M.I.A. performs at London's Brixton Academy, November 10, 2010.
M.I.A. exploded in 2005 with a flash of day-glo outfits, revolutionary politics, and vibrant music that combined hip-hop beats with sounds from around the world. Her first two albums, 2005's Arular and 2007's Kala, were two of the most highly praised of the decade, the latter finishing ninth on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 best albums of the 2000s. In 2009, Time named M.I.A. one of the "World's Most Influential People."
She was born in London as Mathangi Arulpragasm, to parents of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. At six months old, her family moved back to Sri Lanka and her father became a leader in the movement for Tamil independence—taking the name Arular, which M.I.A. would use as her first album's title. For eight years, she moved around the country frequently as her father avoided arrest from the Sri Lankan government, ultimately moving to India and, in 1986, back to London as a refugee at the age of 11.
Now going by M.I.A., for missing in action, she graduated from art school in the late 1990s and had significant success as a graphic artist and filmmaker. A tour of the U.S. with Elastica—she had done the artwork for the band's 2000 album The Menace and become friends with singer Justine Frischmann—and Peaches introduced her to the Roland 505-C sequencing drum machine and piqued her interest in making music.
Back in London, M.I.A. recording a six-song demo, including the chaotic, club-ready mash-up "Galang." The songs made their way around the Internet and made her a hipster hero before properly releasing an album or playing a single show. Soon, she was signed to XL Recordings, who officially released "Galang," along with an M.I.A.-directed music video, and second single, "Sunshowers" in 2004.
In March, 2005, she released Arular, recorded and produced entirely in her London bedroom, largely out of the demos recorded two years earlier. Playing with the themes of identity politics, globalism, and revolution, M.I.A. addressed several conflicts and oppressed peoples around the world, including Tamils, Palestinians, and African-Americans. The album proved tremendously popular with critics: It was short-listed for Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize and was the second best-reviewed album of 2005, according to web aggregator Metacritic.com. Manic tour dates at Coachella and Central Park Summerstage only raised her standing further.
In 2007, M.I.A. released follow-up album, Kala, named after her mother. The album had a more eclectic, layered sound, with live instrumentation. She worked with a wide-range of collaborators, including producers Timbaland and Blaqstarr, along with London MC Afrikan Boy. While Arular peaked at Number 190 on the Billboard 200, Kala hit Number 18, and was named the best album of the year by Rolling Stone and Blender.
Kala single "Paper Planes," about M.I.A.'s struggles with visas, lived several lives and helped bring M.I.A. to a broader audience. The song became a radio single after it appeared in the trailer for Judd Apatow's film Pineapple Express, and also appeared in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. It was reborn anew as a prominent sample in T.I. and Jay-Z's "Swagger Like Us," leading M.I.A. to perform "Swagger Like Us" at the 2008 Grammy's while nine months pregnant, opposite T.I., Jay-Z, Lil' Wayne, and Kanye West. She gave birth to a son days later.
In 2008, M.I.A. started her N.E.E.T. record label, signing Baltimore rapper Rye-Rye as her first artist, although Rye-Rye's debut album was postponed when she announced that she was pregnant. In early 2010, M.I.A. released the single "Space Odyssey," on her MySpace page, prompting speculation that a third album is in the works.