What do we expect of musical artists now? Since they so quickly become celebrities, it’s often that they stick to their thing - whether that be music, acting etc. In the case of Mathangi Arulpragasam - best known by her stage name M. I. A. - sticking to her thing means fighting for causes she believes in.
There’s no real reason to think the way we do about how loud or quiet our musician-celebrities should be. There’s U2’s Bono, who most hope would stop whining about environmental affairs (so much so that his reputation as a moan has superseded that of a singer) or Police’s Sting, a likewise ally in fighting the good fight. Two people whose views have come to overshadow their art in the eyes of the greater public.
People have truly taken issue with their opinions. They’re not bad opinions either. In fact, they’re actually rather fair. Maybe a lot of this perception comes down to suspected hypocrisy, that those with means shouldn’t preach to those that don’t - especially when they take private jets to do it. M. I. A. is a fairly ephemeral case in the entertainment industry, a voice that is only what it is because of her opinions. The two cannot be seperated and certainly not silenced.
There may be a slight difference in context to these other singers too. M. I. A. moved to Sri Lanka from London with her parents for the first 11 years of her life, a formative period where they were often displaced as a result of the Civil War there. Returning to London as a refugee, M. I. A. began creating as a visual artist and designer - two components that would become key in her visually striking performances - before venturing into music.
We could view the artist as a collection of her experiences and also a product of her parents. M. I. A.’s father was the Tamil activist Arul Pragasam, an important figure in drawing internatinal attention to the conflict in Sri Lanka when he lived in London. Although the artist says that her father was of limited influence, a militant and revolutionary imagery takes seed in a lot of her works. Imagining the two entirely separate is impossible.
With a critically acclaimed first album, Arular, released in 2005, it was the hit single Paper Planes from the follow up Kala (2007), that had everybody singing along. Buoyed by this success, M. I. A.’s brand of hip-hop electronica, fused with world music, began to receive mainstream attention - a moment the artist used to deflect much of the spotlight elsewhere.
Born Free, from her third album Maya (2010) was released as a nine-minute short-film directed by Romain Gavras - in a defining moment for the French director. Interested in art reflecting society, in a practical rather than theoretical or conceptual manner, M. I. A.’s video drew attention to the plight of the extrajudicial killings of Tamil males. Controversial upon released and banned by YouTube, the video was both heralded for its violent depiction of military force and deplored for its insensitivity.
Set on a path of shifting the vulturous media attention from a singular figure to collective causes, M. I. A. continued unabashed in her role as an artist-come-social commentator. Resistance through creative and cultural practice has continued to figure into the artist’s holistic productions, where the music is as important as the accompanying imagery and cohort of collaborators.
Outspoken to this day, stating that she would rather “choose death” than recieve a coronavirus vaccination recently, M. I. A.’s legacy is as complex as the evolving character she has presented over the course of her career thus far. She has, through years of music, created a persona that jars with the contemporary celebrity. She is no Bono or Sting preaching, but rather a blank slate upon which she projects the beliefs she holds dear. Uncensored and unrestrained, M. I. A. has always stood by her truth.
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