it’s your 40th birthday today, and I hope you’re celebrating in style: with wild animals, colourful dancers and loads of political anger instead of cake. I clearly remember the first time ever I read about you – or rather M.I.A., your nome de guerre. It was early 2005, I was fifteen or sixteen and desperately wanted to be so grownup. I bought this music magazine, where I didn’t know any of the bands and didn’t understand any of the articles and there you were: You had just put out your first album, »Arular«, and the story goes that it’s named after your father’s code name, a Tamil freedom fighter who was missing at that time. Although Diplo, your boyfriend and artistic collaborator of many years, much later said that this was all only a story… But it doesn’t really matter, does it? Also, who listens to what Diplo says nowadays anyway.
I vividly remember how mesmerised I was from the bold colours of the record. A few days later, I saw the video for «Bucky Done Gun» on MTV. I was absolutely blown away, it was nothing less than a game changer for me: For the first time ever I saw this woman who looked like me, who was angry like me, who was so hot, but not obediently so, and screamed from the top of her lungs while staying sensual and endearing. She was so bold, so colourful, so far from all the aesthetics around me, so far from everything I had ever seen before, really. Remember, this was ten years ago, this was before I had my first Myspace-account, let alone Facebook, this was before fashion trends were developed in the tumblr-sphere, this was when we pranked people in chatrooms, when chatrooms were still a thing. This was the first time I saw a brown girl like me making music that wasn’t Bollywood, wasn’t R’n’B, that belonged to the world I wanted to see myself in.
What I didn’t know until this year, ten years after your debut, that you hit the magical thirty later that year. When all this started, your career as a musician that led to fame, to a fairy tale/nightmare life, you had already lived a pretty exciting life. You grew up in civil war, you only knew your politically active father as an «uncle», you survived being shot at. When you were only nine, your primary school was destroyed in a governemnt raid, and your mother decided to flee with you and your siblings to England. You fought your way into Central St. Martins, hung out with Elastica, Damon Albarn, had a solid fanbase for your art. Going on tour with your mates from Elastica to film a documentary changed everything: Peaches, yes, that Peaches of «Fuck the Pain Away»-fame, introduced you to the legendary Roland MC-505, and you went from a film maker to a musician.
You were one of the very first artist to gather a fanbase through social media, «Galang» and «Sunshowers» became hits through file sharing and college radio airplay. Major labels only jumped on the bandwagon later – by that time you had already an international following. But still, Arular was the start – M.I.A. went on to become a hugely successful pop star, you, Mathangi, Maya, becoming one with this persona. At least in the eyes of the public but maybe also to yourself? After all, you continued to merge private life and artist persona.
You named your second album after your mother, Kala. I wasn’t into it as much as I was into Arular, but that’s probably only me and the teenage disappointment of your hero becoming a mass phenomenon. You became so mainstream! Particularly «Paper Planes», a song sampling gun shots and a The Clash riff, became an international hit, after it was featured in the trailer of «Pineapple Express», a self titled «stoner action comedy» with James Franco and Seth Rogen. Which was odd, because the mesmerising sound was only the backdrop to an overtly political song about immigration and flight – surprising that the song didn’t become the hymn of political activists everywhere. MTV censored the song just like they did with «Sunshowers» from the first record, Sri Lankan authorities weren’t too happy, obviously. But even that couldn’t stop you, you left the underground, you were engaged to a millionaire and went through a bitter break-up, were thrown under the bus by a New York Times journalist, designed fashion for Versace, stood on the stage of the Grammys at nine months pregnant with T.I., Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Kanye West and made the boys look like rookies. You were more badass than it would have served your career and were never apologetic – instead combining being signed to Roc Nation (which you left in 2013) and releasing Wikileaks-inspired mixtapes. You’re still intensely political, making criticising banks sound irresistibly dance-y, still merging tradition and modernity in your aesthetics and you still kick ass like very few others.
You weren’t always on the right side, and more often than not went overboard and missed the mark, sometimes even sliding into conspiracy theory territories. But I could never be angry at you, Mathangi, it’s been ten years since you changed my life and gave me and all the other brown kids a face. You’re not my hero, M.I.A., but you’re the godmother of all of us misfits, angry kids and loud girls, and we owe you, whether we like it or not.
Happy Birthday, M.I.A.!