The daughter of a Tamil revolutionary father and a seamstress mother, MIA’s music documents the modern experience of diaspora and the global creative underground. Always a defiantly political artist she uses the imagery of violence, globalisation, war, poverty, human rights abuse, immigration and racial identity. Her neon, DIY guerrilla styling shows the direct influence of both parents, even though her father was absent for most if her life. Like The Clash before her, MIA understands how fashion, the visual representation of your identity, is a political manifestation equal to music, lyrics and videos.
The first Sri-Lankan ever to be nominated for a Grammy, the first person of Asian descent to be nominated for an Oscar and Grammy award in the same year and the only artist in history to receive nominations for an Academy Award, a Grammy, the Brits and the Mercury Prize. MIA’s commercial breakout single Paper Planes went platinum three times over in the US, and at one point it was the seventh best-selling song by a British artist in the digital era. One of the earliest MySpace stars, MIA studied film and design at St Martins College of Art and created the colourful, clashing visuals to match her dancehall/electro/hip-hop sound. Her diverse influences are a product of her life lived in London, Civil War ridden Sri-Lanka and India. MIA is as comfortable sampling bands such as Pixies and The Clash as she is referencing Bollywood or world folk music.
I put people on the map that never seen a map.
Watching MIA performing at the 2009 Grammys on the day her baby was due, a vision in pregnant polka-dots, made me think back to Neneh Cherry busting serious moves on Top Of The Pops in 1988, gold dollar sign necklace swinging proudly over her beautiful baby bump. When MIA sang ‘no-one on the corner has swagger like us’ and the curtain dropped to reveal a back-line of the biggest male starts in modern hip-hop – Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil Wayne, T.I. – it was an electric moment. A British Asian woman up there, killing it with the big-boys.
She has collaborated with Aboriginal teens The Wilcannia Mob and the Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy. On the flip-side, she co-wrote the song Give Me All Your Luvin’ with Madonna and Nicki Minaj and performed it at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Instead of singing the lyric “shit” in the song, MIA gave the finger to the camera. The N.F.L. responded by filing a lawsuit suing her for millions in damages and demanding a public apology.
They’re basically saying it’s OK for me to promote being sexually exploited as a female, than to display empowerment, female empowerment, through being punk rock. That’s what it boils down to, and I’m being sued for it.
Some have said her politics are naïve and purposely provocative and that she can’t be the champion of the downtrodden and displaced from her current position of privilege. But if you can’t use your privilege to raise uncomfortable issues with those around you who are equally privileged, then it is a waste of platform. As a child whose school was bombed and whose mother was beaten by Government forces, MIA has grown into a woman who will speak her mind about everything, and isn’t afraid of the backlash.