It's hard to say which is more interesting: M.I.A.'s background or her music. Beginning as a youth on the run from authorities, continuing as a teen refugee in London and now as an artist with what is likely to be one of the most written-about albums of 2005, the 27-year-old daughter of a Sri Lankan rebel has lived a tragic yet extraordinary life.
Already, M.I.A.'s electro-Bollywood-hip-hop has generated gargantuan interest among pop tastemakers, all of it based on a single song. "Galang," named one of last year's 10 best singles in Rolling Stone's critics' poll, is an intensely rhythmic culture clash that draws heavily on American gangsta rap and Hindi film, Jamaican dancehall, Europop and multiculti gibberish. The song exploded in the U.K. a little more than a year ago. It began washing up on American dance floors last summer and is now bubbling up to radio.
M.I.A.'s debut album, "Arular," out next month on XL Recordings, is a more in-depth exploration of the singer's refugee eclecticism. From start to finish, it is an unstoppable riot of sound, weaving London street slang with Sri Lankan nursery rhymes, world politics and personal experience.
Vacillating between attitude and innocence, her songs are tough-talking raps, but they're softened by a Hindi vocal style that ends lines of lyrics with curlicue upswings.
M.I.A.'s recent sold-out performance at the Knitting Factory Hollywood was equally iconoclastic. Waving her hands in the air and self-consciously pacing the stage before a DJ, swirling lights and background videos, she was half hip-hop bravado and half "how did I get here?"
"It kind of shocked me that there were so many people that knew the songs," M.I.A. says the next day. "My album's not out."
Singing along is no easy feat, laden as the songs are with Cockney slang. Perhaps some in the audience were working off the lyric sheet one enterprising fan was selling at the club.
Seeking out a sliver of sunlight in the dark Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel dining room, M.I.A. seems oblivious to the buzz surrounding her and her music. Feminine and model beautiful but entirely down to earth, it's clear she hasn't bought into her impending fame and is taking it all in stride. Stardom, after all, is just the next stop in a life that has, quite literally, been all over the map.
Few Western pop singers have lived as chaotically as M.I.A. and who would have wanted to? Her formative years were a steady progression from bad to worse, going from poverty to persecution to war and alienation before she was able to turn it around.
A father's influence
Born in London, Maya Arulpragasam, as she was then known, moved to Sri Lanka with her family when she was 6 months old. It was 1978, and tensions between the country's two ethnic groups were growing. M.I.A. and her family were among the minority Tamil population in a country dominated by Sinhalese; her father was part of a militant group seeking independence.
Rebel activities kept her father separated from the family and her family on the run for the next decade. When civil war broke out, they relocated to India, living for a year and a half "in a room surrounded by five miles of empty land," she says.
"When it rained, it flooded. You'd have to basically swim through with snakes going past. My father's idea of safety was sticking us in the middle of nowhere where the army couldn't get us but without water, food, medication and money."
With her family close to starvation and her sister sick from typhoid, an uncle helped move M.I.A.'s family back to Sri Lanka. In their native country, they at least had a support system, even if the war was in full swing. The area where they lived was regularly bombed, including the convent where M.I.A. went to school.
Several failed attempts to flee the country ended with M.I.A. and her family moving to India, then London. Her father stayed behind.
It's this core experience that drives much of the lyrical content in "Arular," which is her father's name.
"For years when I moved to England, I was so embarrassed about being Sri Lankan and never talked about it," says M.I.A., an acronym for "missing in action." "The reason I started talking about my life is because I'd gone out thinking I was British for so long, I felt I owed it to inform myself on what was happening to the people I left behind. On a personal level, I feel guilty that I got away and so many kids didn't."
M.I.A. returned to Sri Lanka in 2001. She was hoping to make "a random film about Tamil youth" and, in the process, sort out her feelings over the ongoing conflict in her parents' country. She returned to London more confused than ever. Much of the Tamil population today is starving and restricted to refugee camps, she says. The rebel group her father helped form is now considered a terrorist organization.