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Maya was born in Hounslow in London, UK to a mother and father of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. When she was six months old, her family moved back to Jaffna. Her father became a political activist (Tamil Tiger), changing his name to Arular and founding the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). Her early life was spent in war-torn Sri Lanka, and she has noted that getting called offensive terms by ignorant racists in London was nothing compared to being shot at by Sinhalese government forces chasing her father.
She had little contact with her father for the first eight years of her life, as he was hiding from the Sri Lanka Army. She moved back to London in 1986 as a refugee along with her sister Kali, younger brother Sugu and her mother, Kala; where they ended up on an estate in Mitcham, Surrey.
When she was a teenager, she discovered hiphop, but she wasn’t first inclined to become a musician, instead choosing to study fine art, film and video at Central St Martin’s, pursuing a career as a documentary-maker and artist. Her first public exhibition was in 2001, featuring paintings created with spray paint mixing Tamil political street art with images of consumerist culture. Hollywood actor Jude Law was an early buyer of her work.
She designed album artwork for Elastica, which led to her following the band on tour, recording the event and eventually directing the music video for their single Mad Dog Good Dam. It was the support act, Peaches, that encouraged Maya to experiment with music as another medium for her to express herself. She created a demo tape, containing songs Lady Killa, M.I.A and Galang, which started to stir interest in 2003 with their vibrant mix of dancehall, electro, jungle and world music.
Major record labels started noticing the cult following she was gaining through the internet, and she was signed to XL Recordings. Following this, she was courted by major labels in the US and was finally signed by Interscope.
Her debut album Arular was released in March 2005 to critical acclaim. It consisted of bold beats and sounds with political content, exemplified by songs such as Amazon, M.I.A and Fire Fire. The rapper Nas said, “her sound is the future” after hearing the album, and it was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. An M.I.A tour followed, and she also supported Roots Manuva and LCD Soundsystem, with many M.I.A tickets selling down to her many favourable reviews.
2006 saw the release of her second album, Kala, named after her mother. This, too, was met with a positive critical reception and an M.I.A tour of the UK followed. Many M.I.A tickets were sold now that more and more people were aware of her. Kala was named the best album of 2007 by both Rolling Stone and Blender magazines. Holy Fuck supported her on tour in early 2008 before she took a break from selling M.I.A tickets to start work on her third album.
She started up a record label, N.E.E.T Recordings, on which the first release was the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. She signed the band Sleigh Bells to the label.
Her third album Maya – stylized as /\/\/\Y/\ , was released in 2010. The accompanying video to the first single, Born Free, caused huge controversy when it was released, as it depicted the mass genocide red-haired adolescents forced to run across a minefield and was graphically violent.
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