see for any fans who aren’t already aware of her stranger than fiction story.

Catch the screening dates & ticketing details below.

Matangi. Maya. M.I.A. Screening Dates

Thursday 12th July, 8.15pm

Luna On SX, Fremantle

Tickets: Luna Palace

Sunday, 15th July, 6.40pm

Luna, Leederville

Tickets: Luna Palace

Tuesday, 17th July, 4.15pm

Luna Leederville

Tickets: Luna Palace

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