From life as a refugee to Grammy-nominated chart-topping rapper and visual artiste,M.I.A. tells it like it is during her recent visit to India.
Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam is a square peg in a round hole. This London-born, Sri Lanka-reared hip-hop phenom, better known via her moniker M.I.A., is one of the most intriguing and polarising artistes of the 21st century. “M.I.A.’s a force to reckon with—not just in the Asian hip-hop scene but on a global scale,” explains Mumbai-based veteran rapper Bob Omulo, elaborating, “As a self-taught musician, she’s a powerful female entity who brings to the fore a perfect blend of musical and cultural influences from the East and West via her firebrand lyrics, genius music production skills and socio-politically conscious topics.” This is one reason why Maya has broken into the highest echelons of the global pop music charts (in 2008, her single, Paper Planes, stayed on the Billboard charts for 20 weeks, peaking at number four).
This 41-year-old single mother and globetrotting megastar created four fiercely original albums, and many hits including Bad Girls, O Saya (with AR Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire) and Bring The Noize, that still sound fresh, eclectic and inclusive a decade later. “M.I.A. has vision and was a frontrunner in terms of the kind of music she made. Her debut Arular, released in 2005, was groundbreaking—she was mixing dancehall with disco and bhangra—and no one had heard a sound like that before. She also has a knack for picking the right collaborators, from Diplo to Richard X to Skrillex,” explains former editor of Rolling Stone India, Lalitha Suhasini, insisting that Maya is not a misunderstood artiste. Having interviewed her several times, she observes that Maya has used her socio-political background to her advantage, whether it’s her songwriting or when she has a platform to share her views (in 2009, at an H&M and Jimmy Choo show, Maya lectured the audience on corporate America’s involvement in the Sri Lankan war). But the Bad Girls singer is also prone to controversy. In 2012, she flipped the bird before 167 million TV viewers during the NFL Superbowl show. It resulted in a multi-million dollar lawsuit (settled privately in 2014). More recently, she told her 6,83,000 Twitter followers that the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards (which she has won twice before) is exhibiting ‘racism, sexism, classism, elitism’ by excluding her self-directed, hard-hitting music video, Borders, because it highlights the plight of hundreds of global refugees. It’s a subject she’s vocal about, as she calls herself a Third World refugee.
Maya was born in 1975 in Hounslow, but her father Arul Pragasam, a key player in the Tamil separatist movement, and mother Kala, a seamstress, relocated to Sri Lanka when she was just six-months-old. She spent her early childhood witnessing firsthand the civil war unfold in Jaffna, before her mother moved the family for a short spell to Tamil Nadu and later back to England as refugees. Soon Maya bagged a degree from London’s top visual art institute, Central Saint Martin—which played a major part in shaping her bold onstage outfits that include fluorescent colours and silk headbands—and by 2003, she broke into the international music scene via her collaborations with Britpop band, Elastica. Now, at a time when mediocre pop ‘superstars’ are being churned out on a daily basis, M.I.A.’s poised to change the rules of the game (by creating tunes and music videos that do not adhere to ‘industry standards’) yet again. Her fifth artist album, titled A.I.M, is scheduled for a September 9 launch. In India to record a new music video at an undisclosed location, the outspoken rapper takes some time off to talk about her shift in musical direction, finding peace and life with her young son:
Music with purpose
My first two albums were named after my dad (Arular) and mum (Kala). As in Hindu folklore, I wanted to represent my whole universe by circling around my parents (like Ganesha). The third record (Maya) was about overcoming the illusion of truth and life. And as I continued on this musical journey, my work got bigger. For various reasons—political, personal, professional—I felt that by manifesting a connection to the Goddess Matangi, a 5,000-year-old deity who represents music and purity of expression, I could reach where I wanted to, with Matangi (fourth album).
Single mother & globetrotter
I really don’t know how I balance my life. I try and schedule my stuff around my seven-year-old son (Ikhyd Edgar Arular Bronfman) and his holidays. I try to stay engaged in spurts of very intense work and then ensure I spend quality time with him.
Symbolism in music videos
When I made Borders (with the music video shot in Chennai and Pondicherry), it was because I had to and not because it was attached to an album. I didn’t even know I’d make an album at that point (2015). But then I was told the video wouldn’t get a fair promotional push because there was no album, which sucks because it was ‘of the time’. If I waited for the right packaging, by the time it came out it would be irrelevant. Back then, it was an interesting period in the West with regards to capitalism. For instance, Greece who invented capitalism was going bankrupt because of it and right on their doorstep were the victims of capitalism, millions of refugees landing via boats on all these islands.
Yes, three years is a long time for a follow-up album (A.I.M), but I wasn’t really going to make one. In fact, after the last record, I didn’t think there was another conceptual direction I wanted to take. I found it difficult to function within the music industry and make that next LP. Given the current (musical) climate, people were twisting and erasing my work (football club, Paris Saint-Germain, asked her to remove Borders from YouTube, where she’s seen wearing their bootlegged jersey that reads ‘Fly Pirates’ instead of ‘Fly Emirates’). But what people think of me or the restrictions I’ve been subjected to (in 2004, MTV banned her record, Sundowners, when Maya refused to change her lyrics which referenced the Palestine Liberation Organization), don’t matter anymore. I needed to believe in myself.
Scripting the end
At this moment in time, I believe that this is my final album. If I still want to make music for my fans, I’ll just do it and put it out. But via a major record label (Interscope Records, the label behind A.I.M), this is my last one. Making music the way it has to be made within the industry is difficult for me as it’s not how I work.
Finding peace, at last
The shift in musical direction for A.I.M is a very personal decision. It’s going to be more positive and not as socio-political as my previous LP. All the kids who were introduced to my music 16 years ago have grown up. They are aware and doing their thing, which is great. Right now they are where I was with my previous albums, Maya and Kala. ‘The oh-my-god can we do something about this’ stage. Once you are done with all that and you’ve survived the war, all the oppression, racism, sexism and gender issues, you’ve got to get on with it. After the war, everyone needs a moment of peace and clarity, and that’s what this album is about. So, when those kids finish their fights in a couple of years and then put this record on, it will make sense.
An ordinary life
I’m from ‘Team Normal’ in the rap world. I’m very aware of becoming an artiste who is detached from where I started and I do feel myself straying from my roots sometimes, but I’ve always managed to pull myself out of it. I like living in London, nobody cares about me here when I walk down the street. This is really good for my kid because years ago I was very ‘in your face’ and would get stopped often. I want things to settle down a bit and be Ikhyd’s mum and give him a quiet life. I walk the middle line between being super famous and still making work that people like, even though I have machines around me that want to discredit and undo my work (she is allegedly being denied a US visa and will find it impossible to tour USA, one of her biggest markets, to promote her new album).
Preorder her upcoming album A.I.M at smarturl.it/AIM
Story worth telling
The Oscar-nominated rapper claims she cannot pen an autobiography because no one would take her complex life story seriously. This may be why she agreed to director Stephen Loveridge’s attempt to create a 90-minute documentary. “It (featuring associates Julian Assange, Spike Jonze and Kanye West) has been in the making since 2010… It’s taking longer than Star Wars to come out. I keep asking them (BritDoc) for it.”
On September 23, M.I.A. is headlining the launch party for the 2016 edition of The Warehouse Project in Manchester, followed by another headlining slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival Paris, from October 27-29.
On this trip, she’s carrying Thinking Like a Mountain (by Joanna Macy), an eco-warrior book. A work of fiction she enjoyed recently is Cutting for Stone (by Abraham Verghese), about a Tamil nun’s voyage from Chennai to Africa. “I could really relate to the terminologies used… they reminded me of all the issues I faced in the Eelam region,” shares the rapper, who works with non-profit organisations like Youth Action International and the Unstoppable Foundation.
By Anoop Menon