Photography by Viviane Sassen
M.I.A. writes and performs with an emotional intensity that makes it seem like she’s screaming out for the numbing anxieties that are otherwise suspended in the silence — both those within her own mind and out in the world at large. But that fiery approach is just one side of her story; the other tells of an artist who’s sensitive to pain and protest, though more mindful, attached, and entangled than she’s often painted. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam’s name often gets dragged through the mud of controversial headlines and quotations divorced from their proper context. She’s stirred the pot with her comments on topics ranging from the refugee crisis to Black Lives Matter to Oprah, and then she’s been dismissed until the next controversy crops up. But even a quick conversation with M.I.A. reveals a mosaic and highly intelligent human being, a warrior whose depth extends far beyond the latest headlines.
Born in London, M.I.A. moved to Sri Lanka with her family when she was less than a year old. Her father became a Tamil political activist, and in the wake of the Sri Lankan civil war, the family was displaced, forced to hide from the army. In the years since, she’s visited refugee camps and shielded those struggling within unchosen borders by fortifying their heritage. When she speaks of refugees, conflict, and oppression, it’s something she feels in her bones — the ache ingrained. Musically, she boldly faces that same issue, refusing to stay within the lanes of rap, pop, hip-hop, or whatever else might confine her.
Getting closer to her latest album, AIM, the most controversial parts become clear: She conjures both a scarred past and the transient present, struts in with sneakers and chains, pummeling beats in a pop terrain. In a world where major label musicians are expected to stick to pop and leave politics to the pros, M.I.A. refuses to remain quiet, both in her music and in her own voice. “What haters say about me don’t worry me/ I keep it moving forward to what’s ahead of me,” she says on “Finally”. She hears all the people who want her to stop speaking out against injustice, but nothing can keep M.I.A. from trying to change the world.
You’ve been traveling all over the world lately.
We were in India, but we just got back to London, and as soon as I arrived, my son got back from New York, too, so I’ve not done any promos yet. I’m doing everything all at once. It’s nice to be back in London.
I just left there yesterday, and the really beautiful weather suddenly turned evil — and I remembered how affected people get.
Oh yeah, when I got back, it was just gray every single day. It’s very interesting — I love rain and thunder or extreme sun, but I can’t take the middle ground when they’re fighting over who’s going to win. When I see gray weather, it’s like, “Well, the rain didn’t win, and the sun didn’t win.” It’s like having a hold off, and it’s annoying.
Luckily, I’ve had your album for a few weeks, like a little gift that keeps unraveling a new purpose. I understand why you released “Borders” — for its reference to the current refugee crisis — but is there anything on the album that you thought might be a significant cue as to what the rest of the tone might be?
Well, the thing is, I made the album with nobody around. I had no label people or management people … it was just me. I had one person on my team. I got myself a PA who made it possible for me to actually fly to different places to keep the recording process going. And then I hired a nanny. So I really just had a PA and a nanny, and I made a whole album. And then on the last day when we finished recording, that’s when I hired a manager. I was like, “Look, here’s the album. Now I’m leaving.”
So you haven’t controlled any part of the album’s release?
Yeah, “I’m done, I’m going somewhere else to do something else, you do what you want to do with it!” Up until that point, the only thing out was “Borders”. I really haven’t had input into how the album’s rolled out, but I like the way it’s the ninth in the ninth month. It has a ring to it. I feel like I didn’t want to have too many opinions on the market. It was just important to me that I made anything to begin with. It felt good because I came out of a relationship, and I needed to make music to literally journey out of that. I was having a personal journey and needed to get from point A to point B emotionally, and then I was also making an album about somebody else’s journey from point A to B. And those two things have always been like that, my personal life and what I do conceptually on albums. It always seems to be one thing even though I try to separate them.
When you have a creative insight, is there some sort of high? I always wonder about creative addiction — the healthy kind — and if that’s something you’re fueled by?
I think when I first started recording, the first songs that I wrote, which I guess were “Bird Song”, “Jump In”, and “Go Off”, and half of “Borders”, went fast and that was really cool, actually, because I wasn’t … I don’t know, I just didn’t know what I would write. And all of those sounds sounded like nothing I was hearing on the radio. That’s what you get excited by — you make a bunch of stuff that doesn’t sound like other artists, and that’s what becomes the experimentation. And maybe there is something in that experimentation that I need to push or move into another direction. When I made “Jump In”, it really felt like that because it doesn’t really sound like anything.
You also recorded across six different recording studios in the UK alone. How did it feel to release the valve relatively quickly while shuffling around the world?
Well, I have a son, so when I’m in London, I try to make it as easy as possible…
[Son’s voice in the background] Mommy? Mommy?
And when he’s on vacation … hang on. He’s here right now. [Laughs] Hang on one second.
Hi! Sorry about that.
Is everything okay?
Yeah, everything is cool. He’s just having a moment. [Laughs]
[Son crying in the background]
He’s crawling around in front of me trying to look for problems.
Imagine the luxury of having to look for problems as opposed to them just landing on your lap! He’s most definitely excited to have you back.
Yeah, it’s true. He’s quite exciting, too. Years ago, I said I’m not going to make music anymore. I’m just going to focus on him. He’s quite musical, and he learns better through songs, remembering lyrics to everything. And it’s like, music is not going to leave me; even if I try to shut it out, he’s going to bring it back in.
I feel like people often forget that you’re a mother. You get so much shit from everybody for everything.
I know. People forget I’m many things, actually.
What do you think is the most common misconception about you?
People think I walk around like I’m in a superhero movie, like I’m a villain in a trench coat stirring up trouble. I’m like the female version of the Joker, and they don’t realize that’s not who I am. But it’s easy to paint me like that. They’re like, [American accent] “Oh my god, she’s like a mashup of all these weird Hollywood villains.”
But it does seem like you wear rap like a cape. Your voice has become your uniform, and that comfort of puns and rhymes must give you a jolt of near-superhuman confidence?
But it feels like people can be mobilized now to attack things. We just see how the powers work. I’ve always been a testing ground for how society works, mobilizing fear or hate or ignorance. In 2005, the internet wasn’t the same as it is now. We were going through different things. At that time, I had people turning up at my gigs, saying: “How can people like this play in this state, in this venue? She’s a terrorist!” And then in 2008, when I was speaking up against the Sri Lankan government, the Sri Lankan government used the internet and arrived on the music blogs covering my music. Only blogs liked me. The main press didn’t. They were like, “We’re not going to put her on BBC Radio or the main radio stations,” and at that time, if you were an artist, you relied on being on television and award shows. I got locked out of that stuff.
Well, apart from the Mercury.
Yes, exactly. I became the artist of the blogs. I was part of building up the blog culture, I guess. I was the soundtrack to bloggers. But being on a blog was not cool — people on the blogs didn’t write about the mainstream artists. They wrote about weird, obscure artists, and because I was so complicated and I came with so many complex issues, I was the perfect thing to happen for Wikipedia. You could actually click on where Sri Lanka was. It was nice being a bloggy artist, because there were so many facets to my story that you could research on Google. But then the people that shut me out caught up with me in 2008 and 2009, and they took over the blogs, the very blogs that housed me. They came and bought my houses. When they bought the houses, they brought their own people in, and they kicked me out of there. Then they started writing negative things about me.
The turn against me started after “Paper Planes”, and they were like, “Right now she is a full-on terrorist, she is the Other, she’s this, she’s that.” When I made the Maya album, it was really trying to fight that because I saw the internet changing hands. No other artist really cared about it at the time. It didn’t personally affect them, but it personally affected me. My baby was a month old, and I was going through the worst press storm and the worst political storm of my life, and nobody protected me. No feminists came up to help, no brown people or hood people, nothing. Some in the music community, but a lot of them had to disown me.
What was the turning point? What shifted you into the role of the enemy?
Because I said something. When the Sri Lankan government was writing comments on Pitchfork’s website, you know what I mean? Then you know there’s something crazy going on. There was a war in Sri Lanka. It came to an end. I was famous at that time, and I spoke out against it, and they came after me. It’s very simple. When they came after me, they made profiles pretending to be, like, white people in America or kids that would usually listen to me, my fans. They would write horrible things about me, and eventually people were believing them and thinking that’s what real people thought, and it actually affected my fans. That’s the model of the internet now. You can make fake profiles and you can complain and write bad reviews, you can get people into trouble, you can say crazy shit. But in 2008 when it was happening, we thought that place was a really pure place — well, I thought that — and suddenly it got manipulated and everybody fell for it. There’s a Chinese saying that says, “Everybody pushes a falling fence.”
A picture-perfect distillation of human nature.
Yeah, and it made me want to hide away because in the future this kind of experience will affect everyone. It’s not just unique to me; it will be unique to everybody. Everyone is going to be spied on and tracked and limited to what they say, so I thought fighting that would be OK.
There are always multiple articles saying the same thing: that you’re quitting music and whatever album you make today will be the last.
For now, this is a good time to make an album like this on the major label. From day one, my whole existence is to normalize the refugees. Saying, “Look, we’re normal, we have a brain, we can learn the language, we can speak, we can exist, we can go to art school, we can rap. You throw whatever at me, I can do it.” You know? We’re not this faceless, un-opinionated…
Muted! Yes — people, we are actually people. We’re just having to geographically move around because of some random political decisions by men and women in boardrooms that are just, like, having a dick-shaking contest, and we’re the civilians who get affected by it. To make an album is cool, but after that I have to go off and make something else that’s difficult and challenging for me because … I dunno, reading the Guardian review is actually the perfect example. They’re like, “Ah well, she’s missed the boat, she’s not making an album for the club, it’s not for the bedroom.” It’s like, well, those are not the two only places that people exist in. You represent so many people — you have to stay a bit more rounded than a two-dimensional album. I think that’s why I want to go off and explore certain themes in other mediums. I dunno what that is yet, but I just want to do that. It’s exciting trying to make other things as well.
On your track “Finally”, you sing: “Life on the planet’s university/ You get stronger in adversity.” There’s no doubt in who you are as an artist. I feel like the doubt lies in what people’s opinions are. They don’t understand the refugee crisis as well as you might, so it’s an automatic disapproval coming from an ignorant bias and lack of information in general. What can music do that politics can’t?
I think that my message is not just the subjects that I explore on my albums. It’s also the life that I had in the music industry. You could see the battles I had on the internet in the music industry. Fame and success wasn’t so smooth for me. You know all the personal troubles I’ve had. I’ve had a crazy personal life that is there too, whether it’s about my dad or who he was or how my mom ended up where she was. I wasn’t embarrassed about saying, “Yeah, you know, actually my dad was a political leader and started a revolution, and that actually brought a lot of hardship to our family.” I discussed it in a way that was actually real to me. All I could say is, “My dad wasn’t around, but this is how it affected the kids and my mum,” and then I gave the life story of what that was. And then the trouble of that is, yeah, you come to different countries, you try to make it, you’re poor, you do encounter racism or different levels of it, and again, it’s all people’s perceptions.
Who I was didn’t change, but depending on where I lived and who I was around, and the city I was put in or type of housing I lived in, people’s perception of me changed. I’ve been to many, many schools, and at each school I was a different person, depending on who was looking at me. Because of that, you develop a really strong sense of who you are. By the time I entered the music world, I was already quite old. I was 27 when I got the deal, so you couldn’t undo who I was by then. There was no chance of anyone molding me into something I wasn’t, and there was no chance of me lying, because my reality was so fixed and my identity was so fixed. I’ve been the poorest. I’ve been the richest. I’ve been the most talented, the most hated. Huge, huge extremes. I think that’s good to show. Right now, it’s really cool to say, “Look how vast a human being can be.” It was very difficult.
But the ways in which human strength can expand are astounding.
The breadth and the width a human can stretch is vast. We don’t have to live on this giant rock called Earth and limit ourselves to one way of thinking of who we are. Look at my lifetime already, the very things that were used to destroy me 10 years ago are the coolest, trendiest things now. You just have to pay attention to how to center yourself and hang on to that.
Do you feel like you still need to put on a defensive mask when you speak to people about your music? How close are you to M.I.A. the artist? Or do you feel slightly more sensitive than some of the things you’re singing about?
Yes, there’s definitely a sensitive side … Oh, I’ve got my kid back in the room now.
That’s unbelievably good timing.
He’s putting socks on now in slow motion.
Ha! Oh gosh, how old is he?
He’s seven going on 17, and he’s named Ikhyd.
How much does Ikhyd influence the value you place on sociopolitical messages in your music and elsewhere? How do you talk about all of this?
He’s exactly like the things I am talking about. He is all these extremes — but he hasn’t dealt with them yet. All of the things that I got to experience, he is actually the embodiment of it, because genetically he is all of these extremes, whereas I am not. Only in my experience am I all of these extremes. You know? That’s why I think this album is about unity, and it’s about saying, “OK, all these people can co-exist.” And we should actually work towards how we’re going to do that rather than building up walls. I think it’s important to have spaces where cultures and ideas are given validity. My album was made with equal amounts of people from everywhere, and, like, my son is that. My work has always been that from day one. It’s layered experiences and layered people, and it’s appreciation for everybody. I never played those kind of cards even though I had access to it, into the elite of either world, whether it’s rap music or pop music.
[Pauses] It’s crazy because I’m saying the same things I said in 2005!
I was just thinking this, but you’re much more focused now.
I think I’m just a bit shocked that the world went the other way! You know, the rich people are only gonna hang out with rich people, the poor people are only gonna hang out with poor people, and then — hang on a second.
[To son] Where are you going? [Son replies] You going in your pajamas?
Is he leaving you?
He’s leaving me! He’s going to the Transport Museum to learn about planes, trains, and cars. [Laughs]
I mean, important things for the human mind.
Yeah, important things, vehicles of travel! He’s going to learn about traveling, huh?
So, what were you saying?
Well, I think I’ve been saying the same thing since 2005, but in 2016, we’ve become more divisive. We have all the governments getting super right wing in Europe, and Trump wants to build walls, and all this stuff is just normal to everyone. But the reality has been completely the opposite. You go to a festival, you listen to music from a DJ that’s influenced by so many cultures and ideas, people’s fashion, the way people dance. Culture progressed in a very mixed way, and then suddenly we have to separate and divide. And it’s fear. So, now you’re having communities fighting each other, and calling each other racist names, and putting up walls amongst each other to copy the politicians, and it’s like, no, the politicians are doing it to protect their money.
The natural progression of human evolution was that we were going to become more integrated, more unifying and having an understanding and appreciation for each other. On the one hand, the divisiveness is almost called for, for people to re-establish who they are and their identity. But it’s not sustainable, because the natural evolution is more integrated than that, even if you look at products and the internet. I’m talking to you on an Apple phone. It’s made by so many countries, so many hands from all parts of the world, but then we use it just to preach one ideology, and it goes against the nature of the tool itself.
Following on what you said earlier, don’t you think that your reaction against the VMAs was pointless? In knowing who they are and knowing they’re a corporation worth billions of dollars that speak louder than any mind or mouth would?
I just wanted to take the opportunity to let people see the video [for “Borders”]. I had just gone through a whole bit where people were like, “No non-Syrian refugees should talk about Syria. Everyone must talk about themselves.” People were saying that to me. The seed of that thought started in America, so I just needed to say back to America, like: “Look, it’s just not possible.” I would love it if that was the case, that you could have all these variations of pop stars from all across the world, and they all had their own problems to talk about and everybody got equal, you know, but it’s just not the truth, and it’s not the reality. It’s almost like it’s either difficult or it’s antagonistic or it’s irrelevant, it’s one of those three. When you don’t get to make it as a pop star in America from other cultures, people think it’s because there is no one good at singing around the world. But it’s not. It’s a political decision, and I needed to tell them that.
I totally agree, but I was concerned that you’d just whirl that shitstorm more. It was a clever way to shine a light on such an important issue that they didn’t understand. And they still don’t. I’m not confident that everyone in this world understands what a refugee actually is.
Yeah, that’s why it’s important to make this record now. These immigrants and refugees are a faceless concept used to make people scared. And we’re having huge political changes in the West based on it. There’s a massive shakedown going on, and people’s lives are changing based on this word, refugee and immigrant. It’s like basically District 9, but we’re the aliens. And I feel like I wouldn’t really talk about it if it wasn’t having a major effect on both sides of my life. Whether me as an immigrant or me as a Londoner, or someone from Britain. It’s like one side of my brain is using the other side of my brain against itself, you know? And it’s really confusing for me.
In 2005, I said, “If you have a problem with me, please don’t make more me’s in the world. If you don’t like me, well, don’t make me.” And that was my message, and they were like, “Yeah, shut up. We’re going to make more you.” And here we are, dealing with all these immigrants coming over. Refugees are just a byproduct of a war that happened for no reason, and a lot of them just want to go back home. A lot of the immigrants I met in the camps, all of them say to me, “We want to go back. We want to go back to our house. I want to get my kids back into the life we had. There was nothing wrong with it before the bombs started dropping.”
I always wonder if an artist is an artist if the platform that they’re given isn’t used.
That’s the thing. I’m going to get criticized for both. Half the people are going to say, “Oh, she’s exploiting it,” without realizing I am one of them. That’s what “Borders” was really about. It’s dealing with, “Are you in front of this fence? Are you a reporter on the fence? One of them? Are you with the people? Are you a pop star?” I have to deal with all of that. I know that people are going to pick on me and be like, “Oh, how convenient. You’ve got a record out when immigration is the big story.”
In your mind, was there any song where you thought, Hang on, I’ve pushed the boundaries too much now. I need to cool off a bit?
No. I think this album, I wasn’t thinking I was controversial. I was actually thinking, “Wow, the messages are so simple. It’s annoying that I have to be that straightforward.” For example, I wrote “Talk” on the bonus version ages ago when France was holding those elections where it looked like Le Pen [Marine Le Pen, national-conservative political party leader] was going to win, and I was like, “That’s so bizarre. If it’s happening in France, soon it’s going to catch on anywhere.” And it did. It was heartbreaking to see that a culture I thought worked on being liberal was suddenly separating into “them and us.” But by the time I put it on the record, I was like, “Maybe I shouldn’t really say it because it touches on all the -isms.” If being normal as a refugee is controversial, then maybe all the songs are because they’re quite normal to me. I am where I am today because all these different cultures and all these different, amazing people are a part of my life … I can’t really say it’s only white people who help me or black people who help me or brown people who help me. It’s everybody.
Do you have more of a clear sense of what’s right for you musically now? I know you referred to this as a “happy” record, and songs like “Bucky Done Gun” and “Bad Girls” do that, but what was it about Zayn Malik as an artist that appealed to you on the song “Freedun”?
Me and Zayn are the two opposite extremes. Two brown people. I’m from the underground and he’s from the overground, and generally we’re not allowed to really talk to each other. That was us crossing lots of bridges.
They keep calling me on the other line. I’ve missed about eight calls talking to you, but it’s been so nice talking to you. It’s been different, you know? This is the first interview where I feel like somebody who knows me has interviewed me.