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M.I.A.: An Artist By Many Names

Mathangi Arulpragasam is the Tamil rapper we know as M.I.A. She was born in 1975 and faced horrible racism when she came to England from Sri Lanka, experiences she tapped to make award-winning music and art.

Get to Know Seetha Hallett

Get to know Seetha Hallett, who read us the story of M.I.A.! Hear about Seetha’s work as a ceramic artist, how she landed a TV Presenter role, and her thoughts about staying true to your own voice.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Joy Smith with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Gina Gotsill and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan with sensitivity read by Schuyler Swenson. Narration by Seetha Hallett. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

The energy at Terminal 5 music hall in New York City was wild. Thousands of people were cheering and dancing as the drumbeats pulsed beneath them. When the lights came up, there was a woman on stage dressed in a long shimmering gold coat and sunglasses. 

She started rapping. The crowd roared with appreciation. The band behind her joined in with fast rhythms as the stage came alive with glowing designs and mandalas.

And above it all, there was one word suspended in midair — MATANGI.

I’m Seetha Hallett. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, Mathangi Arulpragasam, otherwise known as M.I.A. Rapper, singer, songwriter, and activist for social justice.

Mathangi’s head was always full of pictures. As a little girl growing up in the capital of Sri Lanka, she filled her notebooks with drawings. Instead of an A, she drew an apple. A B could be a balloon. Next door to her family’s house, there was a factory that made colorful saris. Mathangi loved to go outside in her yard and wait until the factory workers threw away the ends of their paint cans. She was fascinated by the drips and dribbles of all those different colors running together. It gave her so many ideas. 

There was a storm brewing in Sri Lanka though. The country had two main ethnic groups — the Sinhalese and the Tamil. Mathangi and her family were Tamil and they wanted independence. They were even ready to fight for it. The country became very dangerous as a civil war escalated. So, when Mathangi was almost eleven, she, her brother and mom left Sri Lanka and fled to London. 

England was safer, but it wasn’t exactly welcoming. Instead of bullets and raids, there was racism and ridicule. Kids made fun of Mathangi for being a refugee with an unusual name. So, she changed her name to Maya, hoping the teasing would stop. 

Even when it did, Maya felt very lonely. She was in a new country and she didn’t speak the language….

But at least she had art! Drawing and painting became her new best friends. She couldn’t wait to slip into the art room and create drama sets for the school play. 

She also started getting into hip-hop music. She felt like hip-hop expressed so many things she was feeling — joy, fear, anger, and hope all at once. While people from all backgrounds listen to and create hip-hop today, this kind of music originally came from Black-American cultures. The hip-hop scene Maya fell in love with was full of people not afraid to say the truth even if they were labeled an “outsider.” Maya was captivated by the way hip-hop celebrated so many backgrounds and was constantly evolving.

So she blasted hip-hop as loud as she could and danced her heart out — feeling the beats and rhythms in her skin.

She knew wherever she went, music and art could be her home.

TELEPHONE SOUND

Hello? 

‘Hello, Mathangi? I have some bad news…”

It was the week after Maya had graduated from art school in London. She’d worked so hard to get there and had put all her energy into creating paintings, film, and music that she was proud of. But that phone call changed everything.

Maya’s cousin, who was like a brother to her, had gone Missing In Action in Sri Lanka. While he was trying to defend the Tamil side he’d either been captured or killed. Maya was gutted. She couldn’t understand how a life so close to hers was just gone. They were the same age and played together as kids all the time. How was this possible? And what was she doing with an art degree when there were so many people from her homeland fighting for their lives?

Maya decided she would change her name again. This time to M.I.A. to honor her missing cousin. She imagined herself stitching their two lives together, living with and for him. She started making music that connected them too — pulling in sounds from Sri Lanka, from London, from all over the world. 

There were jarring sounds. Honest sounds. She remembered the clash of people fighting in Sri Lanka and used that as part of her soundtracks. She wrote songs about what it was like to hear the world shattering all around her. Sometimes she just started with a thought and yelled into the microphone until the words took shape. 

M.I.A.’s songs were loud and edgy. She didn’t shy away from telling harsh truths about her life but she also wasn’t singing them so people would feel sorry for her. She wanted her art to inspire people to stand up for those who didn’t have a voice.

M.I.A. continues to write and release influential music. She’s won lots of awards for her music, art, and even filmmaking. But maybe the biggest honor was the one she gave herself. 

On her fourth album, she reclaimed her birth name, Mathangi. She learned that it came from the name of a Hindu goddess who expresses inner thoughts — which was exactly what Mathangi the artist strived to do. She was so proud to discover that she was embodying her namesake.

When Mathangi stepped on to the Terminal 5 stage in New York City decked out in glittering gold, she looked powerful. 

She had no idea what tomorrow would bring. But she was going to honor her past and be open to whatever happened next. 

The beats kicked in. The lights lit up the night. And with her name emblazoned above her head, Mathangi started to sing a brand new song.