“Once there was a girl named Mathangi, let’s call her Maya. Maya grew up on Temple Road in a tough town called Jaffna, where she learned to sing and dodge the bullets of soldiers who sometimes shot out the windows of her school. She knew her father was a freedom fighter for people who could not fight, she never saw him, she was raised by her mother and the way things go grew up to be a rapper who made her home in cities, in London, in Los Angeles, in New York City.”
British recording artist, songwriter, rapper, director, singer, designer, visual artist—M.I.A. is known as all these things. But to me, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam is an embodiment of a remarkably complex breed of activism.
M.I.A. is notorious for her records that touch on issues such as sex trafficking, capitalism’s influence on sexual politics, and patriarchy’s control over women and girls. Let me rephrase: She does not “touch on” these issues—M.I.A. goes straight for the jugular. She constantly engages in gender-related discourse that takes race and ethnicity head-on. What most do not realize is M.I.A. is not a Sri Lankan-born Brit first, and a woman second, or vice-versa. She is a woman, mother, Sri-Lankan refugee, first-world traveler and highly politicized recording artist, all at once. This dynamic is what makes her form of activism so fascinating. Her continued use of her role as a famous musician to stage a continuous critique of controversial, and highly debated, issues has made her a formidable force in society.
What I love most about M.I.A. (aside from her genre-challenging, beyond groovy music) is her ability to fearlessly advocate on behalf of colored women in the feminist arena. She tirelessly calls for awareness about first world feminism’s relationship with women of color—something that I do not think gets quite enough attention.
The music video of her latest single, “Bad Girls,” from her 2013 album “Matangi” (check it out here!!! I have had this shit on repeat for months) is a perfect example of this unique type of activism that M.I.A. engages in.
M.I.A. and director Romain Gavras, collaborate to promote awareness about major human rights issues happening overseas. Did you know that it’s illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to drive? Absolute bogus, right? So what does M.I.A. shoot her music video about? The most controversial thing possible, of course!
The “Bad Girls” video features young Saudi women driving beemers like stunt devils—they fly around, lash-out in wild doughnuts (yum) and drift like pros. Men are shown cheering the women on as they drag race through the desert, performing high-speed stunts. In other scenes, women are shown brandishing AK-47s in leopard-print burquas and aviators, while M.I.A. appears on top of a drifting car while filing her nails. She also rides around in this super badass, completely transparent, completely neon, custom-made whip (all I want for Christmas is you).
M.I.A.’s challenge of Saudi Arabia’s highly oppressive legislation is just one small example of her activism. At an after-party for the 2008 MTV Movie Awards, M.I.A. interrupted her set to announce she’d donate her $100,000 appearance fee to build schools in Liberia.
In January 2010, Esquire magazine ranked M.I.A. on its list of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century, and, in the year before, Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people. There is a reason for that. M.I.A. is so much more than a talented musician. She delivers messages, within her music, that strike a chord within everyone. (Check out her hard-hitting music video for “Born Free.”) M.I.A. is not afraid to present issues like race, class and gender to mainstream audiences, and she is most certainly not afraid to do it on her own terms: Loud, in-your-face, BADASS.