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.
After modeling for Marc Jacobs in his spring 2008 campaign, M.I.A. designed her own line of clothing which riffed on the tribal motif of Kala’s artwork with mismatched prints and bold colors, DJ’d and sat front row at New York’s spring fashion week, and landed on Vogue’s best-dressed list of 2008. As she gained greater access to avant garb, though, her red carpet style quieted down from the cartoonish polka dot House of Holland frock she squeezed into for the 2009 Grammys to solid mini dresses she accessorized with the occasional eccentric purse or statement necklace after giving birth to her son. And as bold a statement as her House of Holland dress and her other Grammy dress, the wavy aqua muumuu by Manish Arora, was, they represented a shift in M.I.A.’s stylistic approach: While her style was ultimately her decision and she uncompromisingly fulfilled the role of a muse to various designers, the renegade aesthete first stepped out in her own designs transitioned into defining herself through others.
By May 2009, it wasn’t even strange to glimpse M.I.A.’s picture in PEOPLE’s “Star Tracks” or see her posing alongside Oprah at TIME’s fête for they and the other members of the magazine’s “The Most Influential People of the World” list. Wearing a little black dress, elevated only by Alexander Wang’s leather sleeve denim jacket of the year, the sight of such an acclimated M.I.A. provokes the question, “How do artists retain their personal style when they acquire new resources?” This is especially confusing for an artist like M.I.A. whose aesthetic foundation is street and “low brow” style, and who, herself, is a brand and visual entity.
M.I.A.’s instinct was to recoil, though not in interviews or on social media. After selling herself as an outsider and street artist, then making TIME’s list of influencers and bumping elbows with Oprah, the newly inaugurated pop star tried, a little too hard, to retain her gritty edge and prove that her sound hasn’t mollified despite her fame (and recently acquired fortune, via her music and marriage to billionaire Benjamin Bronfman). She literally hid herself from the public — for the first time stepping away from the lens in one of her music videos, the one for “Born Free,” and — showing up to her first red carpet event of 2010 while cloaked in a burqa displaying the artwork of her third full-length /\/\ /\ Y /\ with her middle finger raised up as her only accessory. Stunts like this became routine. At the 2012 Super Bowl, she gave the middle finger again, this time on the coattails of Madonna’s spotlight. Flipping off the nation, again, seemed like another accessory for her getup — which actually belonged to and was designed by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci. In a red and black paneled cheerleader skirt with an “M” hanging from the front, an Erikson Beamon chinoiserie headdress — which read like a half-baked nationalistic throwback to her Southeastern Asian roots — and thigh high stiletto boots, M.I.A. looked like a cartoonish version of herself, as if she was dressed up as herself for halloween. Giving the finger was her attempt to put her own spin on someone else’s outfit and performance.
Even leading up to the Super Bowl, in performances, M.I.A. began scraping up cheap costumes to push forth her street cred. She rolled up to shows in an oversized military jacket, holographic pot leaf shades, and a rotating supply of loudly-colored wigs to a string of dates after the release of /\/\ /\ Y /\. She became an unreliable messenger in sound and a less consistent arbitror of style.
She’s noticeably trying to clean herself up though, and appearing front row at Paris Fashion Week for Versace’s haute couture show, in a sleek ensemble from their early ‘90s collection that references M.I.A.’s early print-heavy aesthetic, is a good start. She’s stepped back into center stage in the visuals for her music too, standing on the cover for “Bad Girls” in a pair of gauche metallic-woven printed pants, which look like they came out of Versace’s vault, and throughout the video for her latest single in eccentric outfits that recall her Kala-era shine. She’s cleaned up her sound too, letting her pop instincts lead her and with outside help from Timbaland’s protégé Danja on the snakey dancehall beat, which first appeared on her Vicki Leekx EP in 2010.
Her music and style are more woven now than ever before as she’s preparing to release the remixes to “Bad Girls” on serpentine gold necklaces, with USB pendants that resemble a key to a BMW. With a thick chain and bulky pendant, it’s a winkingly gaudy accessory and perhaps a jab at capitalist culture within hip hop. Then again, it might just be a jab at herself for the privileged lifestyle she now leads. But this time, regardless of her new resources, M.I.A.’s style is the strongest delivery method of her music; her costume has become her persona and now anyone can wear it.