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M.I.A.: Bandit Queen

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We talk to the divisive pop icon about her identity as a refugee, being a British Asian in the 90s and gaining inspiration from groundbreaking political renegades

To celebrate our anniversary, we’ve created a series of articles around the idea of freedom featuring some of the cultural iconoclasts who have defined the last 25 years of Dazed. Head here to read them all.

M.I.A. is on the top floor of an east London hotel discussing her favourite freedom fighters. “I’m definitely a bandit,” she says as we talk about one of our mutual favourites, the Indian renegade Phoolan Devi. Famously known as ‘Bandit Queen’, Devi was kidnapped as a teenager by bandits, fell in love with a gang member, and was subsequently gang-raped in a revenge attack over the murder of the group’s leader. She got her revenge when she returned to the village where she’d been attacked and shot dead 22 men. Devi was on the run for two years afterwards, but gave herself up in 1983. She waited 11 years for a trial, but in 1994 all charges were dropped against her, and she moved into politics just two years later. In 2001 she was assassinated.

“I was always hearing about her,” she says. “Then when I really got into it, I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty radical feminism.’ I’m definitely a bandit, or at least a pirate of some sort.”

It’s not an inaccurate conclusion to draw. The pirate within her, plundering culture with no real allegiance to a ‘sovereign nation’, might be a sharper self-assessment than she realises. She is, after all, a proud refugee, a self-styled outlaw giving a knowing middle finger to the media panic about incoming ‘plunderers’ of state benefits. M.I.A. has made a career sidestepping the confines of the status quo, and it’s telling that her icons are all political radicals rather than musicians.

Along with Devi the bandit queen, she also cites Indian guerilla fighter ‘Shivaji’ Bhosle, the German resistance group Baader-Meinhof (“They had all these ideas about class that spoke to me from an artistic perspective”) and the first female PM of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto (“There was something quite Bollywood about her because she just looked so good. She was intelligent and she was fucking strong”) as influences.

But it was growing up with Indira Gandhi as the Indian prime minister that really informed her life and work. She beams with her straight white teeth and perfectly applied red lipstick as she describes her. “Before I’d encountered the west or come to England I encountered Indira Gandhi,” she says. “So I knew brown women could stand up.”

Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam has woven the idea of standing up deep into the fabric of her artistic statement. I was in university the first time I heard “Paper Planes”, and the hairs on my neck stood up perfectly vertical, as I heard her rattle the lyrics in her mouth and spit them out. It was an uncompromising takedown of the demonisation of refugees, written from firsthand experience. The powerful, jolting gunshots on the line “All I wanna do is (bang-bang-bang!) and take your money” making it on to mainstream radio was a furious moment, and goaded those with negative attitudes towards refugees, while the line, “If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name” had the same effect.

The song introduced M.I.A. to the mainstream (though she had been making waves on Myspace before this) as a force to be reckoned with. As a south Asian girl, with limited representation in pop, watching her stand up and stand out felt like she was speaking directly to me. “Being a refugee is part of my identity,” she says. “I was like, ‘Look, we can have opinions, we can enter the creative world and be respected as equal.’”

At the time, Arulpragasam was negotiating her way through her British identity and increased global visibility as an artist. Born in Hounslow, west London into what she calls “an extremely political family”, she moved to Sri Lanka at six months old, then later, to the Tamil Nadu region on the south coast of India. As civil war broke out in the region, she was relocated, aged ten, to Britain as a conflict refugee and moved to an estate in Mitcham, southwest London.

“Paper Planes” was poking at the pressure points of the US government, which refused her a work visa to record her 2007 album Kala, despite the fact she was living in a rented Brooklyn apartment at the time. (She is still unable to obtain a US visa, she says, but for different, undisclosed reasons). Sonically, the song’s trembling basslines and psychedelic beats were a blueprint for the space that she was bulldozing for herself.

Arulpragasam’s ability to be professionally uncompromising (she recounts an anecdote about how Diplo once remarked that talking to her was like “negotiating with North Korea”) and boundary-pushing – often to her own detriment – is fascinating. This year alone she’s been sued by the French football club Paris Saint-Germain and publicly challenged for her comments on Black Lives Matter. Even today, she’s tripping over ideas and words and huge ideas, and it’s not the album that she wants to discuss. The message seems to be that it can speak for her, and when it does, you have to listen. Today, she wants to speak about everything else, and over the course of the hour she’s covered Julian Assange, Apple, the Arab Spring and even a bit of Marx for good measure. If she wasn’t so likable, it might feel like quite hard work.

She tells the story of her own migration in a pithy, play-by-play journey which she’s most likely rehearsed and repeated over her career. “My identity constantly shifts,” she says drily. “In Sri Lanka, I was bombed and shot at for being a Tamil, then when I went to India to study, I was the poorest person in the class so I was treated as an untouchable. Then, when I came to England, I was a refugee and I was called a Paki. When I became a rapper, I was a brown woman and not from the hood in America.”

“When I came to England, I was a refugee and I was called a Paki. When I became a rapper, I was a brown woman and not from the hood in America” – M.I.A.

All of this dislocation, this rewriting (and sometimes enforcing) the narrative of the Dangerous Brown Woman in the West is part of M.I.A.’s identity as an artist: powerful, charming and problematic in equal measure. Speaking after a public furore following her scheduled – and cancelled – performance at Afropunk London, she shrugs, “I don’t want to be kept in a quiet little corner. We need a broader scale to communicate on because that’s our problem; it’s about reach, we’re not given enough of a reach because the media outlets just haven’t put us there and we can’t always fight for those spaces."

It’s not just her misdemeanours that have us watching. Her aesthetic was crafted during her time at St Martins in London, but not without difficulty. “When I went to art school I was a poor person from a council flat who shouldn’t be at St Martins,” she says. From the ginger extermination in the controversial video for “Born Free” to the kaleidoscopic thrill of manipulated Bollywood samples on “Jimmy”, her work has always been about visual messaging and cultural coding.

I ask her how the lines have shifted for her as global success enabled her to be simultaneously liberated and locked into her image. She makes abstract globular shapes with her hands. “I think we’re living in a time where political freedom is a really weird, blobby thing and the blob is difficult to grab on to because it keeps moving,” she says. “I remember in 2010, a year after the war had ended in Sri Lanka, and those people (Sri Lankans) were still awaiting some sort of justice. I felt like I needed to come here (to the UK) and my family was banned from America. The idea of ‘freedom’ was really put to me – you can have it, but your family can’t have it and your people can’t have it and even your politics can’t have it”.

With her latest album, AIM, there are so many targets in the crosshairs it’s hard to keep up. It’s true that if anyone is entitled to feel like they’ve been shouting into a political vacuum over the past few years, it’s her – and this is an almost desperate attempt to make her point. Characteristically unsubtle at times, (on “Borders” she asks, “Politics? What’s up with that?”), it’s also a powerful declaration that rewrites the narrative of freedom.

Musically, the record is a cluster of sounds steeped in semantics. Motifs of caged birds appear in “Bird Song”, and there are tracks titled “Foreign Friend”, “Visa” and “Borders” – it’s all very literal when it comes to noticing her own restrictions. Songs like “Jump” are guttural and evocative – you can hear her clamouring towards an idea of political freedom just out of reach (“When I see that border I don’t cross the line”). The intention is clear, even when Arlpragasam’s ideas don’t quite cohere – but when they do, it’s spectacular.

M.I.A.’s rapping style has always been an acquired taste, even as far back as the early, jerky, Peaches-inspired MC-505 productions, with the strange emphasis on certain syllables, the London twang disrupting the cadence of a line, the sideways pronunciations. But while the story has been carefully crafted through Arulpragasam’s music (“Arular is shouty, Kala is going around the world, Maya is when you get the dream and Matangi is where you realise it comes at a cost”), she has always come before it. Her worldview is at the centre of AIM, and this is an album where global headlines have triggered memories of her own experiences of conflict. The freedom she raps about is a quest to find her own in a brave and uncomfortable space of labels and corporate interests and ‘making it’. On “Foreign Friend”, the lie is revealed as she muses, “We get out of our tent, climb over the fence / when we get our flatscreen TV / then we pay rent / then we think we made it.

“All the cool brown girls had the quiffs and the red lips, and watching the second generation explosion of girls going insane was incredible. It was amazing... and then 9/11 happened” – M.I.A.

We discuss the anticlimax of landing in a country that doesn’t welcome you as you’d hope in relation to the post-Brexit landscape, where the fear of white British values and culture being eroded seems to have taken hold. “The idea of ‘white’ freedom being under attack is so powerful,” she says. “When you’re a refugee, you become the place where you land. You have to embrace it. British Asians in the 90s were insane. I went to Hampstead college which was 80 per cent brown and at that time we didn’t think we were gonna have problems. All the cool brown girls had the quiffs and the red lips, and watching the second generation explosion of girls going insane was incredible. It was amazing... and then 9/11 happened.

“Things went backwards. This is why I’m putting this record out, to slow down division. It’s going backwards because stupidity is winning,” she says. Asked why she thinks that is, she launches into a tirade about the distribution of power and wealth, her voice rising as she keeps coming back to the same point – that she doesn’t know really, but there are hundreds and hundreds of complex factors.

“Let’s just say this,” she says with a weary smile. “I thought that, by 2016, we would have had 20 MIAs! I didn’t think I’d have to come out of retirement at my age and still be waving the flag for Indian girls and Tamils and Muslims. I didn’t think that would be where we are.”

Wherever we find ourselves, it’s true that M.I.A. continues to be be political just by virtue of existing. Her visibility proves that brown bodies can exist, and be sellable - well, hers at least. While the world hasn’t moved on in the ways the Arular-era artist would have hoped, she’s navigating her way through new worlds again. I make a joke about getting the only other western brown pop star in for one of the record’s singles (“Freedun”, featuring Zayn Malik) and she’s in on it: “Well, it’s only us out here!”

It’s depressing, really, that there is still only one M.I.A. more than a decade into her career, and that the world has created other brown caricatures in the place where others like her might exist – hijabi terrorist, ISIS sympathiser, benefit scrounger. Can you really stand up in the pop world when brown (let alone, a refugee) still isn’t the desired default? “We come from big cultures of community, and individuality is a thing you need to fight for,” she says, taking a big breath. “That’s what bandits do.”