Refugee icon. Global style icon. Human Rights activist. Terrorist sympathizer. The most admirable thing going on in pop music.
MIA is called many things, but more than anything else she is the anti-pop star. Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam is a British singer-songwriter, rapper, producer, painter and director. A fashion designer. A political being. A trailblazer. A trendsetter. She's all over the map. Born in England to parents of Hindu and Tamil descent, she was taken to the eye of the storm at just six months old when her family relocated to Sri Lanka. The long and tumultuous history of the Tamil people has culminated in a civil war lasting over 25 years. Ripe with crimes against humanity and mass slaughter on both sides, MIA grew up face to face with the everyday horrors of war and genocide. Her first hand account of these atrocities plays a major part in her work, both as a visual artist and a musician. Her albums have reached the point of universal acclaim, and she is the first and only major artist in world music. She credits her disadvantages early on as a major component of her success; she is able to depict a reality that is experienced by the majority -- a reality that is rarely discussed, and rarely even considered in the first world. She is praised for bringing a voice to the powerless, and commended for putting her fame on the line in order to support a cause that the world just doesn't really care about. Her critics claim that she oversimplifies the situation in her people's land, they say she's politically naive. But despite her sometimes polarizing rhetoric, she is the only artist out there who has gone above and beyond for the sake of human rights and civil liberties. For the sake of stopping arbitrary slaughter. Her accomplishments are incredible because not only has she brought an otherwise ignored emergency to the public eye, but she's also created an entirely new genre of music via the delivery of her message. Haters be damned, MIA is the real deal.
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[/caption]It all started in 1976 when her parents moved their family from Britain to Jaffna, a town in Northern Sri Lanka, where her father quit his career as an engineer, changed his sur name to Arular and helped found the Tamil political organization Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students or EROS. The country was headed toward civil war, with the Hindu minority rallying against the Buddhist majority for the creation of an independent Tamil state in the North-Eastern sect of the island. The Tamils have faced harsh discrimination at the hands of the Sri Lankan government and believe that the solution to this is full fledged independence. EROS, the organization that MIA's father helped found, was far less violent than the current Tamil Tigers group. EROS was pushed out of power by the violent Tigers, an organization which employs terror tactics including the avid recruitment of child soldiers and the use of suicide bombing, an activity that they pioneered. The civil war began in 1983 -- conflicting reports exist on when MIA left Sri Lanka, with some claiming she was there as late at 1987 others saying she left just as it began in 1983. Either way, she and her family faced violence from the Sri Lankan government and her mother insisted on moving back to the UK. Arular, her father, stayed behind to stand up for his cause, occasionally visiting his family where he was referred to as "uncle" so the children would not reveal his true identity.
MIA and her family are extremely lucky that they got out when the did. The situation continued to deteriorate, culminating in an all out government offensive in 2008. The Sri Lankan government ordered the United Nations workers to leave all Tiger held areas at this time as the air raids made it unsafe for them to stick around. Tamil civilians were terrified. In video footage collected by Channel 4 in the documentary The Killing Fields
a brahmen is seen talking to some of the UN workers, "We are begging you to stay and witness our suffering. Everyone here will die." The government saw the UN as an obstacle to their conquest; they needed all independent witnesses removed in order to begin this bloody, illegally fought war. In the end they had no choice. The government could not guarantee their safety, so they left. Video shows the trucks leaving while Tamil civilians gather at the gate wailing for their return. They knew what was going to happen. This was their greatest hour of need and their only ally had left them to fend for themselves. You have to understand that the civilians really had no one. The government and the Tigers were both out for blood and both sides were recklessly slaughtering the Tamil civilians. The Tigers used them as a shield and a ploy, not caring that they were killing their own people as long as their were defending their land. The full video of The Killing Fields
is below, if you have some time to spare we definitely recommend watching it for a firsthand look inside the turmoil.
Sri Lanka's Killing Fields by Channel 4 [Full video] from judy123 on Vimeo.
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[/caption]In 2009 the Tiger's hold on their town fell and hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced. No Fire Zones were designated, but they meant nothing. The government followed them and relentlessly bombed their schools and hospitals. Rigorous propaganda has convinced the rest of the world to side against the Tamil people. The civilians spent their days laying in trenches they dug in order to try to live through the frequent air raids. The front lines of the war moved closer by the day and they had no where to go; they sat in the trenches and waited to die. No Fire Zones are protected under international law, the intentional bombing of them is entirely illegal but there was no one there to witness the war crimes. Every hospital they built was destroyed. Emergency surgeries were performed out in the open with no anesthetics. The government claimed a public policy of zero civilian casualties, but what started as around 500,000 displaced people ended with around 40,000. The zones neatly packaged the Tamil commoners making them all the easier to kill in large volume. The air raids were organized so that the injured could not be saved; one would come and a second would follow shortly after so that anyone who tried to help was caught in the second range of fire. But even knowing this, loss would blind them to the attack they knew would come -- mothers, fathers, sons and daughters caught up in the grief of seeing their family member killed would be too overcome to keep moving. Simultaneously, the Tigers were sending in suicide bombers and murdering any Tamil people who tried to escape.
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[/caption]There was no food, no water, no medicine. The Red Cross periodically showed up in order to report the coordinates of the civilian zones. They did this in order to inform both sides of areas that were off limits -- but instead, once given the coordinates both sides would then target those areas. They eventually begged the Red Cross to stop coming. In January there were three to four hundred thousand people, in May there were 130,000 and a total of 65 reports of hospital bombings. Death was normal. Blood flowed through the streets and body parts littered the sidewalks. There was no where to go and nothing to do but sit amongst the dead and wait to join them. The government actively worked to shrink the zones as much as possible; the less space, the more people the bombs would kill. At the end nothing was left. Everything was destroyed, the hospitals all shut down, the injured left in the streets.
Eventually a truce was established and the government publicly claimed to have saved 40,000 civilians from the Tigers grip. Mobile phone footage taken by government soldiers shows the execution of Tamil rebels after the war had been declared over. The soldiers giggled as they taunted the naked Tiger men who were bound with duct tape and eventually shot in the head. They seemed to be truly enjoying themselves. These were genuine executions -- the Tigers had forfeited, the war was over. The execution of prisoners is prohibited by international law. But that didn't stop them from decapitating the head Tiger commander by hand with a machete. Females were bound, raped and executed. Video footage shows soldiers loading the bed of a truck with naked bodies as the videographer exclaims, "Hey pose with the bodies!" And during all of this systematic rape and murder, what was the UN doing?
With extensive video footage and in depth eye witness reports still nothing has been accomplished in terms of prosecution. The UN investigation after the fact reported numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Sri Lankan government rejected the report and set up their own investigation -- "Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission." They refuse to acknowledge any wrong doing and to this day nothing has been done, no apology has been offered, no reparations granted. MIA had to watch from afar as her people were systematically exterminated. The atrocities of this civil war were barely acknowledged by the first world. And that has been her greatest mission. Zach Baron, a columnist for the Village Voice
her for "brilliantly" bringing the suffering of the Tamil's to a global spotlight. He praised her for getting thousands of American journalists to become aware of the situation, noting that she put "her success and fame on the line to use every opportunity and avenue possible to remind Americans and people around the globe of this conflict is pretty much the most admirable thing going on in pop music."
Bucky Done Gun
She has spent the entirety of her career discussing human rights and the struggle of the Tamil people. Her first album Arular
, named for her father's nom de guerre in the Tamil independence movement, contains lyrics of their shared experiences in Jaffna. Her second album Kala
, named after her mother, speaks of outsider themes including immigrations politics and war. Both albums have achieved "universal acclaim" according to average critics ratings. Arular
was the 7th best reviewed album of 2005 and the 9th best electronic/dance album of the decade. Kala
was the 10th. MIA has a knack for taking something serious and communicating it as if it were nothing. No one wants to be partying to political outcries, but she's tricked everyone into doing just that. She believes firmly that art should represent society; it shouldn't be some far off complex thing that is inaccessible to the masses. She has been crafting a beautiful realism intended to be accessible to all people since her first public art exhibition in the early 2000s, before music was even on the horizon.
Her first exhibit contained works of graffiti art and spray painted canvases. She mixed Tamil political street art with images of London consumerism, juxtaposing the two in an ironic and thoughtful fashion. So much so that the exhibition, her first ever might I remind you, was nominated for a Turner Prize, the most publicized and coveted contemporary art award in the UK. She lacked confidence in music but decided to try tackling the medium despite that. She drew influence from stark sounds, punk music and dance hall beats. She recorded her first three songs in an at-home studio and she was one of the first artists to ever gain recognition through the internet. She maximized her use of MySpace and that combined with file sharing programs, college radio stations, dance clubs and fashion shows she was able to quickly become an underground sensation. In 2004 XL Recordings found her page, listened to the three songs and offered her a recording contract. It was clear that she had something to say, and a different way of saying it.
Her avant garde style features unusual sound samples and layer of texture formed by instruments and electronics. Her signature whooping, chanting vocal style is mixed with rapping and semi-spoken melodic insets. She relies heavily on the sounds of her people, often sampling Tamil film scores. Live instrumentation mixed with layers of traditional dance and folk creates an entirely unique sound. Upon the release of Arular, the legendary rapper Nas called it "the future." The industry has celebrated her musical achievements and she is one of those rare artists who has attained an equal amount of public and critical praise. Her third album Maya was globally the highest charting album released. Her most commercial single Paper Planes
was top 20 worldwide, #4 on the Billboard 100, went platinum three times in the US and Canada and is the 59th most downloaded song ever. She is the only artist ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, a Grammy, a Turner Prize and a Mercury Prize. Her trailblazing style and contributions to not only music but fashion too helped to revitalize British music. Long story short, she's hot shit. Oh and by the way, she went to the Met Ball with Alexander Wang.
[caption id="attachment_6390" align="alignleft" width="1024" caption="Met Ball with her date Alexander Wang in a Wang original"]
O Saya, nominated for an Academy Award
Performing at the Grammys in 2009 9 months pregnant with Kanye, Jay Z, TI and Lil Wayne
And that's what's so incredible about MIA -- she actually has a cause and is just as famous as Britney Spears. Her video for Born Free
depicts the brutal genocide of red heads and was banned from YouTube and garnered otherwise extreme controversy for the violence involved. But it's not just shock for the sake of shock. It's relaying the story of her people, showing the harsh reality of arbitrary murder. When MIA starts a scene, she's doing it for a greater good, not the greater paycheck. This is not to say that she is without her critics. Lynn Hirschberg, the notoriously snide New York Times
journalist who similarly bashed Courtney Love in a 1992 article claiming she was doing heroin while pregnant, wrote an incredibly snarky piece
that harshly juxtaposed MIA's fight for human rights with her luxurious lifestyle. MIA, after reading the article, posted Hirschberg's cell phone number on Twitter saying for her followers to call her up to discuss the article. MIA knows a little something about guerilla warfare.
I'm A Singer, the song she posted on MySpace after Hirschberg's scathing article
The detractors claim that she is politically naive. They say that she is oversimplifying the situation. Some say that she is a terrorist sympathizer -- and the US actually refused to give her a visa at one point and placed her on the Homeland Security Risk List. When she spoke up after the Tamil forces had been defeated she found her home bugged, her phones tapped and her emails hacked. She got death threats. She has publicly sided with the Tigers, although she has never actually been associated with the group (her father was a member of EROS, the group that preceded the Tigers power.) Her art consists of many neon tigers, she frequently wears tiger print clothing. The group is credited with perfecting the act of suicide bombing. They employ child soldiers. They killed thousands of their own, treating civilians as a ploy during the civil war. So maybe she is oversimplifying the situation. Or maybe she's just doing her best to draw attention to something that is important to her in the most powerful way she knows how. It is one thing to write op-ed pieces, participate in philanthropies and donate money. It is quite another to live your life out publicly in support of something. And that's what MIA has done. She has strategically taken every single opportunity to help her people and bring their plight to the attention of what were once deaf ears. She knows how to create a spectacle, and unlike Lady Gaga, she has a good reason to do so.