ALOOPED trumpet fanfare, preceded by the strident demand that "London, quieten down/I need to make a sound" - as introductions go, it’s a brash, even confrontational way to make an entrance. But M.I.A. has come to relish shooting her mouth off through her music.
The rude girl rant of recent single Bucky Done Gun and the aural onslaught of her debut album, Arular, have marked out this London-based, Sri Lanka-bred MC as the UK’s most audacious crossover hip-hop talent since The Streets and Dizzee Rascal. Right now, M.I.A. is firing on all cylinders. She is fuelled by the language of conflict. It crops up in her military moniker, guerrilla album artwork, scattershot rapping technique and the imagery in her lyrics.
Little wonder that she has been described as ‘this year’s riot music’ by the New Yorker. "I don’t know what it is," she muses in a well-spoken drawl which sounds far from the invective-spitting vehicle she uses in her music. "I must have something genetic that feels the need to stand up for shit all the time."
You could say. Given her dramatic, volatile upbringing, it is hardly surprising that M.I.A. (it stands for Missing In Acton - her current base) has arrived with all guns blazing. M.I.A. was born Maya Arulpragasam in Hounslow, but, when she was still a baby, her Sri Lankan parents moved their young family back to their homeland, where her father became entrenched in the Tamil fight for independence. He became a fugitive for the cause and, subsequently, a stranger to his family, who were continually forced to relocate without him. "No matter what was happening with the war, it was the financial hardship that you dealt with at home," says Maya. "Even though we had the army coming round our house, the thing that hit home hardest was having to move to all these places and not having any money to scrape by every day."
For over a decade, Maya and her siblings were shuttled between Sri Lanka and India by concerned relatives. Poverty, hunger, instability and illness became the daily facts of their life. Maya’s older sister caught typhoid, and Maya and her younger brother succumbed to various ailments.
"I had scabs all over my body and my head - I was bald... these are the things that made me think ‘one day I want out of this’. I didn’t know what was causing it. I’d just watch my mum and that was all I had to go on - what’s she feeling now?"
Maya thanks her mother profusely on her album sleeve (‘your struggle has been my biggest inspiration’) but, intriguingly, she has chosen to name her album after her absent father (dubbed Arular by his fellow Tamil militants).
Maya has never had a relationship with the man whose political activities determined her nomadic childhood. When he would pay his family clandestine visits in Sri Lanka, he was introduced to his children as an uncle to preserve his cover. Maya hasn’t seen him for years - the last time she describes as "really crazy, really difficult" - but he remains a source of frustrating fascination for her.
"My dad didn’t play a part in my life, apart from how he exists for me now," she says. "I’ve made a creative product and named it after him. My mum always said ‘the only thing your father gave us was his name’, so if that’s the only thing he’s given me I’m going to use it. I thought it would be a good way to find him. It’s really weird that this character, this mythical figure has so much control over your destiny. I equate him with politics, that other mystical thing which affects your life in a big way."
When Maya was 11, her family - minus her father - arrived in the UK as refugees and were housed in a council estate in Mitcham, Surrey, which, according to the helpful tourist information resource, ChavTowns.co.uk, "used to be a half-decent little town with reasonable local shops and a very pretty cricket green area". Maya had escaped Sri Lanka, but still felt under siege. It was little wonder that she eventually gravitated towards the outsider anger of hip-hop.
"My family couldn’t really get off the ground and we lived like that forever," she says. "My mum’s still in a council estate, still on minimum wage. I wanted to really understand where I was put, but that was all I knew. My whole teenage years were spent hanging about in council estates in Brixton, Islington, Hounslow."
The next chapter in Maya’s story sounds like the stuff of Hollywood biopics. Bored with kicking about estates with her mates, she wandered off route one day and ended up in an art gallery where she became transfixed by a whole other world. "It was just so gentle," she remembers.
Having always applied herself at school - education was the only weapon she and her siblings had at their disposal - she cultivated a new-found talent for art which eventually led to a scholarship to Central St Martins College of Art (as immortalised in the Pulp hit, Common People) to study fine art, film and video. But she and her graffiti/stencil art didn’t fit in there either.
"That whole St Martins lifestyle is mad," she says. "There’s a lot of people with a lot of luxury and time. A lot of people there were very ignorant about what life on the street was like and they were really judgemental about me because I came from that lifestyle. You had to abandon your identity and embrace theirs. So I did for a bit."
The posh girl accent is presumably one vestige of her time spent among the art set. Her guttural, hybrid Asian/cockney rapping voice is completely different - this isn’t art college graduate Maya but M.I.A. from the block.
One wonders if her M.I.A. persona isn’t just another art project for Maya Arulpragasam. And yet she seems so utterly earnest about her music.
"When I discovered making music, that was my world. My life stopped, didn’t have a phone, didn’t read, didn’t see my friends or family," she says.
While she was at St Martin’s, she supplemented her teenage diet of hip-hop with indie pop and alternative rock. Justine Frischmann of Britpop band Elastica was sufficiently impressed with Maya’s college work that she commissioned her to provide artwork for the band and video their US tour.
The tour support act - lo-fi electro-punk queen Peaches - introduced her to the DIY wonders of the sequencer and, back in London, Maya set about channelling her patchwork experience and multifarious musical influences into something which truly reflected her scrambled identity.
"Back then I was so nervous about sharing my stuff," she says. "I wouldn’t sing in front of anyone. I kept delaying it until one day they gave me a mike and pushed me out." "They" are Steve Mackey, one-time bassist with Pulp, and Ross Orton, aka her production gurus Cavemen, who pounced on her potential, and tweaked her first demos and singles. On Arular, she has also collaborated with electro-pop producer du jour Richard X.
The album has garnered across-the-board plaudits, its mongrel mix of hip-hop, electro, ragga and punk generating the same excitement as the debut efforts of her labelmate Dizzee Rascal a couple of years ago. Her culture-clash sound has already resonated in the US, with high-profile gigs at the South By South West festival in Texas and the Miami Winter Music Conference only adding to the hectic blur of acclaim and demand.
"My learning curve’s been so steep, it’s backed on to itself," remarks Maya. "But I’d be quite happy gliding along if I had the option. Most of the time I sit and daydream about being a housewife but I know it’s not an option and I’ll never have it as an option. It’s just a dream. I hope I can find a home but in reality I’m not going to get off touring until August. I’m going to be in a different hotel room every day having no sense of home."
Has she ever felt like she had a home? "Never," she replies emphatically. "But it drives me. I get up in the morning because I don’t have a home. We don’t have one in Sri Lanka because it got burned down [she is referring to her grandparents’ farm, her first abode in Sri Lanka]. And then in England we never had a home - it was council-owned. So one day I will and then I can bring everybody back together."
The week Maya graduated from St Martins in 2001, she heard that her cousin in Sri Lanka had died "for the cause", prompting her to make a return odyssey to the country of her childhood, where she stayed for a summer with her cousin’s family in conditions she thought were behind her for good.
"My life at that particular moment was so superficial and apathetic," she recalls. "In London I was surrounded by people saying ‘what shall I do? I might open a caf that serves lattes.’ Sri Lanka was all about the bigger things in life, like dying for a cause that you might never fulfil in your lifetime but you’re fighting for your children’s children. Both sides of the story were part of me, so I wanted to make sense of it. I didn’t want to become immune to what I knew was going on in Sri Lanka." It is clear that Maya has residual sympathy for the Tamil cause but she rebuffs any suggestion that she supports the Tamil Tigers’ terrorist operations. As she raps on album track Pull Up The People, "every gun in a battle is a son and daughter too".
I ask her how she felt seeing footage of the tsunami and the devastation it brought to the region. Her answer is a mixture of pro-Tamil indignation and hopeful idealism.
"It brought home the fact that aid wasn’t going up to the north and east," she says [the Sri Lankan government deny this]. "You can call the Tamil people terrorists, but, in the time of the tsunami, you’re not going to give them aid? Everybody made a big fuss about it and aid got up there four, five days later. They’re all people at the end of the day. The positive thing is the war’s going to stop now," she proclaims, "because what’s the point of rebuilding all that after the tsunami if they’re going to carry on bombing it? That’s common sense, right?" At least for M.I.A., the battle to find her voice and let it be heard has been won.