An Interview with MIA
In early May, the Believer sat down with M.I.A., a London-born Sri Lankan, former art-school student, and current Interscope recording artist, on the eve of her third album. Her new music seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, appropriately enough for an era when “pop” and “world music” are no longer opposed categories but increasingly one and the same. For the music biz, this is the meaning of “globalization.”
And yet the music also comes from a person: Maya Arulpragasam, slight, chattily articulate, intensely watchful. As we spoke, she referred frequently to images and sounds on her customized computer: a laptop in “M.I.A. colors” that her fiancé, Ben, had gotten her special, in anodized yellow gold with blue keys and a red trackpad.
Like her music, M.I.A. has a paradoxical relationship to place, alternately wandering and being stranded throughout the world. At the time of this interview, she was fixed in London, unable to get a visa home, in this case to Brooklyn. This is a family tradition: her mother (ostensibly because of connections to Maya’s father, a significant Tamil figure in the Sri Lankan civil struggles) had been unable to travel for some time.
This is not M.I.A.’s only contradiction. After releasing the no-samples-cleared bootleg Piracy Funds Terrorism—a title almost no other artist could say and mean—her breakthrough single, “Galang,” went on to sound track a Honda commercial, and consequently earn skepticism toward her politics. And yet her second proper album, Kala, managed to have the most thrilling political anthem of the decade, “Paper Planes.” Elsewhere on the album, hiding from nothing, she insisted she was “dogging on the bonnet of your red Honda.”
Rioter or passenger, outsider or insider, revolutionary or sellout? The categories don’t work so well these days, if they ever did. This is the point, inevitably, of the music, and it is the music that matters. It is art for a moment when categories aren’t working very well, when things are falling apart and centers aren’t holding. It does not try to contain this situation but to register it, to give it a feeling, to get a sense of whether it might indeed be late in something—pop music, history, the U.S. empire. We discussed these matters, her family, terrorism, and, most of all, the Internet.
I. “THE DAY THAT ISRAEL AND PALESTINE SOLVE THEIR ISSUE IS THE END OF THE WORLD.”
M.I.A.: It’s a really interesting time for musicians because you really have to be a distraction now. You need to be ready to be exploited at all times, to be a distraction when there’s real shit going on. And that’s what Lady Gaga does so flawlessly and amazingly, and that’s why I’m such a liability. But I’m just optimistic about the long run, because I think that’s what it’s about—you have to train your brain not to believe the hype. THE BELIEVER: What do you have to train your brain to do as an artist?
M.I.A.: Critical thinking.
BLVR: Critical thinking. What does that mean to you?
M.I.A.: You are the same as everybody else; just because you’re an artist or a musician doesn’t elevate you into this—yeah, it does, actually. It elevates you into a bubble and then you go crazy and then you die.
BLVR: How’s that going for you?
M.I.A.: I’ve managed to burst my bubble about three times, so I’ve saved myself a few times. The important thing is teaching yourself critical thinking—to take in everything from everywhere and judge it from what you see in front of you. I’m here in London, but I live in my mum’s council house right now with my baby and my fiancé. I think it’s a good reminder, the everyday issues that my mum has. It’s important for me to go and observe it and watch it and listen to her and what her lifestyle is like, and not get caught up in it. I have the opportunity to escape it, so I’m going to. I think what she’s going through is not unique to her, but it’s what a lot of people are going through in London. It’s expensive, can’t do this, can’t do that, da da da. This area’s changed, there’s more guns, you know, knife crimes down the street.
BLVR: She’s entirely disallowed from traveling by the government, and she’s a grandmother now? That must be hard for her not to be able to visit.
M.I.A.: It’s interesting that with all the sophistication and intelligence of both these governments, the person they’ve discovered is the center of this thing is my mum. That’s what it takes, millions of dollars of intelligence.
BLVR: You say you feel at home in different ways in London, Brooklyn, Los Angeles. Where do you think your son is going to feel at home when he’s your age?
BLVR: Can you tell me how to pronounce his name?
M.I.A.: I-Kid. If you were in a Muslim country it would be Ikhyd. It’s an Israeli and a Palestinian name put together. I was watching this, you know, History Channel thing. America’s obsessed with the apocalypse and the end of the world. That’s where I got it from. I was 100 percent optimistic before this, but now I have, like, issues of things creeping in from watching this shit everyday.
BLVR: If you were in a country that had run the world for eighty years and it was coming to an end and you knew that, wouldn’t you make a lot of movies about the apocalypse, too? It’s a way of people trying to understand the end of the era.
M.I.A.: Yeah, it’s true, it’s true. It’s interesting watching it from inside. But, yeah, when I was watching all this stuff and they had one documentary about Isaac Newton, who’d decoded the world, and they were like, the day that Israel and Palestine solve their issue is the end of the world. That was the latest.
BLVR: In a good way, I hope.
M.I.A.: Yeah, that’s when they said the Antichrist would come down.…
BLVR: Good to know. I’ll prepare myself.
M.I.A.: Yeah, well, that’s why we named him Ikhyd— because we hoped it would happen in his lifetime, you know, and that he would symbolize that. Those were the two things that were on the forefront: the Internet versus mankind—you know, man and machines—and Israel and Palestine. Those are two things that are gonna be carried over into the future. I think the rest are pretty irrelevant. I always say he’s the poster child for oppression because he’s a Tamil black Jew.
The latest news that did that to me is the Moscow incident [the bombing of two subway trains in Moscow in March 2010, allegedly by Chechen rebels, including the teenage widow of a martyred leader] where you had a seventeen-year-old girl who went and blew herself up. It’s interesting because whenever her face came up on the news, it’s so amazing and it’s the best photo I’ve seen in years and the most iconic photo—but they never talk about why she did it and what happened, even though that message they put with the dude, you know, the leader, going, “We did it because you bombed us.” I only actually heard that once in about 250 different stories I’ve probably seen this week, and that’s the problem. Nothing ever goes to the root of the issue.
BLVR: It seems that when you get a case of marginalized people, one of the forms of marginalization is that they’re not allowed to believe things. Once you get past a certain level, it’s not belief, it has to be something else. Either it’s crazy passion, or love, or madness, or whatever, you know, but it’s not possible that she believed a thing and acted on that belief.
M.I.A.: Yeah, yeah, yeah, they wanted to do the romance thing! You know, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. I think it’s nice and I like that. I am a sucker for one of those—I would totally have that as a symbol of romance. But I actually want to know what the hell happened before it. I want to know how he died, but I also want to know what the campaign was before that, by the government, that pissed all these people off and how many people died in that situation. No one’s ever gone back that far.
I feel really bad for these people on the train, but I also feel really bad for her. Why was she put in the situation to want to end her life at such a young age? Summing it up, you’re either a propagandist or you’re this or you’re this. You know, and not actually being responsible enough to be like: actually a lot of governments are really greedy. What is going on under the surface never really gets discussed. And in America it certainly doesn’t get discussed, and I think, I don’t know, it puts me off the press.
II. “I HAVE A CHILD. I CAN’T WEAR A TELEPHONE-HEAD HAT, IT’S JUST NOT GONNA WORK.”
BLVR: I want to go sketch a history which raises questions about the future of art. If I think back to the Italian city-states in the fifteenth century in Florence and so on, the Renaissance era is defined by painting; so is the Dutch empire, more or less. The British Empire is very much a literary era, novels and poetry—and then you get the American era of the twentieth century, the century of movies. On the one hand we’re coming to an end of the long twentieth century. It’s going to get uglier, but I think its gonna eventually end, transform. You said “China,” and that’s one of our best guesses about what the next center of the world will be. So the accompanying question is: what is the art of that era going to be like?
M.I.A.: It’s interesting. To me, the best bit of art that I’ve seen in the last ten years is, I think, the execution video from Sri Lanka. You know, where all these Tamil guys are blindfolded and shot in the head. It’s filmed with a telephone. And the second bit is the photo of the seventeen- year-old girl who blew up the subway train in Moscow, and her first name is Dzhanet, which sounds like “Internet,” and her last name is Abdurakhmanova, which sounds a bit like “burkaman”!
I just think on the Internet art is like that photo for me, and that’s her name, and it’s one photo released to the whole world, everybody saw it, it went out. So what do you want? You want a billion hits on YouTube of your crappy video. And then a girl like that has a cause, and she died for it, for what she believed in, and she got more than a billion hits in a day, you know? Those things are really, really interesting to me. I feel like I believe in that. I’m one of those people that vote for that. The Internet was created to give people the power, and it’s gonna be whoever—whether they die for it or not, and whether what they have at the end of the day is art or not—we’re the people in the middle who are going to contextualize it.
BLVR: That puts you in a funny position, though. You’re an artist in the sense of an intentional artist. You think very carefully about what you want to say and the sounds you want to make, and then you do it, but the person who took that photo, the person that took that cellphone video—they didn’t wake up that morning saying, “I’m an artist.”
M.I.A.: I think that they are the ones that own the Internet, those people who are not waking up everyday going, “I’m an artist.” All artists are product sellers, so the blanker you are, the better you can sell some shoes.
BLVR: But isn’t that a style too? Like the style of no style? Where I don’t have a stylist, I don’t wear the shoes, I don’t play the game. Isn’t that a game too?
M.I.A.: No. I wake up in the morning and I have to, like, deal with my son and all the shit he’s doing, jumping on sofas and doing backflips and feeding him and duhduhduhduh. Then I deal with the phone calls, then I get in a cab and I have to go somewhere. Whatever I could throw on in the morning is my style. It’s not that I’m consciously like, “I’m not doing a style.” And in terms of sorting out a style, I just don’t want to look like Lady Gaga, that’s just not practical for my lifestyle. I have a child, I can’t wear a telephone-head hat, it’s just not gonna work. I can’t wear those Alexander McQueen shoes, because I’d never be able to chase after him fast enough.
BLVR: So what’s art for? Politically or in other senses, what’s art’s function?
M.I.A.: Art gets redefined all the time by whoever needs it most. It’s also about redefining your new environment. Now the Internet has become our environment. A lot of us stare at the screen for a long time, and you need eyes to redefine that space.
My position in the world, in the future (which I do have to think about), is different. It’s our duty to teach critical thinking. And that’s the thing about China and the future of the Internet—it’s interesting because intellectually, they’re probably the most sophisticated people, who can take this tool to a level we don’t even know yet. But at the same time, creatively, the ideas are not there yet. So the creativity and the ideas come from the West, but technical ability and the tools come from the East. India is a perfect example, because India can produce Star Wars for a million dollars, you know, where in America it costs 250 million. But the day they work out how to write that script that’s not cheesy and hasn’t got eight songs in it with a big fight scene that’s like da-dada-da [fake punching noises]. The day they figure out how not to make soup and gumbo out of film and do culturally tuned-in ideas that appeal to the West, then we’re gonna be fucked.
III. NECESSITY PEOPLE
BLVR: When the Internet was first sort of getting its shit together, it seemed like it was a place where people who didn’t have a lot of money, didn’t have a lot of access, could get their message out. I think about the Zapatistas in the mid-’90s who used the Internet and email in these adventurous, virtuosic political ways. But now, as you say, inevitably, the money moves in. So you think that era is over, where the Internet is a sort of Wild West?
M.I.A.: Yeah. It’s really depressing. But that’s why creatives exist. They have to work out how to get around that. To keep it free, to keep it good for people, to keep it accessible, to keep it cheap, and keep it, you know, dictated by values that are not run by money.
BLVR: So let me ask you to be your own shrink for a second. Obviously, this album is interested in the Internet, and the space of the Internet as a place for art. How much does that come out of a really insightful analysis of what the future looks like, and how much does that come out of your own sense of being attacked on the Internet all the time—it being a place where people can talk shit about you freely?
M.I.A.: That’s just knowledge. If you open up Forbes magazine, you know that all the blogs are owned by, like, two companies. Which is the trickling of owning every small blog. In England, for example, all the middle classes are broke, businesses are shut down, everyone’s closed their shops, the shops are for sale. You take California, where the Internet is the most prevalent industry—the businesses are closing down, all this stuff is happening. Then you go to a small blog, and you’re running this sort of blog-run company, and then people find you and buy you out, and you take the money, and the next minute you have to put the banner on there that advertises something that you don’t really care about, but it works. Before, you could just be on YouTube and look up, like, a Depeche Mode video, and now when I look it up I see an army advert.
I don’t know, I was watching this documentary on Google, they were saying it’s the biggest corporation in the world and they’re stronger and bigger than any governments in the world because they collect all this data and they’ve got everybody’s data, but they don’t know what to do with it yet. But the day they work out what they do with it, or the day they decide to hand it over to the government, we’re all going to get off Google. Which means someone, somewhere, has got to be developing the next Google. Right now, because that day is coming. It’s already in the making. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about having places that people could go.
BLVR: Are you going to keep on releasing songs freely over the Internet? You’ve been doing it for a while, going back to “Sunshowers,” and then recently, with the video you released on Twitter. Is that something you’re going to keep on doing?
M.I.A.: Yeah, of course. I mean, you have to. I want to be able to release other things, not just music. I think the
future’s interesting as an artist. It’s cool because I feel like that thing is not even invented yet. And those things are going to be invented out of necessity, and not because, you know, it’s something to do. Once corporations have worked out that this is how you do that thing, then the creative people go somewhere else.
BLVR: So there are two forces of invention. Corporations want to make more money, so they invent stuff all the time. And then you have people who in their own lives have problems to solve, and so they have to invent things. And you want to side with those people.
M.I.A.: With necessity people.
BLVR: There’s this book called Planet of Slums by Mike Davis, about the development of these vast slums—these sort of rings around major cities, Dhaka and São Paolo and the like, filled with superfluous populations who didn’t have any work at all, and they’ve developed informal economies and roughly made shelters. And for me, Kala was the sound track to that book. It was a way not just to be about one place, but to be about this particular problem of the dispossessed around the world, and especially in the third world and the global south.
M.I.A.: Well, Kala, I did the production on that record, which is why I took more of a sort of chilled approach. Me and Dave [Taylor, a.k.a. Switch, the album’s producer] traveled everywhere. Sometimes I’d go on my own and then call Dave and they’d all bring the files to Dave and stuff. It’s just what I’m used to, and what makes you feel good. A lot of the sounds from that album came from when I grew up in Sri Lanka for ten years. We lived by a temple, and every day you wake up at six in the morning to drums, every day. On “World Town,” that high sound is an instrument called a nadhaswaram. So that’s a temple sound. This particular one you play when people are getting married. That’s the bit when they’re actually tying the knot. I’ve always tried to make sense of that stuff. And I think Kala was my album to do that. This one’s more… this one’s different, this album.
BLVR: Different how?
M.I.A.: I think because I was, like, locked up in America, and I was only connected by the Internet, it’s more about that. And the sounds are working within the parameters of the Internet. I was really thinking about the fact that the government now has invented the sound cannon, where they can make people explode with sound, and use sound weapons to disperse protests and people. I actually felt like, that’s my shit, and I don’t want it to be used to exploit anyone, you know?
BLVR: But what about your lyrics: “Hands up, guns out”? Right? There’s something pretty militant there. It’s not just like, “Let’s all hug, here’s my sound.” You’re the one who says, “Guns out.” You’re the one with the Molotov cocktail on your shirt. What does that kind of militancy mean for you and your music?
M.I.A.: Well, I think, you know, if 65 percent of the U.S. budget is being spent on weapons, then people have to be prepared to think like that a little bit. Because while you’re holding daisies and ring-a-ring of roses, if a big intercontinental ballistic nano-missile lands on you and wipes out your whole country, then, yeah, you’d better be saying, “Hands up, guns out,” or something. But when I said, “Hands up, guns out,” I actually meant guns out the window, not like guns out! So let me back in!
BLVR: No, right, of course.
M.I.A.: Because it’s not just the U.S. It’s every government, that’s the point. It’s not: “The U.S. is bad and everybody else is great.” It’s not. It’s one government versus the other, which is everybody who stands up. You know, if you don’t want to pay your taxes, and you kick up a stink, you’re going to be a terrorist, I’m sorry, whether you come from Britain or England or France or… If you have anything to say against the government, you’re going to be classed as a terrorist. You know, your phones are tapped, your email’s tapped, they’re watching you all the time. This is the future.
BLVR: What was that, oh, 1992, ’93, when Onyx had that song “Throw Ya Gunz (in the Air).” They could say that all they want, and no one’s going to stop them from traveling, right? But you’re obviously in a different context. Part of it is figuring out what the government’s relationship is going to be to “the other.” You get to be the other. Do you experience that as an opportunity or a curse?
M.I.A.: Of course it’s both. You’ve got a lot of Europeans who get it. I’m not “the other” in London. Or in Paris, or anything like that. I have friends in London who are far more in tune with getting on with everybody else and the other, and everyone’s got friends from everywhere. And everybody sort of culturally contributes to sounds, fashion, you know, music, magazines, which is why, creatively, there’s more of a pioneering spirit in Europe. The thing about America now is that, the thing that you were saying is that, because it’s on a coming-to-an-end phase, they want to slow that process down—to put the doors down and fill the moats up. They want to contain information and not let information get out, and not let information get in, because they want to keep making the American people feel really great, and boost their confidence all the time, to be like, You are great, I love you, you’re doing so great, we are still winning, we’re the shit, we’re the best, look at this movie, we did it in 3-D, it’s great, you know what I mean? Like everything is perfect and you’re still in there, and hope is coming, change is coming, all these things. Which is all good, but I think it’s contradictory to the Internet, and it’s contradictory to what we’re preaching.
The thing is, you know, it’s fucked up because, since I fall in “the other,” I also fall in the category of—if you divide the world into good and evil—I’m in the evil section with the terrorists.
BLVR: Obviously evil.
M.I.A.: I know. Which is really cool on the one hand, which is why I’ve gone there, with all the graphics and stuff. I’ve let Tamil people shoot my press photos, I’ve got hijabs left and right and center, Internet Burkaman all over the place, and we’re just going to go there. And I didn’t choose it. I’m a product of what they made me. Not what “they,” but what the West made me. Because in the beginning I started off going, “Thank you so much, I got to come to England, England saved me,” which is the truth—they put me through school, paid for my school, you know, put me through art school, and I could have been just some random person who got killed in some random shell attack in some random fucking town in Sri Lanka.
But here I am, you know. And it was supposed to be a good thing. And the fact that my stuff on the Internet is affected by—especially this next album— what we’re going to be saying is, Bill Gates gave the Sri Lankan government $700 million to upgrade their Internet service, and a lot of those millions are going toward people who are going to be getting paid to do anti-M.I.A. blogging every day. Because the government’s got more money than I have. And that’s the imbalance that we’re going to see in the future, and that’s what I’m going to be highlighting on this album—propaganda on the Internet and who gets to dictate what the Internet looks like. Is it money? Or is it mass?