Most people would assume M.I.A. stands for Missing in Action, but it has a deeper, darker meaning that that. In her 2012 book M.I.A. the star wrote:
"M.I.A. came to be because of my missing cousin. I wanted to make a film about where he was since he was M.I.A. (Missing in Action) in Sri Lanka. We were the same age, went to the same schools growing up. I was also living in Acton at the time. So I was living in Acton looking for my cousin missing in action."
Many are confused about M.I.A.'s origins, but the singer-rapper was born in London, England to parents of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. Before she turned one, her family moved back to Sri Lanka and her father joined the movement for Tamil independence. Maya moved around the island for eight years as her father fled from the Sri Lankan government trying to arrest him. Maya eventually moved to India with her mother and siblings, and then she and her family moved back to England as refugees, all before the future star turned 12.
M.I.A. has long been accused of being a terrorist sympathizer, likely due to her father being a political activist for the Tamil people and his association with the controversial Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (a.k.a. Tamil Tigers). According to the star, Oprah Winfrey even called her a terrorist once.
She recalled an exchange where she met the media queen for a 2015 Rolling Stone feature. Arulpragasam explained:
"In 2009, Time nominated me for one of the most influential people of the 21st century or something and I met Oprah at that party. And I was like, 'Hey, people are gonna fucking die in my country. Like, please pay attention.' And she was like, 'You're shit because you were rude to Lady Gaga and I'm not talking to you. And I'm gonna interview Tom Cruise jumping on my sofa, so fuck off.'"
When the reporter asked, "Did she really react like that?" M.I.A. continued saying, "Yeah, she didn't talk to me. She shut me down. She took that photo of me, but she was just like, 'I can't talk to you because you're crazy and you're a terrorist.' And I'm like, 'I'm not. I'm a Tamil and there are people dying in my country and you have to like look at it because you're fucking Oprah and every American told me you're going to save the world.'"
M.I.A. has said she suffers from dyslexia and, at the start of her career, she was worried it would make her unable to tour. She expressed her fears to Stylus Magazine in 2005:
"When I was trying to take my show on the road, in the beginning it was really nerve racking because I’m dyslexic, and I have issues with remembering my own lyrics. When I was writing my songs and making the album, I was thinking that I was going to get someone else to sing it the whole time. I never thought I could actually present it live."
Yes, M.I.A. is famous for her politically driven, internationally focused dance tracks... but she also loves some good pop. Maya featured on two songs on Madonna's MDNA album, including its lead single "Give Me All Your Luvin'" and the awesomely carefree "B-Day Song." She also co-wrote the track "Elastic Love" with Christina Aguilera's for the diva's 2010 Bionic album.
M.I.A.'s breakout album Kala could have turned out a lot different if the government hadn't thought she was a potential threat. The star was supposed to record her sophomore album in America with Timbaland, but visa issues didn't allow her a long-term work permit. M.I.A. wasn't granted said visas due to her brief presence on the U.S. Homeland Security Risk List in 2006 for her politically charged lyrics. Kala instead was recorded in different countries around the world.
...but not for music.
M.I.A. initially entered the art world for graphic design work while studying in London. In one infamous show held at a the clothing store Maya worked at the time, Jude Law bought a few pieces.
Much is being made about M.I.A. saying the just-released AIM is her last album, but this isn't the first time our girl has teased retirement. In 2008, after the release of her sophomore album Kala, Maya announced she was retiring at Bonnaroo only to later decide that it was her last show ever and that she might record another album. She instead has recorded three more albums and played countless more shows.
Before she even considered a music career of her own, M.I.A. was working on graphic design and film, designing album artwork for and filming tour videos for British-pop act Elastica. While working as a videographer during one of Elastica's tours, the opening act—none other than boundary-pushing rapper-singer Peaches—taught her how to use a Roland MC-505 drum machine, which became a sonic centerpiece of her earliest works heard in Piracy Funds Terrorism and Arular.
In 2013, leaks of secret documents from Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on our phone calls, texts, Google history, Facebook profiles and more. M.I.A. sang about this on "The Message," the intro track to 2010 album Maya that includes lines like, "Your headphones connected to your iPhone / Your iPhone's connected to the Internet / The Internet's connected to the Google / The Google's connected to the Government."
The song was typically considered a paranoid rant by reviewers. "'The Message' is about as effective as someone in a dorm room ranting about the CIA inventing AIDS," Pitchfork wrote, while Uncut called it a "combination of would-be narcissism and paranoia." But when the whistleblowing came to light, M.I.A. took to Tumblr for a little well-deserved gloating and called out some of her harshest critics.
Her music is categorized by gunshots and aggressive chants, but M.I.A. does have a softer side. The star's much-overlooked 2010 album Maya explored other aspects of her voice, particularly her balladeer side, best heard on the soothing "Caps Lock." Maybe it's what she sings her son Ikhyd to sleep with at night?
WikiLeaks' Julian Assange Opens for M.I.A. in New York via Skype VIDEO HERE > http://t.co/mLxFS8GXbN— M.I.A (@MIAuniverse) November 2, 2013
M.I.A. once had Julian Assange open one of her New York City concerts when the controversial WikiLeaks founder appeared via Skype. Speaking from London's Ecuadorian embassy, where he was granted asylum, Assange gave a 10-minute speech about Edward Snowden, politics, the media and how rad M.I.A. is. Not a bad gig.