M.I.A.: Shifting To A Higher Ground

Clash speaks to the ever-inspirational artist…

If M.I.A. actually was a super heroine, she’d rarely hit the crime scene on time. She’s nearly two hours late for Clash’s four-hour cover shoot (check the magazine details here), and although her charming publicist reliably informs us she is en route, we are worried.

So we wait. We think about her fourth album, ‘Matangi’ (Clash review). And we ponder a potentially large elephant that might enter the room with her: what are we going to call the rapper when she arrives? She recently revealed her name isn’t Maya at all. Apparently that was just the name of her mother’s ski instructor in the 1980s. Obviously.

M.I.A.’s new album is supposedly titled after her real name: Mathangi, like the Hindu Goddess of music. Our thumbs twiddle a little faster. Finally, she sweeps in.

“It is weird,” she concurs. “My family don’t call me Maya. My friends would call me Mathangi for 10 years in middle school, and then I did 10 years as Maya, and then another 10 as M.I.A.”

We ask how her grandmother or mother choose to address her. “They call me something different,” she smiles. “They call me ‘girl’ in Tamil, which is ‘Mathu’. That’s my main name.”

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M.I.A., ‘Bring The Noize’, from ‘Matangi’

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F*ck the ski instructor, let’s stick with her nom-de-guerre; a moniker that suggests M.I.A. has always been the moving target she remains today. It’s here that she thrives, livid in the peripheries, causing a stir where she can.

When we last spoke in 2010 (archived here), this British-born Tamil rapper was preoccupied with the notion of Orwellian governmental snooping. On her ‘Maya’ (Clash review) track ‘The Message’ we hear her chatter along to a love of nursery rhyme wordplay: “Headphones connect to the iPhone / iPhone connected to the Internet / Connected to the Google / Connected to the government.”

This was before WikiLeaks. This was before Edward Snowden. But at the time M.I.A. told us: “I can’t believe everyone is like, ‘OMG Conspiracy theory!’ Well, go back on Google and f*cking Google it. It’s all there.”

Three years later and history has completely vindicated her ‘paranoia’. The naysayers who slagged her are silenced. M.I.A. is notoriously lippy, so you’d think she’d be taking this opportunity to gloat through the channels of receptive press. But instead she remembers how confusing the revelations were as another crisis was breaking in her life.

“Oh my god! Snowden’s revelations happened two days after my custody battle started. So I felt really f*cked up. It was really personal, but it was horrible at the same time.”

M.I.A. was in the USA, trying to fight her billionaire former fiancé Ben Bronfman for custody of their child, Ikhyd. She was facing the institutions of America heads on. She was facing the system that snoops on its own people, the very ones she criticised. And she was facing the possibility that her mouthy and cutting opinions may see her lose custody of her child.

“If you’d been someone who was vocal about WikiLeaks, no one will cut you slack in America,” she frowns. “Everyone was too accepting of what was going on. In America, every social group, no matter who they are – whether it’s the poorest or the richest, or intellectuals, the ‘hood people, whatever – everyone had resigned to the idea that people die. And that’s okay? There is no uproar or outrage in America about anything, there hasn’t been for a long time, no matter what technology or access these people have.”

Ultimately M.I.A. retained custody of her child before moving back to London. It also transpired that very few people seemed to care that the government was reading and storing every single email and Facebook message of America’s public. Snowden’s online interviews explaining the architecture of surveillance have been viewed just 2.5 million times on YouTube, whereas M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ video has been seen well over 42 million times. This is the world we now live in: a pop video is nearly 20 times more popular than the biggest political and social news to hit America possibly since 9/11.

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M.I.A., ‘Bad Girls’, from ‘Matangi’

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However, M.I.A. is numb to this horrendous skewing of relevance. She’s been fighting such statistics for years through the propaganda that suggests a Tamil genocide hasn’t been in existence.

Asked how vindicated she felt after her previous-album precognition on surveillance rang true, she simply shrugs. “I tweeted (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel two nights ago. I tweeted her the link to my song and said, ‘You have to buy this.’”

Yet even through this cheeky repartee you get the impression M.I.A. has moved on. And this brings us to ‘Matangi’, on which she’s scampered off into the arms of Eastern spirituality. ‘Mat(h)angi’ isn’t only her forename, a goddess of music and the goddess of the ghetto; but as of 2013 it’s also an album that bridges Hindu motifs with M.I.A.’s cut-and-paste rap aesthetic.

It is also a recording that we are lucky even exists. After her three-album deal, M.I.A. was effectively “done with music”. The cycle of ‘Maya’ had taken its toll in a couple of distinct ways.

“I just wanted to go and make art, and relax a little bit. I wanted to take my son and go and spend time teaching him Tamil,” she explains. “‘Maya’ got released, the touring cycle happened in the winter time, and I was on a shitty tour bus with a one-year-old baby, and to go through that and put that album out, whilst the world is like, ‘F*ck you! This is bullshit’, and you’re playing it to your fans – it was a dark tunnel.”

And then the Super Bowl happened. Madonna asked M.I.A. to perform alongside her, before a live television audience of over 100 million, at the halftime show for 2012’s NFL championship game. M.I.A. said yes, and in a gushing aside offered Madge a song she’d just written called ‘Sexodus’ as a gift.

But then she got classically carried away and flipped her middle finger to America – suddenly we had the next controversial chapter in the career of M.I.A., a turbulent episode that ironically helped her refocus.

“I was really close to giving up [being a musician],” she confides. “Even at the Super Bowl when I was giving my songs to people, I was like: ‘Take it!’ I wasn’t going to release a record. But I released the ‘Bad Girls’ video, and it was kind of fun, and Madonna was like: ‘Here is your song back! I hate you!’”

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That flipped finger, in all its glory

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Then it was down to Google to play its serendipitous role. M.I.A. stumbled across the meaning of her disregarded forename along with a suspicious set of images whilst searching the web in India, while on a holiday away from music.

“The first thing that came up was Matangi’s 64 [chosen] arts, and my Mum’s name, Kala, the name of my second album, and it read: ‘She sits on a studded throne’. I was like, ‘What does that look like?’

“So I cut and pasted ‘Gem-Studded Throne’ into Google Images, and it was (Sri Lankan President) Rajapaksa being awarded a throne by the monks. He is the one who basically shat on me and my last album. I got into trouble for speaking up against him, and it was interesting, you know, he’s got the throne. The chances of Google Images throwing up Rajapaksha as the first image was just insane!”

M.I.A. is keen to point out that she isn’t religious. At one point she describes how her concept of God is way more rooted in the notion of mathematics, or an energy net that encloses humanity. She was raised as a lapsed Christian who grew up on Temple Road in Tamil Nadu, India, and had always ruminated on the subliminal effects of proximity. “I woke up to the sound of drums every day,” she recounts. “And that’s why I thought I loved drums; my beats were always so drum heavy.”

We do however get the impression that this singer is spiritual, sentimental and also prone to being influenced by the nuances of coincidence. Her hour-long Google research set the cerebral cogs in motion, where M.I.A. could once more glimpse a path through her passionate turmoil and frenzy of ideas towards producing a fourth album.

“I had given up music, and I went to India… (long pause) I’m just saying it gave me a gift – at a time I didn’t want it. It gave it to me in a way that I understood information; it came to me on a computer saying here’s this thing, and that thing about the Hindu sign – it’s weird, and it’s pretty random that I had never seen it before.”

Where once she sampled gunshots, now we have temple chants. Where the sonic screech of fighter jets competed with Sleigh Bells’ scything guitars, we now find rabidly played Indian shehnai and cocky musings on the mechanics of Karma.

M.I.A. describes ‘Matangi’ as a “parking lot” at the end of the journey found across its preceeding three albums. When Clash questions this unsexy description, she goads us with a giggle: “It depends which parking lot it is. A lot can happen in parking lot, you know?”

She delves deeper into her concept: “Matangi is a very obscure goddess, even within Hinduism, it’s the avant-garde. Matangi represented the outward expression of inner thoughts, and if you sum it to that, you put all creativity in that bracket. There’s an inner thought, and then the outward articulation: that is creativity, and it can be applied to any medium. There you go!”

She smiles, radiantly. “I could do whatever I wanted! When I looked up the 64 core arts [of Matangi], there was some hippy shit – making jewellery, making embroidery and things like that – and then there’s painting, music, blah blah blah. One of them is even being really good at using sex toys, erotic art and stuff. It’s pretty open; there are 64 ways to express yourself.”

So let’s nail some devil in the detail that these spiritual structures gave shelter to. ‘Matangi’ may well be her most unswerving album since her debut, 2005’s ‘Arular’. If her second album ‘Kala’ was lopsided with the weight of ‘Paper Planes’ and ‘Maya’ was a terse wall of distorted and confused anger, then ‘Matangi’ is much more consistent, if such a sturdy word could ever be applied to our tardy Tamil heroine. 

Having reconnected with producer Switch after a year of silence, she then drafted in Hit-Boy, The Partysquad, Surkin, her brother Sugu and Doc McKinney alongside The Weeknd, who picked up ‘Sexodus’ where Madonna had dropped it.

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M.I.A., ‘Yala’, from ‘Matangi’

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Buried under a chorus of ohms we find sinister western currents in the form of a robust political skit she made with WikiLeak’s Julian Assange. This is called ‘aTENTion’ and it’s a story within this story, and one obsessed with the Internet once again.

“When WikiLeaks released the cables on Sri Lanka it was amazing!” recalls the girl who was forced to flee Sri Lanka as a child due to her father’s role in the resistance. “The cables came out and there was one that helped the Tamils, in the Tamil press. Essentially it said: ‘There were chemical bombs used, civilians were killed, and here’s cables to prove [our foreign nations] knew about it.’ And when that happened, I was like: ‘Julian Assange is my f*cking hero!!’ I only ever needed one.”

She quickly entered the studio to passionately forge a mixtape in 48 hours called ‘Vicki Leekx’ in homage to her new hero. This in turn inspired Assange to tap up M.I.A., to ask if she’d record some music for his new online chat show. The singer was understandably blown away.

“I was freaking out when he got in touch. When he came and asked for help, I was like: ‘Of course!’ I wanted to support someone who is basically creating dialogue and putting truth out there.”

But it wasn't a straightforward case of repaying a favour. M.I.A. could feel modern culture was being split in two: “I felt that a really amazing moment in history was unfolding. Because right now people will discredit him and say all kinds of things about him, but as time goes on, he’s gonna represent a modern, new idea of this cyber-revolutionary type of thing. And I didn’t know what it looked like before; that concept of information-war blah blah that you heard about in the ’80s. Now is the first time you saw it happen.”

Thus, as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning stew in their own casserole of achievements we are aware that once again, where the tangle of socio-political web issues are concerned, M.I.A. speaks the truth with incisive perception.

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Words: Matthew Bennett
Photography: Simon Thiselton 
Fashion: Matthew Josephs

This is an edit of Clash’s full interview feature with M.I.A. – find the whole piece in the new issue of Clash magazine, on shelves now and featuring M.I.A. herself on the cover. 

Find M.I.A. online here

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