Hailed as a pop star but banned from YouTube, musical anarchist M.I.A. is back to wage war over the internet. We meet her to talk beats, bombs and babies.
Most pop stars strive for an easy life, but not Maya Arulpragasam. Since first emerging from Central St Martins as the fluro-clad digi-punk banshee M.I.A, she has championed musical and political underdogs across the third world, and created a sonic template that owes as much to didgeridoos and baile funk as it does dubstep and swaggadocious hip hop. In the process she’s tormented the Sri Lankan government, been banned from entering America and then forbidden to leave it, set up her own N.E.E.T recording label, and, most memorably, performed live at the Grammys with Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and pals on the eve of giving birth to her son, Ikhyd.
Next month the controversial 34-year-old returns with her third album, the claustrophobic, self titled /\/\/\Y/\. Recorded while she was locked down in LA by Homeland Security, it features beats from dubstep wobble master Rusko, Bmore club king Blaqstarr, Sleigh Bells’s Derek E Miller, Sepultura’s Igor Cavalera, and long term collaborators Diplo and Switch. Heaving with deeper social paranoia than both Kala and Arular, /\/\/\Y/\ focuses on the dark side of internet data collection and her experiences of “growing up in the digital ruckus”. It starts off with “The Message”, an update of the “Dry Bones” nursery rhyme – “Headphoneconnectstotheneckbone, neck bone connects to the armbone, armboneconnects to thehandbone, hand bone connects to the internet, connects to the Google, connects to the government…” It’s an apt beginning to an album whose typographic title renders it unrecognisable by Google search engines.
When Dazed met Maya to talk about her long-awaited follow up to “Paper Planes”, she was preparing for the premiere of Romain Gavras’s video for “Born Free”, the Suicide-sampling first single off /\/\/\Y/\. But she coyly refused to reveal anything about its plot, smirking, “You’ll have to wait and see...” A week later, all hell broke loose. Revolving around a gang of anarchic ginger kids who get rounded up by mercenaries and brutally slaughtered in a minefield, the clip was promptly banned from YouTube and sparked debates about censorship and artistic taste, with The Guardian calling it a “crude metaphor for the treatment of minorities”. When our paths crossed again a few days later, Maya and Ikhyd were preparing to fly back to America after being granted permission to re-enter the country after months of intense visa negotiations.
Do you think your immigration officer actually saw the “Born Free” video before they gave you the visa?
M.I.A: I think so. It was issued it on the 27th, the day after it went out. It was sooo funny that it was issued on that day. They hadn’t up to that point. So it was like they waited for it. It’s weird, but it’s art.
Do you feel intimidated by America?
M.I.A: No. I have issues with bureaucracy. The video was not directly American related or anything to do with the video, I just shot it there. I think you could take it on that level but it could be interpreted as whatever.
At any point did you think that you had gone too far?
M.I.A: No I don’t think people go far enough on things. It was really just more about keeping it pure and not censoring the art in any way. We’ve had to deal with a lot of censorship.
Do you find it ironic that Google caused this massive commotion about being censored in China, yet they censor your art?
M.I.A: Yeah, I think that is interesting. I have seen way more shocking and intense things on YouTube. We saw Saddam Hussein being hung on YouTube and during the end of the war in Sri Lanka, the army tortured and mutilated people and celebrated by putting up horrific videos on YouTube. Coming from that political place, there is some confusion about censorship. But when it comes from a creative place there seems to be more of a hoo-ha about it, which is really strange.
Do you think that people have become almost desensitised to images of death and destruction?
M.I.A: I think they want us to believe that we have become desensitised, but there is still a choice an individual should have. Our generation is the one after apathy. We’ve already had the apathetic ones in the 90s but it’s really hard for me to be like, ‘This is shit, no one gives a shit, what can we do?’ No. Every day something can change and every day some little trigger can change the way somebody thinks. People should be okay with discussing that shit. I was hearing just yesterday that the government
“Whatever is a part of your life, it's ok for you to puke it out and regurgitate some of it” – M.I.A
Did you want to cause an uproar?
M.I.A: I decided that I would have nothing to do with it. I handed it over to a lunatic French guy.
It sometimes seems like you strive to make things tough for yourself...
M.I.A: Nooo! Something was happening and I talked about it. Violence has affected my life and what has happened to me. I’ve grown up in England since I was ten years old and none of my friends had any connections to politics or wanted to talk about it. It’s not a subject I could bring up in the pub. But that is who I am. If you see something with your own eyes you’re not going to say that it didn’t happen. One day it will become impossible to get it through to people, it will become illegal to say it. Every day it’s either controversial or it’s illegal or it’s fucked up and it looks like I am making it hard for myself but it’s not, it’s just an experiment. I wonder how long I can tell the truth for?
Last year the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary said that you should stick to music and not politics. How did you respond to that?
M.I.A: I’m not doing it in a Bono way, like, ‘We must save Africa.’ I just saw something when I was eight and they didn’t kill me. I am alive to say this is what happened, and to not have that right just because I make music now is really shit. I am not coming out as a political preacher. I survived it and I’m going to tell you my account of it, just like Jewish people get to talk about the Holocaust and we embrace it. Whatever is a part of your life, it’s okay for you to puke it out and regurgitate some of it. I don’t really separate it in my brain.
Are you an anarchist?
M.I.A: Ben’s (Braff, M.I.A’s fiancé) family call me the agitator.
So you’re not an anarchist?
M.I.A: I don’t know. It’s a weird word. I’m the edge finder, that’s what I am. I like to find the edges on things, and that is what I have always tried to do because nowadays there are lots of things coming at us from many different angles, we are fed so much different propaganda. In one of Dazed’s issues, Gorillaz summed up the decade by saying that we are becoming a nation of ‘voyeurs and typists’. I think that is 100 per cent true. If we are voyeurs and typists, then the typists need to write history with some integrity and the voyeurs need to see things without the walls.
Do you think technology has made people more insular?
M.I.A: Yeah. The future is about making a decision between becoming a robot or becoming something more human. It’s human versus robot and those are the issues that we have to make decisions on. That’s the battle.
Everyone, especially the youth of today, see putting their whole identity online as completely normal behaviour.
M.I.A: I know, they don’t realise that they are just statistics and that their data is collected on everybody then it gets sold and you don’t see a penny. You have to be aware of what you’re putting up there and who you are giving that information to and how that information is getting processed, re-defined and re-contextualised. What goes on behind the scenes of the cyber world we don’t really know about and I think in the future it’s going to be more and more important to know about it.
How do you feel that you’ve coped with becoming a role model?
M.I.A: What am I a role model for? I don’t know. It doesn’t get you rich! I’ve read that rich list, Duffy is in it. That’s the difference.
“Paper Planes” hasn’t made you rich? It made The Clash richer...
M.I.A: Yeah it made The Clash rich, I think Joe Strummer might have liked it because at least it was immigration-related, but sadly he’s not here.
So you don’t see yourself as a role model?
M.I.A: No. I don’t really see myself as a role model. I just want to be able to be myself and say what I wanna say and it’s difficult. In the beginning, I wanted to be on mainstream television and mainstream radio, that was the whole point. But someone like me was never going to get on the mainstream so now I’m thinking that it’s just better to separate those two.
Were you comfortable with the exposure “Paper Planes” got?
M.I.A: Well, I was alright with “Paper Planes” because it was a weird song to get out there. It wasn’t really about whether I liked it or not. It was just a song on the radio at the time of the biggest economic crash in 100 years where people like Bernie Madoff made off with everyone’s money. Everyone was bankrupt and homeless and there were wars going on. It was an interesting time when that song hit the radio and I wasn’t embarrassed, it wasn’t like I’d sold out and made a cheesy song to hit the radio, I just did it with what I had and it was a nice journey.
You were very pregnant when you performed it and “Swagga Like Us” at the Grammys. Was that as daunting as it should have been?
M.I.A: No… I wasn’t gonna do it and the day before Kanye was like, ‘You need to come down to the rehearsals and check it out.’ When I got there they just stuck a mic in my hand and said, ‘Go on sing, your part.’ To tell you the truth, I didn’t really think about it much but then T.I and Lil Wayne, they were like really cool about the fact that I was pregnant and made me feel really welcome. T.I has got five kids and Lil Wayne was like, ‘It’s beautiful’, so I thought, ‘Cool, I guess rappers know how to deal with pregnancy!’ It was kind of interesting. When Kanye found out what dress I was wearing he said, ‘You don’t have to do this you know,’ but by then it was already too late, I had the dress on.
Did you see it as a show of strength for women, that they can be glamorous and rock the stage while being nine months pregnant?
M.I.A: Yeah. Physically anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I felt like had a connection when I could be like, ‘If you don’t want this to happen come out now!’ and Ikhyd hung in there. I took that as a sign it was going to be okay.
There is a line on the new record, “We’re growing up in the middle of a digital ruckus”. How do you think Ikhyd’s upbringing is going to differ to yours?
M.I.A: Hackers are the new revolutionaries and in his lifetime Ikhyd will have to be really well informed about that. Sometimes I think I should educate him in China where there are so much more restrictions on the internet because that sort of environment makes it easier to get around the system. I don’t want him to be like somebody who is just on Facebook and like, ‘OMG buy me these leggings because there is a sale on at American Apparel!’ He just needs to learn how to use the internet for the right things and not be a dumbed-down zombie. The world needs people who can wake others up on the internet, not put them to sleep.
Like his mum?
M.I.A: Well I don’t know if I’m doing that yet, but I’m looking for people who can do that.
One of the new songs that really jumps out is the single “XXXO”. Why did you decide to go so pop?
M.I.A: Well I think it will be interesting to see what happens with it. “Jimmy” had that sort of sound but everybody still went for “Paper Planes”. So I don’t know if it’s about how you dress or is it about the choreography. I try not to second-guess it. Every one of my albums has one of those songs, the really pop cheesy side of me.
Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” video borrowed heavily from your aesthetic. When you saw that video, did you feel flattered or perplexed?
M.I.A: I don’t know. I think the industry look at me and think, ‘Awww, I see what she has gone for but she totally failed,’ and they try and do it the way that they think I should have. I feel like I have lived through so many of those things that I was desensitised to it by the time that video hit me. But I like Rihanna, she is really nice. One time I left my purse in a shop and she found it and ran after me and gave it to me so I know she is alright.
That is hilarious, which shop was this?
M.I.A: It was a shop in Barbados. I was there because I was on one of those crazy visas where you can only spend 120 days in the US, so I went to Barbados, and she was just starting out, both of us were, I had “Galang” and she had “Pon de Replay”. She ran up to me and was like, “M.I.A, you left your purse!” I thought she was actually really nice.
“People would write on Twitter and YouTube, ‘Your baby is going to die,’ because I was talking about the Sri Lankan government” – M.I.A
Do you regard yourself as a pop star? Well, I’m not a pop star.
M.I.A: What are you? I don’t know. I take all my other stuff too seriously to just be a pop star. I do put lots of time in to my artwork and it means a lot to me, it means more to me being that pop star but sometimes I do take on the challenge. If someone says, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ and if someone says, ‘You need to be here,’ I do the opposite. I have issues like that with the whole pop star definition.
The new album is definitely a lot more claustrophobic than your previous work.
M.I.A: Whatever you’re going through is what comes out. The album is not trying to be cool and trendy, I’ve just had a baby and stuff. It’s about raw communication. Physically when you are pregnant, things happens to your breathing and your lungs and your vocal cords and your tone and your heartbeat, everything inside goes through something. I think that is when all the tools that you use, everything is connected, so I was able to sing more on this record, which I’ve never done before. While you’re pregnant, your tone and connection to the little human being inside you is really important. I sound like an emo!
A lot of women become quite mellow when they’re pregnant, but this is not a mellow record.
M.I.A: (Laughs) It’s not a mellow record.
Is M.I.A an angry mum?
M.I.A: Well, I’m not an angry mum but I’m a protector of someone now. In the last months of pregnancy I watched so much destruction that was happening in Sri Lanka, and saw hundreds of babies being blown up. It was disgusting and it was horrible to watch and I felt so guilty inflicting that on my unborn baby. But at the same time it was a reality. I couldn’t really ignore it, I got extra protective. People were sending me death threats and telling me bad shit about my kid.
M.I.A: Yeah people would write on Twitter and YouTube, ‘Your baby is going to die,’ because I was talking about the Sri Lankan government and the issues that were going on there. Even though I had all this amazing success, at the same time I was watching this crazy destruction going on over there. No one really wanted to talk about it and then all these people were reaching out to me to talk about it because I am the only one that can represent them. At the same time I was pregnant and I didn’t want to have to deal with that shit but I had no choice. It was the month they decided to end a 30 year long civil war so it wasn’t like I could go, ‘Ooo, sorry I just can’t deal with this right now, I’ve got a baby on the way!’ Maybe I should have done that. I think the album is a mixture of all those things – babies, death, destruction, and powerlessness.
Were you ever tempted, when you had your son, to walk away and live quietly instead of tearing up the system?
M.I.A: No. That is what the Sri Lankan government wants from me, for me to quietly go away. That is what everyone tells me. The day I turn around and say, ‘I’m really sorry for everything I said, what you did is amazing and well done for killing loads of people,’ then they will give my mum a visa. But of course I’m not going to say that because it isn’t right.
Have you ever been called a conspiracy theorist?
M.I.A: I don’t think I am smart enough to be called a conspiracy theorist. I’m more of a realist than a theorist.
You’ve got a song called “Story Told” which has a line “All I ever wanted was my story to be told”. What’s the next part of the story?
M.I.A: Initially it was going to be, ‘All I ever wanted was a pashmina Gucci shawl’ but then I changed it to ‘story to be told’...
They’re quite different sentiments…
M.I.A: They are. I’m joking, but that’s what everyone’s trying to do, have a version of their story told. It’s not really about myself, it applies to everyone.