Intriguing, outspoken, occasionally contradictory, utterly original in her work and her persona, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A.), is no stranger to controversial headlines. And though she’s often known more for her opinions than her music, her fifth album AIM continues to mine the territory she made for herself back in 2005: a modern, global, politically-minded worldview couched in club-savvy pop that draws from an array of international flavors. Her albums and singles regularly appear in the Billboard charts, which is not bad for the daughter of a Tamil separatist and Sri Lankan refugee displaced by civil war, who went to a prestigious London art academy, found fame as a pop star and had a child with a billionaire’s son.
While she’s traded on a kind of fuck-you insouciant cool, speaking with her on the phone from her hometown of London—while she’s in transit, following an hour’s delay—reveals how deeply she cares. She speaks searchingly and slowly, gathering her thoughts, but it doesn’t hide the passion she feels about the topic of identity—especially her own. It’s the same defiant spirit that has defined her music, and while neither her appearance nor her sound have aged so much, sometimes her comments betray a generation gap.
How’s the mood in London, post-Brexit and following the closure of Fabric? I bring it up because Fabric is the first place I saw you perform.
Fabric was an important place for me. One fan that came to see me at Fabric, I think it was in 2008, lived in the refugee camps in Lebanon. She threw a note on the stage. To me, that note is the most important thing. Fabric was where somebody like myself could find me. It was the first time that had happened. As a musician, you exist in a different space—you’re making music and you’re fighting it out to be respected on an equal term. I wasn’t releasing my music to refugee kids. I was on the other side, trying to educate people about refugee kids. For the first time, my two worlds collided, and it was in Fabric. So it’s a special place to me, and I hope that they don’t close it down. It’s part of London heritage now.
You’ve led what sounds like a very interesting life. You’ve gone from growing up as a refugee yourself to becoming an internationally recognized pop star working with some of the biggest names in the business. When you first started out, what did you think of it as? What did you think you were doing?
I thought that I was bored of how the music or cultural world didn’t cater to me. I was going through the education system, learning about myself through that, but I was getting funneled into thinking about myself a certain way. But the reality of my world was too hectic and too insane. I started to make work because there was a need for me to get all this stuff out. At that time, if you were an Asian female, you made work about arranged marriage or running away from home, or under-aged marriage or something like that. It wasn’t catering to my specific community, which was born out of the backyard of war zones. Our concepts of identity—if you came from a war zone and went to a different country to start a different life, the last thing you’re thinking about is cutting your hair and arranged marriages and things like that. That was my conflict. I think that’s why I started making work.
If that’s what it was in the beginning, how do you think of it now?
Back then in 2005, I thought my battle was over. I was like, “Yeah, cool, I’ve made it. There’s going to be hundreds of me’s now. I’ve just made it possible for all of these kids from all over the world.” And my whole thing at that time coming up was just to say, “Look, this struggle is different to this struggle, and it’s different to that struggle and it’s different to this country’s struggle.” All of these things can’t be tied up together and whitewashed with the word “terrorism.” There are real, just revolutions that are happening around the world, and there are just protests and pushback from society on certain issues that are changing without any eyes looking at it.
I guess it was before internet and social media and stuff like that. I thought, “Oh cool, if you just made space in the mainstream for them…” Not even in the mainstream—when I first happened in 2005, you could have multi-streams. You could have independent streams, underground, or the mainstream. You had those options, and now you don’t really have that. I feel like your art only gets judged through “everybody’s looking at it” or “nobody’s looking at it.” And if no one’s looking at it, then it’s irrelevant. That’s how we’ve trained our brains in the last five years. But at that time, you used the internet to make spaces that were a genuine counterculture to the mainstream. Now the internet is the mainstream.
You’re talking about the internet being a conduit towards the homogenization of culture.
Yeah. As an artist, I thought that there were more me’s possible because of the internet. Suddenly, I’d joined all these dots together, and the internet was a vital tool for creating a platform for people like me to come forward. Because I created a multi-genre sound or whatever, I couldn’t get stocked in record shops in the beginning. Indie record stores would stock me, but the mainstream—HMV, Tower Records—were having problems about where to put me. And instead of creating a space, they just came back to me and were like, “Well, what is this thing? It’s like this weird magpie genre. You don’t belong anywhere, and you’re a fake. Your politics are fake,” or, “You’re fake; you must be a doctor’s kid, middle-class and posh. How come you went to art school?” They were dismantling what I was instead of thinking, “Oh, we should create a space for that.” So, I thought, “There’s going to be more me’s on the internet, because they don’t have that restriction.” And then the internet went to the same place as the mainstream and everything else. You still have to fit into a mold in order for you to even make noise on the internet now.
One of the things I like about what you’ve been doing is that it sounds like you really embrace modernity. Modernity then was maybe a different thing than it is now. It’s become really futuristic in the sense that when we think about modernity now, we think about it only in the sense of technology.
Yeah, that’s true. Like the iPhone getting rid of their headphone jacks.
For instance. But obviously, there are other ways to talk about modernity. What I’m saying is that your music sounded modern for the time when it came out, so it had modernity as an aesthetic. But then it also had modernity as a topic, because you talk about modern topics in your lyrics.
Yeah, it was modern in terms of creating something that didn’t exist before, whether that was you as what you represent as a person or the type of genre or the way somebody put together how they dress, or their mentality—some sort of philosophy where you absorb information differently, which also suits technology. It’s just a happy accident that when I came along, my thing—whatever that is—suited technology.
Like I said, everybody’s trying to deconstruct what you are and going, “Well, how can you be a Sri Lankan blah blah, a political family and then make rap music and then wear lipstick and talk about politics?” And I was like, “Yeah, and then I lived here and I live in Mitcham.” Because also, if you’re a rapper, you often came from America. Or if you came from England, the underground culture in Britain, you still could use the American template to build your career. I think, because you had British rappers in the ’90s that were super successful and kind of on equal terms. I used to listen to the Cookie Crew. Silver Bullet was my favorite, even though his subject matters were different. [laughs] I’m showing my age. And then London Posse and stuff like that. So I think you had hip-hop acts in Britain that were just as good, so when I came out with this multi-magpie, whatever this thing is, you had to build a whole new language of understanding where you’re coming from.
Suddenly, there was a need for Google for someone like me. This is obviously totally against my relationship with Google, but in the beginning, they were vital for me, and I was vital for them. Because when I came and talked about random references from all over the world, kids could actually look shit up. As an artist, I had lots of threads to stories, so you could look up where Jaffna was, you could look up where Sri Lanka was, you could look up my dad’s movement called EROS, you could look at where Mitcham is, you could look up where Saint Martin’s is. It was possible to get that information, whereas 15 years before that, if I came out in ’90s or ’80s, that would be so impossible. You would have to go to the library with one article and sit with so many different categories of books to piece together the story. So I think I was really obviously in love with technology, and technology needed me. Which is what led me to make the album /\/\ /\ Y /\, because I was married to it. It did mean a lot to me.
This relates to the question of modernity: what about the whole idea of youth culture, pop and the club in your work? You’re 41 now, but there was a period when what you did was really intertwined with the idea of youth culture.
Well, that’s the music I grew up on. Having access as a youth was part of life, but because of who I was and where I came from, it took me a lot longer than any other human being to get a record deal. I had to wait until I was 27 to realize that it’s okay to have a record deal or to go get one. And get to a place where you can pay rent and find stability and deal with all the personal problems and issues and family and money—all of these things—in an environment that’s not yours, and deal with stuff that’s popular to talk about now, like oppression, racism, privilege and all of that. It took me longer than everybody else to get that break. I had to come to England when I was 10, learn English, work my way through education when constantly people were like, “You’re just going to work at Tesco’s in a supermarket stacking shelves. You’re a single parent; you’re going to be in jail; you’re going to be in a council flat; you’re going to have six kids on welfare,” and all of these things. And you’re just fighting, fighting, fighting to break out of it.
I got to a place where I found six months solid where I could think about creativity, and I got a record deal straight away. But for me to find six months where I could make music and admit that I’m good enough and my voice and ideas could be written down into songs—it took me that long. I think if I was American and I lived in America, or if I came from any other background, maybe I would be around more people that encouraged that, but I came from a Tamil community that doesn’t really embrace the idea of making music or being an individual voice. So it added an extra ten years on what I was doing.
I read a Guardian review of this record, like, “Well, she’s missed the club and she’s missed the bedroom with this record.” I’m just like, “Those two things don’t have to define the human experience.” This record is definitely about finding a balance as a person—whether you’re political, social, activist, mum, pop star, lipstick-wearing, poor person who made good, or refugee person who made it and survived. Whatever these extreme, polarized things that I am, it’s catering to all of those aspects. It’s not just about youth culture, because that’s exactly the thing: you don’t want that to become one-dimensional. Because youth culture is not being fairly supplied.
Back in the day when youth had such a varied, mixed musical landscape to choose from, to build your identity, and now you don’t. You have ten pop stars, and that’s what you believe in. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you believe in, whatever background you’ve got, whatever experiences you’re having in the world, you’re allowed to listen to those ten pop stars in the world, because they are the biggest brands. It’s like when you walk into a corner store, there’s Coca-Cola. Before, we had lots of variations. I think youth culture is having a moment where they actually have to fight through that for it to be exciting again. For them to find the strength to go and make their individual experiences not funneled through the successful formula of what makes a pop star, they need to spend time in all aspects of themselves. I think this is to show that: look, it’s a DIY person who made it, who stuck to what their thing is. It’s not youth culture music, but it’s a sentiment that the youth could do with.
You said you grew up in a community that wouldn’t encourage the kind of personal expression that you were exploring. What do they think now that you’ve obviously become a success?
Obviously, I bypassed that parental generation. You go to helping the kids have one more thing that makes them feel…empowered, I guess. For me, it’s really important that the Tamil kids don’t lose their identity of where they come from. I found that when I was growing up, being a refugee was really seen as an embarrassing thing. The parents were in a race to sort of erase the history, because you desperately wanted to adapt and become something else. You didn’t want to remember the hurt and the pain and the past. Even though I was first generation, I grew up with second generation Tamil kids, and I saw that difference. I knew the parents’ generation and I knew the kids’ generation, so I knew that there was a massive jump in how much they wanted to connect to the struggle.
Now the kids are into it, and I just wanted to be like, “Look, you can still be a musician and you can wear what you want and do what you want and affect culture on an equal basis.” Not just, “I’m a Tamil woman, and here I am in my Tamil woman corner,” but be an equal creative on the level of other creatives in the West or in your environment. No matter if you’re a woman or no matter if you’re brown. And I think that was or is a really important thing for those kids. So now they’ve got a choice: they can be doctors; they can be accountants—like your parents tell you. Or you can be part of the culture that’s going on around you, and it’s not so removed.
I’d agree, you did make that connection. And after ten years of being a pop star, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned? What’s your biggest takeaway?
I was 27 when I came to it, and I had Justine [Frischmann, from Elastica] before me, who told me a lot of things. So I was sort of prepared for stuff. And I think that’s what it was. I feel like I didn’t get tempted into burning out so quickly with the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll side of being a pop star because I had all these other complicated things I needed to talk about and get through and connect people with, connect dots on. That wasn’t so tempting.
I learned that goalposts change all the time. And identity-wise, it changes all the time because of who I am and who I am to people constantly changes depending on them. Likewise, I think you really have to fight for space in the musical landscape where you can make what you want to make and still be involved in the industry. It’s way harder now to have a diverse or weird sound in music and be included. I think that’s what I learned. Being a completely poor person and breaking into the industry—it’s harder now. Or any type of industry, I think it’s harder than it was for me. I think kids need to just go off and do their thing.
What is your biggest regret or missed opportunity?
I like where my career is and where it’s gone. I think for me to achieve success by compromising my thing, I wouldn’t be happy. It would have affected my mentality different. So I think that was never an option. Your work is your work and no one can really take that away. And if your work is led by the right things, the right questions, then you’ll get the right answers. And yeah, I don’t have a swimming pool, because I didn’t shut up. But I came from a place where I know it’s possible to achieve happiness with very little, so that would be a lie for me to buy into that, anyway. For me, my work is what I answer my own questions with. Everything that happens is part of that education, and everything is a useful education. So I don’t really have any regrets in that.