M.I.A. takes on world with her explosive rap


September 23, 2005


Onstage, M.I.A. can be hit or miss: The two times I've seen her perform, at the South by Southwest Music Festival last March and opening for LCD Soundsystem at Metro in May, her energy and enthusiasm were more impressive than her rapping.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the power of the artist's Interscope debut "Arular" and its indelible hit "Galang," or the fact that these recordings mark the Sri Lankan MC as one of the most inspiring new voices in hip-hop.

Born in London, Maya Arulpragasam returned to her native Sri Lanka as a child just as the civil war was beginning to escalate there. She lost several family members in the conflict, and was separated from her father, a separatist activist who sided with the Tamils fighting for independence from the Sinhalese majority.

Eventually, Arulpragasam's family reunited and returned to England, and there she first made her mark as a visual artist, working with photography and computer graphics, and initially entering the music world by contributing the art work for Elastica's second album and subsequent tour.



  • 9 p.m. Wednesday
  • Metro, 3730 N. Clark
  • $19.50
  • (773) 549-0203
  • In the process, Elastica leader Justine Frischmann encouraged Arulpragasam to try her hand at making music herself, and the tour's opening act, the outspoken electroclash artist Peaches, introduced her to the joys of work with a Roland MC-505 sequencer. A short time later, she adopted the moniker M.I.A. (her father's code name during the Tamil rebellion), linked up with DJ Diplo and began crafting her high-energy mix of hip-hop, electro, dancehall, grime and baile funk.

    "It seems like I just stumbled into it," M.I.A. said recently, when we spoke the day after she'd been lauded at the Mercury Awards, the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys. "When I walk into these events, it's like they all look at me funny, because I am a weird thing for the music industry. It's like when you go to school the first day and you feel like everyone knows everything but you!"

    The artist overcame those feelings by observing the inspiring examples of her musical mentors. "When I saw what Justine did musically and what Peaches did musically, working together in a room, that is when I went, 'Oh, there is a spectrum to music and the way you make it, and you don't have to know everything.' That gave me an insight into thinking about how to do it myself."

    M.I.A.'s raps include a mix of carefree exhortations to party hard, dance and celebrate and sharper, acid-tongued criticisms of societal problems such as poverty, war, sexism, consumerism and teenage prostitution. But she didn't set out to be a "political rapper."

    "I didn't want to make huge political statements; in fact, I hate preachy s--- and people saying, 'This is good; this is bad.' I talk about how I see things as an everyday person in England. I was saying things that were a bit controversial, and I wanted to say that there are some opinions that aren't black and white. Things are confusing and complex. If you really want to be a good person, you understand things from all points of view and you are empathetic towards every opinion and every voice.

    "I was like, 'I'm going to make an album about how it's difficult to make sense of living today, and that is added to by the television and the media, the person at my bank and the person at my mobile phone company.' I want to make sense of all those people and what is going on, and that is what I tried to do lyrically, and not provide a manifesto."

    Nevertheless, as she gears up to begin work on hreer second album, M.I.A. is thinking in broader feminist terms regarding her potential subject matter.

    "I feel like there are so many questions and situations I'm going through as a woman when it comes to music and success or money and men. Just seeing all that has made me think about how hard it is for a generation of women who have had a kid and fallen in love and went for the dream, and now they're quite worn down with everyday life. Who is speaking for them? All our media and magazines and music are all so obsessed with sex and sexuality and hot pants and fake s--- that we train all these men to want that. Those are some of the things I'd like to talk about."

    And she maintains that she isn't unduly worried about topping the accomplishments of her debut.

    I don't judge what I do from the pressures of the outside world. I am a person that needs to be doing something: I'm quite restless, and I learned at a young age that making work is the only thing I have. I've lost my home, I've lost my family, where I live, my community, my society -- I've lost all those things before, and you'll never catch me fighting for them. But one thing I know is I can't lose my ability to pick up a tool and make something or use my brain. If I don't have a pot to p--- in, I'll make a pot."




    Seeking to "create spaces where women can cultivate their talents in all creative areas," Chicago's third annual Estrojam Festival shifts into high gear tonight and Saturday night.

    This evening's activities start at 8 with a film festival highlighting the work of female moviemakers such as Maria Gigante, Paula Durette, Anneka Herre and Anne T. Hanson. Admission to the all-ages event is $10 at the door of Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark. A 21+over after-party follows at Circuit, 3641 N. Halsted, with performances by the Girlie-Q Variety Hour, which promises "devilish drag, vampy vixens and bodacious burlesque," and the similarly themed Hellcat Hussies. Admission is $8.

    Saturday afternoon offers panels on women in the arts and the music business and activism from 4 to 6 p.m. at DePaul University, 2250 N. Sheffield, with speakers including Stacey Singer of Daemon Records, Misty McElroy of Portland's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, and Dana Powell, former manager and political liaison for the Indigo Girls. A workshop on break dancing and DJing follows at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, from 6 to 8 p.m.; admission for each is $10.

    Estrojam concludes on Saturday with two diverse musical bills, one at Metro starting at 8 p.m. and featuring Scream Club, Brazilian Girls, Anna Oxygen and Breakbone DanceCo. (admission is $15, 18+over) and another all-ages lineup at Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark, with Alina Simone, Kristin Shout, the Sisters Obrien, Shelley Miller and Emily White.

    For more information on the festival, visit www.estrojam.org.