Rapper Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam — better known to her fans as M.I.A. — was once poised to become the next big thing in music. After releasing her infectious 2008 track “Paper Planes,” the London-born star was suddenly everywhere. Time placed her on their “100 Most Influential People” list in 2009; she was nominated for two Grammy awards, and she even snagged an Oscar nom for her “collaboration with composer A.R. Rahman” for a song in Slumdog Millionaire (via Pitchfork).
However, throughout her rise to the top, the scrappy singer has never shied away from controversy, incorporating global issues into her music and visuals. “At the moment everyone is motivated by, ‘Hey, I want to be a musician so I can be a billionaire,'” she dished during an interview with the Grammy Awards website in 2014, adding, “That has to change.” When asked how artists can bring “social consciousness” into the mainstream, she offered up this advice: “If you’re really gonna change music, using music for what music used to be, social commentary, then it has to go back [to like it was] before [music] became a machine.”
In the years since, artists have gotten more comfortable supporting the causes they believe in, from celebs who’ve taken part in the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 to others such as Childish Gambino or Billie Eilish, who reference climate change in their music. As it becomes the norm to be socially “woke,” where has Arulpragasam been? Here’s why you do not hear as much from M.I.A. anymore.
There was M.I.A.'s very controversial Super Bowl appearance
Performing for a Super Bowl halftime show is a huge career milestone, and the honor has been bestowed upon some pretty heavy-hitters in the biz. In 2012, M.I.A. had the opportunity to rap alongside Madonna and Nicki Minaj for the Super Bowl XLVI halftime gig, and, in true fashion, her stint was deemed controversial.
As she performed a verse from Madonna’s “Give Me All Your Luvin,” the British-born star decided to lock eyes with the camera, spit out the lyrics “I don’t give a sh*t,” and throw up a middle finger. The moment was brief and, albeit, less controversial than the Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson “nipplegate” fiasco, yet the backlash was still just as swift. The NFL demanded $16.6 million as a result, while viewers were allegedly appalled. According to ESPN, “the Federal Communications Commission received 200-plus complaints from viewers of Super Bowl XLVI …[including] shock at the antics of rapper M.I.A.”
While an undisclosed settlement was eventually reached, “M.I.A [didn’t apologize]” (via The Hollywood Reporter). In fact, years later, during a chat with Huck magazine in 2018, M.I.A. appeared to poke fun at the entire situation. “A middle finger, it’s like get a fu**ing grip,” she said (via Rolling Stone). “People were like, ‘Oh you’re lucky you’re not in jail, give up all your profit, be this slave for the rest of your life.'” After stopping herself, she quipped, “Oh god, I hope the NFL doesn’t sue me again for talking about it.”
M.I.A. has been accused of being a 'terrorist sympathizer'
Although she was born in London, M.I.A. bounced around countries growing up. According to The Guardian, the “Paper Planes” rapper is the daughter of “a Tamil ‘revolutionary’ who had trained with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Her childhood was spent in war-torn northern Sri Lanka, before spending time in southern India and then returning to Britain.”
Since entering the limelight, M.I.A. has used her voice to discuss the civil war in Sri Lanka countless times — even if it’s made people uncomfortable. As Now magazine points out, “every time she tried to redirect media attention to war crimes and the humanitarian crisis she was shot down.” To make matters more complicated, “the Sri Lankan government spun their own narrative, labeling her — and any other Tamils speaking up about the massacre — as liars and terrorist sympathizers.”
With naysayers coming from all different directions, M.I.A. said in a statement (via Pitchfork) that she does not support terrorism. Interestingly enough, as Now mentioned in 2018, times have changed since the Kala hitmaker rose to the A-list, and suddenly, being an activist is “marketable.” So, why is M.I.A. — for lack of a better term — M.I.A.? “One minute everybody is completely happy giving up all their privacy and buying the biggest and the best and being a completely docile society, and then overnight, they start protesting about everything,” she told Now, adding, “If you think about what constitutes controversial [issues] now, it still leaves out 80 per cent of the planet’s population.”
Censorship has left M.I.A. feeling less 'motivated'
At the height of her career, M.I.A. still was not able to coast through the A-list and be adored by legions of fans and press, à la Beyoncé or Harry Styles. “It’s like, ‘Shut up talking about Tamils and we’ll make you into a pop star,'” the singer reflected to Now magazine. “I’m not fighting for the space to gentrify myself and then fit in. I’ve had that offered to me every year. I could have been the brown one of them and not say anything about where I come from and who I am.”
At the end of the day, perhaps M.I.A. disappeared from the spotlight since she was sick of fighting for the rights she believed deserved more global attention. In fact, it sure appeared that way during an interview with House of Strombo in 2018, where she revealed she’s no longer “motivated” to release new music. “Why would I?,” she asked host George Stroumboulopoulos. Claiming she’s been “pushed out” of the mainstream, she dished, “Everyone says, ‘You have a platform,’ but what do you mean by platform? Because my records are buried because of the label’s issues with me. Sometimes it’s personal; sometimes it’s not.”
M.I.A.was initially unhappy with her documentary
2018 saw the release of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, a collaborative documentary between M.I.A. and director Stephen Loveridge. The Sundance-winning flick is, as its website explains, “a startlingly personal profile … chronicling [M.I.A.’s] remarkable journey from refugee immigrant to pop star.” As detailed by NPR, “much of the film’s footage [was] provided by the artist herself,” as she was actually a “student filmmaker at Central St. Martin’s [College of Art and Design]” in London. That’s where she met Loveridge, too, “who remained a lifelong friend.”
So, considering the flick was made by her close pal, M.I.A. must have loved the finished product, right? Well, not quite. At the Sundance screening that year, the “Bad Girls” rapper took the stage with Loveridge and (slightly awkwardly) told audiences, “That wasn’t the film that was supposed to be made.” The following day, during an interview with Billboard, she voiced her displeasure. “I mean, what’s left to tell? He took all of my cool out … I didn’t know that my music wouldn’t really be a part of this. I find that to be a little hard, because that is my life.”
Eventually, M.I.A. made peace with the doc, with Loveridge telling Rolling Stone that she “likes the film now.” As she told the mag herself, “You need to show all the information to make people understand … on one hand, it’s very personal but on the other, maybe it’s helpful.”
Music isn't M.I.A.'s only passion
While M.I.A. may have broken into the industry as a rapper, she initially had different career aspirations. Indeed, when she was a “student filmmaker at Central St. Martin’s [College of Art and Design]” in London (via NPR), she toted her camera everywhere, eventually helping her create her documentary, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, with Stephen Loveridge years later.
Interestingly enough, even after she made it as an A-lister, it took M.I.A. a while to recognize she deserved a spot amongst her industry peers. When Rolling Stone asked her to give a date when she “[accepted] that [she was] a musician,” the singer responded, “When I made [2013’s] Matangi … I accepted it on the outro of that album.”
Considering the Brit’s first album, Arular, was released in 2005 with her biggest hit, “Paper Planes,” coming out two years later on Kala, that’s a while to register that you’re a mainstream star — something Rolling Stone mentioned, too. “I don’t know,” she mused, adding, “I think I needed it explained properly, because I went to art school and I felt that the medium you used to get your message across is a secondary thing.” She dished, “We could have done it through anything. I thought, ‘Our music is what’s working. It’s fast and it’s instant.’ It was the thing that clicked with people. But I always wanted to make a film. So … I just never really fit in properly.”
The media has criticized M.I.A.
If being painted as a terrorist sympathizer during the course of your career is not jarring enough, M.I.A. has had to deal with even more media criticisms. In 2010, Lynn Hirschberg, a journalist for The New York Times, published an interview with the rapper in which she painted her as another shallow celeb that didn’t have a clue about the real concerns in the world. Setting the scene with M.I.A. eating “truffle-flavored French [fries],” while musing about “[wanting] to be an outsider,” Hirschberg subtly labeled the star’s actions as tactless — yet that wasn’t at all what happened.
“Truffle-gate” (as the Observer dubbed it) was a set-up. It turned out, M.I.A. secretly recorded her conversation and was quick to post it online after the article’s release (it has since been deleted). According to the Observer, it was Hirschberg who egged the star on to order the flavored fries. “I was just trying to explain to her what was on the menu,” the journalist told the outlet. “I don’t really have much of a comment about the French fries.”
The New York Times eventually clarified the hiccups in an editor’s note, while M.I.A. spoke out about the incident to Rolling Stone in 2018. “The Lynn Hirschberg thing happened at a time when you used to trust the old media … [I] was criticized for making observations, because you’re expected to be a dumb musician and not have that insight and foresight.”
M.I.A.'s 2016 album was a commercial disappointment
As of this writing, M.I.A. has released a total of five studio albums, with her last one, AIM, having come out in 2016. Unfortunately for the “Borders” rapper, it was far less of a commercial success than some of her previous records. Surprisingly, it appears she had no regrets. “It’s my last record so I wanted it to be happy. There’s no complains on it,” she told BBC Radio 1 (via The Guardian). “[It’s] another side to me completely.”
However, perhaps M.I.A. simply didn’t need to keep creating music. Per Celebrity Net Worth, the Brit is worth a staggering $14 million. Simply put, it looks like the lyrics of her hit, “Paper Planes” where she raps, “Bonafide hustler, makin’ my name,” came true — cash register “ding” and all. On top of that, according to Body + Soul, “while living in Brooklyn between 2006 and 2008,” M.I.A. met and became engaged to multi-millionaire environmentalist Benjamin Bronfman — so she wasn’t exactly in dire need of cash.
In 2012, the star split from her fiancé. “Wealth became like a thing,” she told Body + Soul. “I thought that being the Cinderella and getting to go to the ball and marrying the prince was the thing to achieve as a refugee, but when I got there I found it was more than that for me … the next seven years I was judged as a very shit pop star because I wasn’t wealthy.”
M.I.A. called out the Black Lives Matter movement
The Black Lives Matter movement was developed in 2013 by “three radical Black organizers … in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman” (via Black Lives Matter). As the movement garnered steam throughout the years, “other groups, organizations, and individuals used it to amplify anti-Black racism across the country” — including celebrities.
Never a stranger to controversy, M.I.A. made the following questionable statement during a 2016 interview with Evening Standard: “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter … Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? … And you cannot ask it on a song that’s on Apple, you cannot ask it on an American TV program, you cannot create that tag on Twitter, Michelle Obama is not going to hump you back.” Yikes.
Of course, the backlash was swift, and the singer saw herself dropped as a headline act from the Afropunk festival that same year. While the singer tried clarifying her comments in a since-deleted tweet (via Billboard), saying, “My question was, on American platforms what do they allow you to stand up for in 2016,” the damage was done. And on June 2, 2020, interestingly enough, M.I.A. still posted a black square on Instagram — a gesture meant to show solidarity with BLM.
Vogue allegedly pulled M.I.A.'s feature due to her stance on vaccinations
Even though, as of this writing, M.I.A. hasn’t released a full-length album since 2016, the celeb still manages to make controversial headlines. In March 2020, amid a global pandemic, the “Boyz” rapper took to Twitter to declare, “If I have to choose the vaccine or chip I’m gonna choose death.” Naturally, fans shot back, some with snarky quips like, “This tweet has disappointed me more than your last 2 albums,” while others offered a more educational approach, such as the user who gave a crash course on how vaccinations work.
The most giant clapback, however, came in the form of British Vogue allegedly pulling a feature on the star due to her comments. In a since-deleted Instagram post (via The Guardian), M.I.A. shared screenshots “of a text conversation with an unidentified person who said that the editor … Edward Enninful, had withdrawn his offer for a feature.” As Enninful supposedly explained, “Considering our August is an issue where we’re chronicling the struggles of the NHS to cope while a vaccine is tried to be made we don’t feel we can have her involved.”
As The Guardian notes, before taking the post down, M.I.A. “sarcastically thanked the magazine for ‘acknowledging that choice is a liberty I choose to exercise and fight for,'” adding, “Anti vaxer [sic] is your term. It didn’t exist before this binary addiction everyone has to separate everything into this and that.”
Fans of M.I.A. can look forward to 'random surprise content'
Just because M.I.A. isn’t releasing hits on the regular anymore does not mean she’s totally disappeared from the biz — she’s merely taking a different approach. In 2020, the rapper made a Patreon account with the title, “M.I.A. is creating art.” Offering her fans three monthly membership options, her “about” section explains, “I’m doing a Patreon, because I make so much stuff and record so many things that aren’t music and don’t fit on other platforms … On here – I don’t want to limit my creative energy output.”
As it turned out, the idea to create an account came to her after the release of her documentary. “[It] was just a tiny, teeny bit of what’s on my harddrives, and when we put that out, everyone kept asking to see the whole tapes … and I was trying to find a good place for it,” she revealed.
If that’s not all, fans get to interact with the celeb more than they would on bigger platforms, such as Instagram or TikTok. According to her Patreon page, those who get the pricier memberships are allowed to have Q&A’s with M.I.A. herself, along with “random surprise content.” As her page reads, “It might be a song, a recipe, a manifesto, maybe I could help you with your homework, you guys could be my manager for a day, tell me what to do with my career, therapy sessions, dating advice, we’ll see what happens.”
M.I.A. did release new music in 2020
While you may not hear from M.I.A. much these days, she’s actually still releasing music — you just may have some trouble tracking it down. The celeb took to her Twitter account in March 2020, announcing, “Free music to get you the fu** up outta bed! Here’s the beginning. New M.I.A.,” along with a Patreon link which allows viewers to stream her single, “OHMNI 202091.” It was not a total surprise, either, as when she launched her account, she even wrote, “I’m still making music, putting out the 6th album which is nearly finished, on a normal label, same as the others.”
According to Pitchfork, a few months later, in September, the singer released yet another song. “CTRL! A SONG FOR 2020… This is not a song from M.I.A’s upcoming highly anticipated IIIIIIth LP. It was made for the HERE + NOW, TODAY,” she wrote to her followers on Twitter. Although it was available to listen through her website, OHMNI, it has since been taken down and lives on YouTube, instead. That same year, she also appeared on Travis Scott track “Franchise” alongside Young Thug.
Always one to sprinkle a healthy amount of controversy on top of everything she does, it turned out that the release of “CTRL” was in support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (who is, as of this writing, behind bars), who was, as Pitchfork noted, “charged with conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network in 2010.”
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