‘London, quieten down I need to make a sound! New York, quieten down I need to make a sound!’
It’s the opening salvo from M.I.A.’s track ‘Bucky Done Gun’, but also the unabashed proclamation of the arrival of an important new artist. An artist with something to say and who is determined to be heard.
But M.I.A.’s career and sizeable musical impact might not have ever happened if it wasn’t for an exasperated rebuff from visual artist and former Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann.
Before she was a headline grabbing, boundary pushing musician, Maya Arulpragasam’s focus was in the visual arts. She was putting her photography and film skills to work for Elastica during their 2000 tour when she befriended the band’s frontwoman.
Frischmann had loaned her a Roland MC-505 keyboard on which Maya had set to work making beats and writing songs with the intention of giving them to other people to sing. She wanted to encourage her friend Frischmann to make a new album, to the point of hounding her every day with new song ideas.
M.I.A. told triple j’s Jay & The Doctor on her first Australian visit in 2006 that Frischmann got sick of the constant pestering and finally told her, ‘Why don’t you just shut up and do it yourself?’
From there the story goes that she strolled into the offices of XL Records, which she chose because it was conveniently located just two streets away from her home, and reportedly told the label, ‘you’ve been looking for me.’
It turns out that statement wasn’t just some brash exercise in bravado to impress a record label executive. Through a tough and turbulent upbringing, Arulpragasam had been forced to find a sense of self through exploring the need to ‘fit in’ socially.
From being part of a persecuted minority in her war-torn country Sri Lanka, to the cultural melting pot of London, she underwent painful adjustments each step of the way.
“One day in Sri Lanka, I was being shot at for being a Tamil, then I came to England and I was being spat at for being a Paki,” she told triple j. “You’re on the lowest rung on the ladder, scum of the earth…”
The outcome though, as she told CBC in 2005, saw her come to terms with her situation.
“In the end I never fit in anywhere, and I’ve gained the ultimate bus ticket to freedom, and it feels good,” she said.
She naturally gravitated toward hip hop as a foundation on which to build her songs and stories. In 2006 she told RN about discovering the genre early in her teens.
“It was such a dirty thing,” she said. “Kinda frowned upon by adults and the mainstream at the time, that I just loved it, I was just really used to being an underdog.”
Blending dancehall, funk from Rio’s favelas, garage and punk, her songs about 9/11 (‘Sunshowers’), guerilla warfare (‘Pull Up The People’, ‘Fire Fire’) and teen prostitution (‘10 Dollar’), made Arular a record that was as compelling and infectious as it was thought provoking.
While some considered her one of the decade’s most influential people, to her critics, M.I.A was infuriating.
Her songs, both intensely personal and political, to many others, was a welcome voice raised against oppression and alienation. And she undoubtedly invigorated music around the world with her fresh sonic and visual aesthetic.
Reflecting on the impact of her debut on its 10th anniversary, Arulpragasam proudly remarked on its uniqueness.
“What Arular did was something positive,” she said. “It added colour and tones and concepts into arenas where those things weren't everyday things.
“I just wish that there was another album like [Arular] right now that breaks away all of these boundaries people have put up. Because that's what Arular was. It was to break boundaries and it connected with people who had the same sort of philosophy in life — that boundaries don't exist.”