Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) is a singer, songwriter and visual artist who has released four award winning albums. She believes music can be used to achieve social change, and credits her growing up as a refugee as the impetus for this.
Although famous for her music, M.I.A. studied Fine Art, Film & Video at Central St. Martin’s School of Art and Design and her first public exhibition of paintings after graduating mixed Tamil political street art with London life and was nominated for an Alternative Turner Prize.
Turning her creativity to music, she released her first album in 2007 and has since released an additional three albums blending hip-hop, electro, world music and jungle with a distinct sound earning her nominations for an Academy Award, Grammy Award, Brit Award, Mercury Prize. She’s the only artist of Asian descent to be nominated for an Academy and Grammy Award in the same year.
If M.I.A’s story started in the London council estate where she spent her teenage years, it would be remarkable enough, but the fact it starts in Sri Lanka as the daughter of a Tamil activist has made her a refugee icon. Her stage name was inspired by her missing cousin,
‘We were the same age, went to the same schools growing up. I was also living in Acton at the time. So I was living in Acton looking for my cousin missing in action.’
– An excerpt from the book ‘M.I.A’ 2012
In a 2011 interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, she noted that
“When Paper Planes happened I was too busy to take note, I wasn’t out there promoting it and doing any of this shit because this 25 year old civil war was coming to an end in my country and I was making new understandings and new observations and new experiences that happened to me which didn’t add up to what was going on over here.”
“I’ve just always travelled because, you know, that’s what you do when you’re a refugee and it’s impacted me because I’m not judgemental. I like to hear things from the horse’s mouth and I like to use my own brain to make judgements about what the truth is and what it isnt, and I know from my own experiences what that is, you know. That’s the thing about my music, I wanted to become a musician and help some sort of change or stand up for what I believe in, use music for what its supposed to be for, you know.. you have to be tough to withstand the pressure to … but the experiences I have had meant that I can use music to represent my people.”
The Sri Lankan Civil war was caused by tensions created by the British during their colonial rule of what was then called Ceylon. Ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the northeast led to a 26 year long civil war from 1983 to 2009 between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as the Tamil Tigers). The war significantly impacted the environment and economy of Sri Lanka and killed an estimated 80,000 – 100,000 people. Many people left Sri Lanka due to the persecution of Tamils
While Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister (1979 – 1990) immigration levels were much lower than they are today. The deep recession had reduced many of the economic pull factors for migration and the refugee producing crises of the 1990s including the collapse of the Iron Curtain were yet to happen. The British Nationality Act 1981 continued the restrictions to the rights of Commonwealth Citizens introduced in the Immigration Act 1971, and work permits became more difficult to get without specialist skills. During the 1980s racial tensions emerged which led to the riots of 1981 in Brixton, Liverpool and the Midlands.