It’s bizarre what’s happening with this album,” says Maya Arulpragasam, wriggling about on the sofa, eyes wide, hands whirling. “When I made it I’d kind of lost faith in reality and disappeared into my own world. I didn’t have a forum to discuss what was on my mind. I needed to make music so that life was palatable.” Three years later, life is more than palatable. The 28-year-old who calls herself MIA (as in Missing in Action, not Mia) is only in her record label’s London office for a flying visit. She spends most of her time in America, where she’s currently the object of enormous fuss; having been courted by Def Jam’s Jay-Z, she recently signed to Interscope Records, home of Eminem. The cause of this excitement, an album called ‘Arular’, is a new kind of world music, born in Britain but assimilating underground dance genres from anywhere where partying and politics are not considered mutually exclusive, whether it’s dancehall from Jamaica, bhangra from the Indian subcontinent or baile funk from the favelas of Rio. As the beats bounce from continent to continent, calls to the dancefloor sound like calls to arms. Take opening track Pull Up the People on which she whoops jubilantly: “I’ve got the bombs to make you blow.” The New Yorker’s music critic, one of MIA’s US cheerleaders, says: “It could be the sound of a carnival, or a riot.”
Britain has proved a little slower on the uptake. “I thought the British were so obsessed with
being smart and then when I did something that fucked with people on so many different levels they thought I was a fake,” she huffs. “No.” She elongates the vowel as if addressing a slow-witted child. Like her music, Arulpragasam’s voice is hard to place. On disc, it can be sly, flirtatious, exuberant or ferocious, elastic with slang and sound effects, like a London Missy Elliott. In conversation, it’s the product of being born in Hounslow, raised for 10 years in Sri Lanka, returning to Britain with only five words of English (apple, mango, elephant and Michael Jackson), and deposited on a council estate in Mitcham. She learned her English from pop culture but buffed it to a shine when she won a scholarship to St Martin’s College of Art, so the letter T in “Britain” comes and goes, while vowels sprawl lazily, then snap smartly to attention.
Her intelligence is cocky, fidgety, breathless, as if there’s too much to say and never enough time to say it. Whatever criticisms are levelled at her, she has already thought of them. “I knew people were going to ask, ‘What are you? A rapper? A dancehall artist?’ If I didn’t have my own style they’d have ripped me to shreds. But coming out as the first Sri Lankan artist in the west, what the fuck am I supposed to sound like? There’s no rules for me.” Nevertheless, a backlash is already afoot on the internet. Moronic, realer-than-thou challenges to her
“authenticity” because she went to art school aren’t worth bothering with, but charges of radical chic bear consideration. Her artwork for ‘Arular’ swarms with stencils of AK-47s and Molotov cocktails. “It is my past but it’s also the future we’re dealing with,” she explains. “For the first 10 years of my life I was the underdog and those images were relevant and now I’m an overdog and those images are exactly what poses a threat to my environment. I got hit round the face by music in the year 2002 and I looked around and that’s what I found — my cousin died as a Tiger in Sri Lanka and I’m worried about being gassed on the tube. I’m just making connections.”
‘Arular’ is named after her father, Arul Pragasam, a member of the Tamil revolutionary group Eros who trained with the PLO in Lebanon in the 1970s. “My dad’s been a myth in my life,” she says. “He never had a practical, physical influence. He used to come round once a year for 20 minutes at three in the morning. He’d wake you up and give you five rupees to buy an ice cream and then disappear. I felt like he didn’t even know what my name was. Sometimes people came up and said, ‘Your dad is a great man.’ I used to feel really jealous - I hate you, how can you know more about my dad than me?”
When she’s in full flow, Arulpragasam is so sharp and engaging that you can see how she wangled a scholarship to St Martin’s despite appalling A-level grades. Eager to make documentaries, but finding British urban music in its late-1990s doldrums, she approached Elastica’s Justine Frischmann for a job filming the band’s 2001 US tour. Thus inspired, she began making music of her own. On her visit to Sri Lanka she noticed how adept Tamils were at improvising products to replace those, such as bicycles and petrol, that were banned by the government. Arular, too, has a certain junkyard ingenuity, its jerry-built origins poking through.
· ‘Arular’ by MIA is out now on XL. — The Guardian