Music as a Medium

Alternative Forms of News Media and Cultural Expression


Music has the power to connect people and transform societies. Powerful lyrics and strong tunes can cross boundaries.

The English-born and Sri Lankan-raised rapper, Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., is a controversial contemporary artist. Her music is at the cultural intersection where global audiences collide.

Arulpragasam's artistic name comes from the abbreviation for “Missing in Action,” the term used to identify soldiers who disappear in combat. M.I.A.’s father had been involved in a revolutionary militant group called Tamil Tigers, an organization against the Sri Lankan government. Trying to escape from her country’s situation, her mother, her brothers and M.I.A herself ended up as refugees in the United Kingdom. M.I.A. has used her experiences as an inspiration in her musical career.

M.I.A.'s 2005 debut album “Arular” (named after her father’s militant name) quickly gained popularity around the globe. Through mixing different language, beats and everyday sounds such as cash registers, voices of children and gun shots (as in her song “Paper Planes”), M.I.A speaks out about global political issues

M.I.A. found the inspiration for her second album “Kala” from the Hindu goddess of the same name--a goddess known for giving life and simultaneously destroying it. But, like her first album, the second album also speaks very personally--the title honors the name of M.I.A.'s mother.

MIA album

“Kala” features a collection of revolutionary songs with provocative lyrics. The sharp and direct style of the music is influenced by the latest media and musical trends. "Kala" fuses such musical genres as Hip Hop, Reggaeton, electronic music and New Wave. To make “Kala”, M.I.A visited war-torn places to record her songs such as Liberia. She also spent time with Aborigines in Australia, drummers in India and musicians in Trinidad. Her travels lent her album an aggressive global perspective. M.I.A. breaks political and cultural taboos with an innovative musical style and bitting lyrics.

In her first single “Paper Planes," M.I.A. speaks of her American visa denial, due in part perhaps to the controversial content of her songs. She sarcastically suggests she is a security threat--a "paper" airplane that scares people with words and ideas, not a "real" deadly threat like the planes of 9/11:

“I fly like paper, get high like planes,

If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name.

If you come around here, I make 'em all day

I get one down in a second if you wait."

Official “Paper Planes” video

As reported in 2007 about her visa troubles: “Legal limbo... kept her out of the United States for a good part of the last two years — unable to secure a long-term work visa to enter the country thanks to familial ties to guerrilla fighters in her homeland, Sri Lanka, and perhaps her own biting words on record.”

Together with other pop women icons such as Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, Shakira and Madonna, M.I.A. uses her music to speak out on often controversial political subjects. Despite her visa problems, M.I.A.’s music and messages reach both American and international audiences.

Music can be a medium for political expression. M.I.A.'s work is an example of how new voices can use that medium to speak to young audiences around the world.