How M.I.A.’s Past as a Refugee Fuels Her Present

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The British rapper, singer-songwriter, record producer and activist Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam MBE, stage name M.I.A., was born in Hounslow, United Kingdom. As an artist, she doesn’t shy away from including her past as a Sri Lankan refugee and beliefs in her work.

Growing Up in Sri Lanka

M.I.A. was born in the U.K., but she and her family moved to Sri Lanka when she was barely a year old. For the next 11 years, M.I.A. grew up in Sri Lanka during the Sri Lankan Civil War. 

According to hir.harvard.edu, the war was “mainly a clash between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgent group.” The article goes on to mention that the mainstream narrative is that the war built upon tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups. Each trying to reclaim its dignity and power.

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M.I.A. and her family are Tamil and her father was a devout founding member of the Liberation Tigers. An article by Miranda Sawyer in The Guardian says that during the time she lived in Sri Lanka, M.I.A. only saw her father three times. 

Even though her father was never around, he still caused issues for the family. In The Guardian article, M.I.A. talks about how government soldiers would show up at their house to ask about her father’s whereabouts. They would kindly ask the children about their father then turn around and beat M.I.A.’s mother.

After spending 11 years in Sri Lanka, M.I.A., her siblings and her mother fled to London. Luckily, M.I.A.’s London birth certificate granted them access as refugees. 

“I mean, we attempted to leave about four or five times, and every time we’d get stopped. They would stop the bus and take all the men off the bus and, you know, we never saw them again. It took us a while to leave. I still have all those memories,” M.I.A. said in an interview with NPR.

Becoming M.I.A.

M.I.A. and her family lived in the British equivalent of a public housing project. A few years later, M.I.A. applied and got into Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Here, she developed her craft and graduated in 2000 with a degree in fine art, film, and video. 

While at Saint Martins, an art publisher packaged a collection of M.I.A. art. According to an article in Nirali Magazine, she named the collection “M.I.A.” She said it phonetically sounds like her name and she had many cousins “missing in action” in Sri Lanka’s civil war.

The name stuck and she used “M.I.A.” as her stage name from that point on.

Using her Celebrity Status

Even at the beginning of her music career, M.I.A. has incorporated elements of her life into her music. 

In The Guardian article, she mentions how she named her very first album “Arular” after her father. And in the NPR article, she talks about how her song “Atention” utilizes lyrics that have the word “tent” in them.

“It’s sort of to describe the refugee philosophy — people who live in tents — because I feel like they are the modern-day untouchables. We generate millions of refugees every year, and they are the true untouchables of our society because they’re faceless and placeless,” she said in the NPR article.

refugee camp
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In 2007, M.I.A. released a song called “Paper Planes” that shot her to stardom. The song was nominated for a Grammy and topped many charts.

An article on Shmoop.com suggests that the meaning of the song is a dig at the way countries like Great Britain and the United States stereotypically characterize and treat immigrants. The article discusses how many people criticized and censored the song because of alternative interpretations.

M.I.A.’s music and political and social beliefs are a package deal. Her past as a refugee and present as an artist solidified that. She even has a documentary, called “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” that focuses on her music as well as Sri Lankan politics and issues.

“It’s a luxury not to be political in your work,” M.I.A. said in an interview with The Atlantic. “If I lived in the land of marshmallows with unicorns flying around, that is what my art would be about. The whole idea is to encourage discussion and give people something they might not get from anybody else.”

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