Mia: Learning to speak guerrilla language

Mia, a Sri Lankan immigrant, once struggled to fit into British life. But her unique homebrew dancehall hip-hop proves she has found her voice
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In a compact flat amid the bedsit land of Shepherd's Bush, west London, Maya Arul and two cohorts spraypaint stencil designs on to a pile of white-label 12" singles. The logo spells out "MIA", which happen to be her initials, as well as standing for the dreaded war jargon "missing in action", though Arul says it stands for "missing in Acton" (a nearby neighbourhood).

It is a scene repeated in the homes of artists devoted to the DIY ethic from Bristol to Glasgow. Except in this case, Arul is signed to the same label as The Prodigy and Dizzee Rascal. So, while XL is hoping she will achieve comparable success with her second single, "Galang", Arul herself aims to make waves with her unofficial release "Hombre".

She breaks off to explain her philosophy, sitting by a wall decorated with her logo and other images repeated across canvases and paper. A cola-bottle Molotov cocktail stands out. "I love what they do in hip hop in America. The whole mixtape culture, where you put things out guerrilla-style. Any sketches or ideas I have, I can show people what I'm doing right now. I wrote 'Galang' a year ago, so while the label do their thing at a slow pace, they let me work on a monthly or two-month basis."

Arul says "guerrilla" without irony, though the word goes to the heart of her life as well as her music. It is something she alludes to as she surveys her bare front room. Apart from the record sleeves put out to dry, there is only a sofa, tiny recording desk and a portable TV. "I think I'm masculine like that - I don't like lots of trinkets, but when you are a refugee, you learn to travel light."

She laughs dryly, for Arul knows what she is talking about. Her family were once part of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. Her life was torn apart when she was seven and civil war broke out, a conflict so bitter that even kids were involved. "One day we were doing PE in the yard and getting caned for being a minute late; the next we were tested to see how quickly we could hide and how high we could jump."

They lost contact with Arul's father, who had joined the Tamil Tiger militants. The Tigers were separated from their families, so Arul was brought up to believe he was actually her uncle. At the age of 10, she fled the island along with her mother and two siblings. They were settled in south London, on a notoriously racist estate where crime was rife and Arul was often a "Paki". "You could get your Walkman or your trainers nicked, but it wasn't as bad as where we came from, where you were running for your lives."

Desperate to fit in, Arul put her past behind her. "I just forgot about Sri Lanka. I decided I had nothing to do with that country. It wasn't home any more, so I might as well go forward. People asked about my experiences, but I used to just get embarrassed. For the next 10 years, I said I was from Trinidad or Mauritius."

At first, music was simply her way of fitting in and making friends. "I was always into music, but in Sri Lanka we only heard pop. I had a radio, which was nicked by the neighbours, so all I could was listen to what they were playing next door, which was hip hop. I was amazed. Public Enemy had a much better rhythm than Paula Abdul."

Arul bought the right magazines and made up her own dance routines, but her main creative outlet was through art. "Even when I was very young, people would get me to draw for them, but when I came to England, it was the only thing I could do. Because I couldn't speak English very well, things like chemistry, I was just 'What?' Teachers would let me go off and paint drama sets instead. I was a novelty arts person."

That novelty got her a place at the prestigious Central St Martin's College of Art and Design in London, where Arul again struggled to fit in. "I was doing work for bands, but my tutors just wanted me to make films of leaves in the trees or ripples in the water to represent the avant-garde and feminist whatever. I was like, 'I can't do that. My mum's about to get evicted from her council flat. I can't pretend life is glorious through this leaf on 16mm with some scratched dirt on it.'"

Just as she graduated, her past came back in the most tragic way and ironically provided her creativity with a purpose. "The same week as I graduated, one of my cousins died as a Tamil Tiger. Me and him grew up together. We were in the same class, I'd always copy his notes. We were like twins. The same week I came out with my degree, posing in the photo to make my mum happy, a photo of him with flowers around it was given to his mum. Like, 'Your son is dead.' That was when I thought, 'I'm doing really well with my art, but I have to pair it with some substance.'"

Rumours emerged that Arul's cousin was still alive, wounded and possibly paralysed, but alive. She returned to Sri Lanka to search for him. It was a fruitless task in the end, but Arul was able to take a film camera (usually banned) into the country. In an area where the press were rarely given access, people flocked to her to tell their stories: "They were going crazy."

Arul had found her purpose, but on her return to the UK she found little interest in her work on the art circuit. Before September 11, political themes were seen as irredeemably naff.

"It was so rare to find people trying to make work that went beyond what was cool, so you kept getting sucked into this vacuum. The only way to get away with this subject was to prettify it. I had to trick people into thinking I was as shallow as they were, using the right colours and print-making styles."

Her escape came via an unlikely direction. Arul had been surrounded by musicians for a while, such as Elastica's Justine Frischmann, who had recruited Arul to design the record sleeve for her band's last album. Through her, she met confrontational electronica artist (and now fellow XL stablemate) Peaches.

"When we met, it was an instant meeting of minds. She's so free and does it guerilla-style. I saw Peaches get up and get changed [into her outfit] on stage. She'd get people to shave her legs while she was doing it. It's the only time I've been to a gig in Britain where girls and boys lost their inhibitions. They were freaking out. Anyone who can do that has my respect."

Peaches was one of several people telling Arul she should get involved in music, even going as far as to donate some kit. "They always said, 'You look like you can do music. You can dance and you have that thing,' but I didn't think I could put myself out there. It was weird, because I would always be telling people how to write songs and what words went with what beat. I was a back-seat music person, but I was a bit shy."

That all changed when she was visiting relatives in the Caribbean. Arul was at a church service and was told off for clapping out of time. "I was following the melody. I didn't even realise you just clapped to the beat. That night, people were saying I was putting them off. So I sat down on my four-track and said to myself, 'I know a good beat when I hear it.' And I wrote a song in one go."

Thanks to that West Indian congregation, we are now privileged to hear some of the most exciting music around today: a mix of Jamaican dancehall and hip hop, though Arul sings in her own distinctive style that takes in Missy Elliott, Jamaican toasters and UK vocalists such as Estelle and Shystie.

"People say I'm a musical blotting paper and I like that. I'm a living, breathing mixtape. I like dancehall beats, but because I'm Sri Lankan I have to ride the beats in a more melodic fashion. In Asia, melody is everything."

Not that Arul is making straightforward party music. She made her feelings known on first single "Sunshowers". "At the time I wrote it, Bush and Tony Blair were getting us into war and I felt caught in the middle, having to decide if I was good or evil. Where I come from it seems that everyone is classed as evil, due to our [Sri Lankan] Prevention of Terrorism Act. I come from a land where 20 years ago. people were revolutionaries and freedom fighters, but now those terms just don't exist. If you stand up for anything, you're made into a hazard to the rest of the world."

Arul's debut album is set to follow in the new year, with her celebrity endorsements extended with production jobs by Pulp's Steve Mackey and Richard X, of Sugababes, Girls Aloud and Rachel Stevens fame. Not that Arul is in danger of being groomed as another pop pin-up. "My website has had 58 hits from the US government," she says proudly.

In the meantime, there is the underground release "Hombre", where a devastatingly flirtatious Arul sings in both Spanish and English. "Galang", her next proper single, is more of a feel-good, dancefloor tune than "Sunshowers", as Arul mixes up slang from the Caribbean, US and London's inner-city streets. "Galang" is both a ginger-like Indian spice and Jamaican patois for "Go on!"

"This was only the second track I ever wrote, so I was still experimenting. I just wanted to put down all the advice everyone had said to me about how to survive in London."

Only later did she find out that Galang was also a refugee camp in Cambodia. It is typical of the serendipity that surrounds the girl who in "Sunshowers" "salts and peppers my mango", mixing the sweet with the bitter. Arul's tunes are irresistible; just watch out for her spitting pips.

'Hombre' is available from www.miauk.com; 'Galang' is out on 25 October on XL