salt and pepper my mango,” sing-songs 28-year-old Maya Arulpragasam at the beginning of her infectious, dancehall-inspired song, “Sunshowers.” A remix of “Sunshowers” is the second track on the London-based artist’s debut single featuring the even more pulsating “Galang,” released in the United States on September 28. The song’s drum-pattern beat is catchy, quirky, crazy—it’s so good, you almost don’t want to bother to decipher the mish-mash of words she’s rapping spliced between an airy, soprano-sounding chorus. But something about the song forces you to lean in a little closer, pay attention—and that’s when the lyrics jump out: “You wanna go? / You wanna win a war? / Like PLO I don’t surrendo … Semi 9 and snipered him / On that wall they posted him / they cornered him / and then just murdered him.” The dichotomy between the party beat and heavy message forces a double-take—what is this music, anyway?
“Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs … Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked.
“Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs … Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked. It sounds like a pop song, but if you really listen to the lyrics, it’s about what I see on the telly and news and what’s going on,” says Arulpragasam matter-of-factly, as if sniper killings are, indeed, a part of “what’s going on” in her world. But then, this Sri Lankan transplant to Britain has had a bit more going on in her life than most.
A rough start
Arulpragasam relocated from her native Sri Lanka to London with her mother, sister and brother at the age of 10—but hers isn’t a typical tale of South Asian immigration to the West. Arulpragasam’s life in war-torn Sri Lanka was one of constant secrecy and scraping by. She never knew her father, one of the founding members of Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant guerrilla group formed in 1976 with the goal of gaining political independence for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil population. “We saw him once a year, for 10 minutes at a time. My mum said, ‘That’s your uncle—your dad is dead.’ It was to protect us,” she explains, from the police interrogations at school.
Arulpragasam quickly learned the price of being Tamil among a primarily Sinhalese population, and of being the daughter of such a notorious figure. “We lived in hiding for so long. We were just moving from village to village and from house to house. Nobody wanted to put us up; we were untouchable. Everybody knew about us in Sri Lanka, and nobody wanted to deal with us because we brought so much heat. The army would follow [us wherever we’d go]. We were living in big-time poverty, stealing mangoes off someone else’s tree,” she remembers.
Then, in 1986, when the civil war escalated and many of Arulpragasam’s friends and family died in the crossfire, her mother collected Arulpragasam and her siblings and successfully sought refugee status in Britain. “When we got to England, we were safe. That’s all it was,” she says. And it really wasn’t much more than that—Arulpragasam’s family was placed in a notoriously racist, crime-ridden housing estate in southwest London, where she endured daily racist abuse. Her mother took various jobs to supplement the “bags of clothes and vouchers” the government gave them, eventually using her knowledge of sewing to stitch medals for the British royal family. “They [the royal medals] used to come out of this flat, in an estate,” she laughs. Since Arulpragasam didn’t know any English when she arrived, her classmates “assumed I was really thick and dumb”—even though she was academically ahead of other students by leaps and bounds. “I could do any equation standing on my head,” she says smugly. And she didn’t fit in with the thriving South Asian community, either, which she encountered when she went to high school in west London at 16. “I met a community of Bengalis, Indian, Pakistanis, everybody. They were having a great time … I spent time hanging out, but I was this Sri Lankan. Sri Lankans were the newest batch of brown people—they only started coming late 80s or early 90s, so there wasn’t a community that I could click into.”
I’m just the alternative to that ‘coffee table’ music. I’m the flipside to what Norah Jones is doing.
And so it was music that caught Arulpragasam’s attention in otherwise gray England. “It was 1987, and hip hop was just hitting England. When I got here, all I knew was Michael Jackson. I started listening to the radio and discovered hip hop and then dancehall,” she says. That discovery changed her life, influencing the beats she would spin years later. When she was younger and faced the language barrier, she turned to music to communicate. “All I could do was dance. At every celebration or party, they asked me to do a dance routine. They kind of gave me respect for art and music and stuff.”
Artist in the making
Music may have been her salvation, but it was art that launched her career. Arulpragasam enrolled in the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, studying fine arts and film. She quickly emerged as a star for her unique stencil graffiti boasting Tamil iconography. She was shortlisted for the Alternative Turner Prize, and art publisher Pocko packaged a collection of her art, which she named M.I.A, or Missing in Action. She chose it because the initials sounded phonetically like her first name, and because “so many of my cousins are missing in action in Sri Lanka,” she explains, as she sprays her signature stencils on white labels for a limited release of her single. The moniker stuck, and she performs under the name M.I.A to this day.
Her college career led her back to Sri Lanka for a painful trip during which she set out to create a documentary about the political repression and violence she had lived through. The experience was more than she expected. “It was really difficult—I totally forgot that, in the 15 years I’d been in England, I’d grown up … Every army solider there thought I was a threat to the nation … There is no right to live for a Tamil person in the constitution,” she says. She recalls being interrogated and harassed. “In Sri Lanka, you hide your face, don’t talk to anyone, just bow your head, don’t speak. You’re just a robot with no life, no hope. I was just crying the whole time. I had a message from the Ministry of Defense, a letter from British embassy, and I was [still] getting harassed, even though I was so obviously westernized. There were women getting raped in broad daylight and people were getting raped by the army soldiers. It was just havoc.”
I really need to feel informed about what’s going on, because as much as I love to know what’s cool, and what colors are in this season, and what you should wear on your feet, at the same time, I need to know what’s going on.
When she returned to England, she tried to put the documentary together, but, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, felt that it would be misconstrued as propaganda. Instead, Arulpragasam turned her attention to making a documentary about electronic shock-rocker Peaches, a fellow Saint Martins grad. It was Peaches who introduced her to the Roland TR 505, an unsophisticated drum machine. The 505 revolutionized Arulpragasam’s life, luring her to spend hours experimenting with beats and creating vocals. Soon after her introduction to the 505, she went on vacation to the Caribbean island of Bequia, where the sights and sounds of the island inspired her to experiment further. “I was bored and tried to write a song,” she remembers.
Claim to fame
That product of boredom, a cheap beat machine and a 4-track recorder evolved into the song “Galang,” an exuberant explosion of dancehall, hip hop and electronic beats mixed with undecipherable vocals and street slang. And if Arulpragasam’s life story seems remarkable, then why shouldn’t her social circle be extraordinary, as well? In art school, she had designed indie Brit band Elastica’s The Menace album sleeve, “and that’s how I met loads of musicians,” she says. It’s unclear just how she rubbed elbows with Pulp’s Steve Mackey, but he is credited with discovering the song and co-producing it. “Galang” became a fast hit among DJs in Britain, and soon, recording companies were clamoring for Arulpragasam’s attention. XL Recordings, home to Prodigy, Badly Drawn Boy and the White Stripes, won the bidding war and signed her on the spot. Her full-length album with XL is due out in January. So far, she’s also made a lush video for “Sunshowers,” which she filmed in the jungles of South India with acclaimed director Rajesh Touchriver of In the Name of Buddha fame.
Arulpragasam doesn’t have any formal musical training, but she insists that’s beside the point: “I use the technology around me to make music. It’s not about what you use. It’s about what sound you get out at the end of the day. My music’s got rhythm, beat, bass line. Vocals that are different. It’s not really about vocal gymnastics. It still has an urgency … I’m just the alternative to that ‘coffee table music’—I’m the flipside to what Norah Jones is doing.”
But even if her music sounds less serious than Norah Jones’ ballads, the message is certainly more so. “When I was writing music and writing lyrics, I didn’t want to write about love songs and stuff, because it really didn’t feel like my order of priorities. I thought, ‘OK, there’s sh*t going down—what can I do to make myself more useful?’ I just always wanted to be a really useful human being,” she says. “I really need to feel informed about what’s going on, because as much as I love to know what’s cool, and what colors are in this season, and what you should wear on your feet, at the same time, I need to know what’s going on,” she adds. It’s unclear whether she’s being sarcastic about keeping up with the trends, or if that truly is a part of her complex personality. After all, her songs are tinged with thoughtful words looped over carefree beats. She explains the paradox with genetics: “My mum is a saint, and my dad is insane. That’s exactly what I am—I’m a split personality between my mum and my dad. I look at them both, and they hate each other. So this is what you get, a freak, a nutty, creative person who’s thoughtful,” she laughs.
With the “Galang” single in stores and her full-length album on the way, Arulpragasam has come a long way from the jungles of war-torn Sri Lanka. She credits her success to her cultural background. “My mates always say to me, why aren’t you mad? Or having therapy or something? I think, coming from where I come from, you just have to get on with it. That’s what life is. You just get on with it. You can’t be indulgent enough to whine about stuff. It’s about being useful. I don’t have time to get mad or get bitter or depressed or anything. I just want to have a good ending to the story.” It seem like she’s already written it herself.