M.I.A., the rapper-singer who has now gained global notoriety by flipping her middle-finger during her performance with Madonna at the half-time show of the Super Bowl, has one of the most unusual and improbable backgrounds of any present-day entertainer.
Born Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam, M.I.A. is the daughter of Sri Lankan Tamils whose lives were permanently disrupted by the civil war that raged in that country for a quarter-century. The war pitted the majority Sinhalese against the minority Tamils.
Although she was born in London in 1975, her family returned to Sri Lanka when she was an infant. Her father, Arul Pragasam, became a founding member of a Tamil separatist group called the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) which sought to establish an independent Tamil homeland in the northern part of the island nation.
The insurgency by the Tamil minority and its military wing, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” ultimately cost up to 100,000 lives in Sri Lanka and disrupted the country’s life and economy until the ruling army defeated the rebels in May 2009.
For M.I.A., her childhood was shattered -- as enemies of the state, her family went into hiding to avoid the Sri Lankan army. Her relationship with her father was permanently ruptured. Life in Sri Lanka for M.I.A. and her family was repeatedly marred by the violence and abuse of Sri Lankan soldiers.
By 1987, M.I.A.’s mother took the children back to London, where they were classified as refugees, while the father remained in Sri Lanka and ultimately worked as a peace mediator between the two warring sides.
M.I.A. apparently grew up in poverty in a South London council estate (housing project), where she encountered both poverty and racial abuse.
From such grim beginnings, she miraculously became a superstar in pop music.
Indeed, her tumultuous early life likely explains M.I.A.’s predilection for violent videos and provocative statements and poses. For example, she has repeatedly accused the Sri Lankan government of having committed “genocide” against the Tamil people and still claims the Colombo government of spreading “propaganda” about her.
“My giving birth was nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp, she once told the New York Times.
She also once told British media that politicians were flooding the Tower Hamlets neighborhood in East London with heroin in order to “sedate and pacify the [local Bengali population].
M.I.A. spent a lot of time in the heavily immigrant neighborhood during her late teens.
She conspiratorially added: I think when a housing community is going to explode then, ultimately, someone gains, whether politically or financially. All the buildings I was hanging out in, the leather factories, the community centers, they all got sold and turned into expensive condos. It's all connected.
By this point, it is clear that M.I.A. will continue to provoke in order to remain in the public eye-- some of it is genuine, but a great part of it is likely simply showmanship.