M.I.A. announced herself to the world with a technicolor fury of graffiti tanks, airplanes, Bengali tigers, and sparked dynamite in her video for “Galang,” her first single in 2004. Charting in the U.S., UK, and Canada, it was an explosive introduction to the patchwork sound she sewed from garage, dancehall, baile funk, electro and hip hop, and it earned as much attention for its global rhythm as it did for its politics and street art aesthetic. The tiger that appears — we learned at the end of the video, is there because Mathangi Arulpragasam‘s father was a Tamil freedom fighter. The garish animated backdrop was designed by the London artist, who started her career, upon graduating from the leading art school Central Saint Martins College, as a visual artist and filmmaker. Every shot’s palette, every bold graphic, and every pixel was deliberate, and — whether or not you took issue with the way she delivered her political beliefs — M.I.A. had a striking vision.
She made a singular fashion statement too, matching the global sounds of “Galang” with a hodgepodge of eccentric garments belonging to varying styles, trends, and cultures. Most of the garments were handmade. She supported the political graphics in the video with street wear such as utilitarian bomber jackets, hoodies, and sneakers; coordinated the bold colors of her baggy avant-skate shirts and metallic leggings with the loud backdrops; and ornamented her outfit with a pair of polished gold chandelier earrings that have their own closeup after dollar signs flash by. She’s stitched all of the quirks of her sound and art into her clothes and, since “Galang,” M.I.A.’s evolving style has been an extension of her music. (Her style du jour is even ingrained into her album covers, since she’s appeared in stage clothes on every full-length she’s released to date.)
On Piracy Funds Terrorism, the mixtape produced by Diplo to drum up hype for M.I.A.’s proper label debut Arular, M.I.A. stands within a swirl of smoke in an oversized t-shirt with “Complaint Department” printed above a graphic of a haloed grenade. Her casual confrontation comes across like aimless gunshots in tracks like “Fire Bam,” “Bucky Done Gun,” and “Bingo” and leading up to and following the release of Arular, her political garb isn’t her only sartorial misstep.
While M.I.A. continued with her grabag dayglo culture aesthetic in sound and style on Arular and its supporting tour, her vision wasn’t always as fully-realized when she was off stage. Attending the Q Awards in a crinkly pair of mini cargo shorts, flimsy pink plaid, and a sagging grey vest, M.I.A.’s red carpet appearance was drably devoid of her spark, and an indication that her artistic brand was still in incubation. In 2005, she may have been fashionable by donning fast-fashion trends but her personal style — the way in which she uniquely expressed trends — was patchier than Arular’s chaotic beats.
When she’s experimenting with colors and graphics, M.I.A.’s at her most creative. She worked towards a cohesive statement leading up to her sophomore (and breakthrough) full-length Kala by fearlessly amping up the number of textures and styles in her music and her wardrobe. Debuting a nu-rave conductor look in promo photos in 2007 with a frosted blue bob, layered gold chains, futuristic shades, and a leotard cut from holographic spandex and decaled with a kaleidoscopic burst of color, M.I.A. paraded as many different fibers as her album fused together dance genres (neo-disco, dubstep, Baltimore club, Bollywood, tribal to name a few). The unlikely combination of it all gave her a foothold in a style that was entirely her own, and an invitation to share it with new circles.