All senses are now cast to the island that is Maya Arulpragasam; a floating republic of originality, voice, style and iconography that’s not tethered to any continent and exists to make unique noise and provoke thought.
Having unleashed her video to ‘Born Free’ - a graphic and thinly veiled metaphor for the extermination of the Tamil Tigers - she had the world’s attention once more. Banned instantly on YouTube, the controversy was a passing plume of smoke from the fire of her seething anger for governmental ability to censor a violent culmination of the civil war in Sri Lanka.
Yet this is just the latest episode of strife. It all began thirty-three years ago as her shadowy father figure gave up his family to try to broker an erstwhile intelligent revolution by founding the E.R.O.S. cell of the Tamil Tigers. By doing so he transformed his female family into military targets, meaning they soon swapped civil war for life as refugees on south London council estates. This set Maya on a unique path obsessed with dis-enfranchisement that rages to this very moment.
More recently Maya’s life was turned upside down in a different way. Settling in LA after her leftfield single ‘Paper Planes’ became a global hit (hitting number four in the US Billboard), she fell into love and engagement to Benjamin Zachary Bronfman, the son of the head of Warner Brothers. Abruptly she seemed to be ‘sleeping with the enemy’ as she was catapulted into the middle of America’s Pop Machine.
Opposing forces have toyed with Maya the mother and M.I.A. the musician. Over the last few years she’d be posing for magazine cover shoots then the next day be launching school building projects in Liberia, or be frontline trying to rehabilitate African child soldiers. Life got even more hectic in 2009 as she became pregnant with ideas, her first child and an increasingly schizophrenic lifestyle and outlook.
The resultant expression from these forces is ‘/\/\/\Y/\’, her third but most challenging album. Produced by Diplo, Switch, Rusko, Derek E. Miller and Blaqstarr, it’s an uncompromising broadcast of sonics that refuses to sound like anyone except M.I.A., all bound together as a searing quiver of industrial sound, ideas and frustrations.
But before ‘/\/\/\Y/\’ was even released there was yet more controversy as a US journalist, Lynn Hirschberg, took her to task for a seemingly contradictory lifestyle. M.I.A. responded by Twittering the hack’s mobile number, inviting a deluge of abuse, and writing a rap addressing the NY Times Magazine writer before posting a secret recording of their interview, re-contextualising her statements in the correct light. The NY Times Magazine promptly issued a written apology. It seems you shouldn’t go picking fights with M.I.A. lightly.
- - -
To this backdrop Clash caught up with the new mum, new label owner and ongoing multicultural mascot, and whilst (presumably both our) dictaphones recorded, we wade into topics as wide as the Grammys, genocide and why Google wants your soul.
The start of this campaign is very distinctive - first you released ‘Born Free’, which is one of the boldest statements you have ever made with videos of genocide, then followed it up with ‘XXXO’, which sounds like you’re frustrated about a relationship?
I think ‘XXXO’ is my love letter to the music industry, or it’s my text message to the industry, because I feel like I can [conform] but I just don’t want to because there are millions of people who are getting that already just from what they are listening to every day. The industry is state-of-the-art ‘built’ to churn people out. It’s paint-by-numbers.
Going back to ‘Born Free’ and you saying earlier that the civil was has ended - is that your last statement on the Tamil’s struggle?
(Long pause) I don’t know. I think if something comes up that is worth saying, then I’ll say it. Sri Lanka is such a fucked up place and I don’t want to keep getting dragged to that place - if I had the luxury to step away from it then I would. It’s fifty-fifty for me. I do want to step away from it and I don’t want to have the burden of talking about it, going through it all the time. But at the same time, Sri Lanka’s just a tiny microcosm of an example to what happens in most of the world, because things that happen in Sri Lanka sometimes end up happening here in our own back yard. Sometimes I repeat my story again and again because it’s interesting to see how many times it gets edited, and how much the right to tell your story doesn’t exist.
People reckon that I need a political degree in order to go, ‘My school got bombed and I remember it cos I was ten-years-old’. I think if there is an issue of people who, having had first hand experiences, are not being able to recount that - because there is laws or government restrictions or censorship or the removal of an individual story in a political situation - then that’s what I’ll keep saying and sticking up for, cos I think that’s the most dangerous thing. I think removing individual voices and not letting Tamil people just go ‘This happened to me’ is really dangerous. That’s what was happening, all the Tamils were being made to look a certain way, and nobody handed them the microphone to say, ‘This is happening and I don’t like it.’
Is that why you depicted the oppressors in the ‘Born Free’ video as American forces?
It’s for many reasons. One of them being we shot the video there so we scouted real SWAT guys and army dudes that just got back from Afghanistan and we were getting the uniforms and stuff whilst people were saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But at that point it didn’t really matter.
It’s quite a strong message. Cinematically you’d see it every day. But as far as you doing that message, it’s quite provocative.
You mean because I was in America?
Considering your history, your visa problems, your family, and how the American government reacted to you three years ago when they wouldn’t let you into the country, were you ever worried it might disrupt the life that you’ve made there?
Yeah, but I wasn't really thinking about it like that. I was being a bit broader. To me, it seemed like using America to tell that story was the easiest lowest common denominator way of doing it, because how much are you going to get across in nine minutes?
Your have a wilful disregard of boundaries. What’s the most limiting factor in your life?
The limiting factor right now is still my mum not being able to get into the US - my mum is seen as a threat to society in America. To me that’s really funny. Now I’ve just started taking the piss out of her. She doesn’t like it. She’s in London and it’s quite limiting because me and Ben can’t quite get married, cos my mum can’t come to America and his family can’t travel because his granddad is ill. It’s limiting because I feel weird every time I go to America.
If my mum’s really fucking scary then I’m scary and then my kid’s scary. I don’t want to be in a country where we are seen to be scary. Ultimately it’s to do with the intelligence. If the FBI and CIA and everybody are super smart and have the right way of interpreting information then they know my mum’s not scary. If there’s more than that going on then it does make you feel a bit like ‘I just don’t want to deal with this shit’.
The Internet plays a huge part on the album. You use phrases like “slacktavist screenagers good at Neetspeak” and “spamoflaged brandalism” - are you poking fun at the mindlessness of it all or are you trying to call to arms a new generation?
I think Wall Street has moved to the Internet. Before it wasn’t like that. Even though the Internet was created by a bunch of hippies who were like, (mocking voice) ‘We just wanna liberate the people’, now it’s run by huge corporations that are just in it for numbers. The thing with that is that when that happens we are always mindless fucks to them. We just are numbers. You’re not going to move them off, but we have to start functioning differently.
Do you think that’s going to be easy though? Everyone’s so dependant on the Internet now.
Yes, that’s true, but you have to create new spaces within it. If the Internet is ‘space’, once the space has been invaded, gentrified, homogenized, bunched up and put through a funnel of money making, then you have to fucking take yourself off that and create a new space. If I can’t avoid being on the Internet, then I wanna be on the Internet and make things uncomfortable. I find it really fucking uncomfortable. I don’t want to round up my fans on MySpace and hand them over to fucking Rupert Murdoch. That is really difficult for me, cos as an artist you need to communicate with your fans. I don’t want to be the trapping net on the Internet so that somebody like Rupert Murdoch is going to be like, ‘I’m gonna take all your fans’ details and sell it to Starbucks’. That annoys me. I don’t have the answers.
And I don't know how to exist as an artist within that or without that. That’s all. I know that because I was following what was happening in Sri Lanka and two days after the war if you Google searched it there was no word of the civil war. All the articles that you saw was just all written by the government about the government. It was just like: ‘Sri Lanka is a wonderful place again, come and visit!’ That pisses me off. But if you have got the money then you can reshape it and repackage it and that’s really scary; that’s so you have to dig like crazy to get the truth. It’s like tough love - that’s what my album is, tough love, because you have to beat people up sometimes just to know this is what it feels like and then there’s sugar and medicine.
Words by Matthew Bennett
Photo by John Wright
Styling by Rose Forde
Win a chance to see M.I.A. perform live at this year's Big Chill festival on ClashMusic.com HERE.
Clash Magazine Issue 52
Big Chill Festival 2010