The trip to Sri Lanka was a turning point in her artistic evolution. Maya gathered images from VHS tapes of Tamil rebel soldiers who had died. The videos were made for parents who wanted to know the fate of their missing children. It was also a way for the Tamils to share their side of the story, without any interference from the BBC and other media outlets. “If you wanted to hear the other story, you had to go find it,” Maya writes. She was aiming to bridge the gap. The art she made after that trip was a blueprint for the movement of her work in the years to come—it evolved from a documentary to film stills to photographs to stencils to prints to songs. She photographed and blew up the video stills of missing Tamils—some were “faces of girls her age, frozen in a moment of video, sometimes between life and death” and others had images of rockets, tanks, palm trees, and camouflage uniforms.
The images were the impetus for her first gallery exhibition, M.I.A., which was shown in 2001 at Euphoria, a clothing store on London’s Portobello Road where she worked at the time. They were pixellated and lacked perfect detail but were also intriguing and visualized violence in a pop, digestible fashion. The works sold out seconds after the preview, the show was nominated for an Alternative Turner Prize, Diesel released a pocket-sized book of the show in 2002 (also titled M.I.A.), and Jude Law famously bought multiple pieces. The work in the show transferred to the album artwork for her first LP, Arular, which came out in 2005 and featured militant electro-dancehall tracks with videos filled with spray-painted, stenciled agit-prop graphics. As Loveridge writes, “Her record deal from XL came easily and with so little fuss. She was fully formed from day one.”
The trip to Sri Lanka was a turning point in her artistic evolution. Maya gathered various forms of imaging from VHS tapes of Tamil rebel soldiers who had died. The videos were made for parents who wanted to know the fate of their missing children,
But back to the birthday party.
I stuck close to my friends, not wanting to expose the depth of my admiration. It became pretty obvious that M.I.A. was the coolest person in the Western hemisphere, with newly bleached blonde hair, a relaxed British accent, and a sharp smile. But she also seemed approachable. I went up to wish her a happy birthday, and she offered me a cigarette. I obliged, despite having never smoked before, and soon felt extremely lightheaded. To this day, I have never smoked another. I imagined she would be difficult to talk to, maybe argumentative or something, but she had a soft, welcoming demeanor and was OK with small talk. She said how nice her skin and nails were when she was pregnant, and I admitted to being a nervous, nail-biting college student. Her baby and fiancé weren’t around, but she seemed happy and at peace in the company of her friends.
In my limited experience, meeting someone who you admire (and have idealized into some sort of superhuman) is a deeply unfulfilling experience. At the time I was just a kid who spent my time aimlessly driving around Los Angeles, blogging, and going to shows. In fact, I only met her brother because he was hiring me to make a website. Neither he, nor his sister, knew that two years before, I had been an intern at Universal Music Group, who stumbled upon 30 posters of the Arular album cover and tiled them on my apartment wall like works of art. I had discovered “Galang” through an iTunes “free download of the week” in 2005 and instantly connected with it on a visual level.
At the time, I didn’t think about the violence she was talking about in songs like “Sunshowers” or “Fire, Fire,” but I loved what I imagined in pop lyrics juxtaposing “razor blades” and “purple haze." Swiping the posters at UMG felt like collecting art more than it did an album cover, but over time, and through the book, I’ve learned that her artwork and music are intrinsic to one another. Little did I know that the Arular print started in her bedroom as well, and as she writes in M.I.A., “Arular went from jungle to street to wall…It went from my bedroom to whoever was looking.”
Before Arular, M.I.A. did an unofficial release of a mixtape titled Piracy Funds Terrorism Volume 1, produced by Diplo, which mashed up her vocals with uncleared samples from Jay-Z, Salt-n-Pepa, Missy Elliott, Ciara, and LL Cool J. Since she couldn’t legally sell the record, 2000 were distributed hand to hand. It became a document of her influences, a precursor to Arular, and the foundation for the way her music would permeate and be reacted to, working in the same way her art did—from the street to whoever would listen. It was both a political statement against piracy and terrorism and a hip-hop influenced pop mixtape that spread like wildfire on the Internet. Songs like “Galang” and “Sunshowers” went from the mixtape to Arular to dancefloors and fashion runways. They went viral before people were really using the term “viral,” and suddenly lyrics like "It's a bomb yo/So run yo/Put away your stupid gun yo" were being celebrated and danced to.
On all her albums, from Arular to Kala, /\/\ /\ Y /\, and the VickiLeekx mixtape—a twist on Julian Assange’s subversive WikiLeaks project—Maya has been hands on with her album art, knowing that it’s an essential part of the total experience. I learned this while I was an intern at Interscope Records' creative department in the summer of 2010. We never planned or produced her photo shoots or art direction, we’d just receive the final product and the occasional invoice for people she would hire herself. It wasn’t unusual to have multiple photo shoots for other artists as we figured out what would work best for the album and single covers. It was unspoken but obvious why M.I.A. controlled the visual presentation of her music—she knew it was an integral part of her artistic statement.
M.I.A. the book reveals the ways Maya used her art and music to elevate one another. Over time, she had to factor in the role of technology in both the world and her practice, writing that Kala reflected digital changes in the third world, and /\/\ /\ Y /\ “was about the Internet itself becoming your medium.” The aesthetic of her later work, which was already spray-painted in Arular and pixellated in Kala, eventually became digitally corrupted and distorted, incorporating screenshots from applications like YouTube, iTunes, and iChat.
“Everything I did as an artist or everything everyone does an artist comes down to these two things: people or money," Maya writes in the Kala chapter. "And as 2006 turned into 2007 then 2008, this concept became bigger and bigger, finally crashing with the financial crash and ‘Paper Planes’ making radio.”
“Paper Planes,” also produced by Diplo, was the single that catapulted her into the mainstream beyond music. It became the title track of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, and it was used in the trailer for stoner comedy Pineapple Express. For his 2008 Paper Trail album, T.I. sampled the line, “No one on the corner has swagga like us,” for a song named “Swagga Like Us,” produced by Kanye West and featuring ‘Ye, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne.
A very pregnant M.I.A. sang the hook live at the Grammy Awards on February 8, 2009— which also happened to be her baby’s due date. Five years after Piracy Funds Terrorism came out, and two years after releasing “Paper Planes,” there she was on worldwide television singing alongside four of the biggest names in music, who were all rocking to an anthem she originated about impossible swag. Jay-Z went from an uncleared sample on her first mixtape to a fellow artist, and the song went from being a story about refugee struggle to an unforgettable moment in hip-hop.
Days after her birthday party, a few of us met at the Shangri La in Santa Monica for drinks. She was going back to London the next day. The conversation went from Britney Spears and Kreayshawn to stories of her mother, a commissioned seamstress for the British Royal Family. But when Maya decided to speak, in her mellow yet matter-of-fact tone, everyone stopped talking, and no one would dream of interrupting her. Between her brother’s admiring gaze and the wide eyes of her friends, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one who was a little bit starstruck.
I didn’t see her again after those two days, so I didn’t really get the chance to find out if there is much of a distinction between M.I.A., the artist, and Mathangi Maya Arulpragasm, the person. What I do know is that I started to understand her as a total artist, and not just a musician. Reading this book only confirms that. Constructing M.I.A. from her early days in college to her trips to Sri Lanka and all around World Town has been an art form in itself.
When I went to Postmodernism class the next day, the coursework seemed pretty irrelevant compared to the real-life meeting I had the night before. No amount of Barthes or Foucault could match the stories about her mother sewing the blue sash for Prince William's wedding, or her plans to make videos in Africa. I realized I had already met the quintessential Postmodernist. The best of art exposes both the artist and the viewer, and there is no one doing it better than Maya.
All images © MIA by MIA, Rizzoli New York, 2012