The daughter of a high-ranking member of the Tamil Tigers, M.I.A. is a mass of contradictions. But it is the complexity and diversity of her experience which inspires her music, finds Kirstin Innes
M.I.A. – Maya Arulpragasam to her friends – is a hard woman to pin down. After a week spent scheduling and rescheduling an interview, I finally caught up with her in Minneapolis, a brief pause before she went on to soundcheck for her gig that night. M.I.A. is in the middle of the US leg of a huge world tour to promote her almost universally lauded second album, Kala. A couple of nights earlier she’d played Portland, where one starry-eyed blogger just back from the gig called her ‘the coolest chick – no, person – in the universe’ and said she ‘could easily recruit an army of American youth ready to jump off any bridge she pointed at’.
‘Aaaaah, man! That’s amazing!’ she says, when I quote it back to her. So, I take it the album’s gone down pretty well in the States? ‘Yeah! I was kind of surprised, actually. We keep doing these shows and people keep screaming and going mad. I don’t get it. I really don’t get it. I thought this album was much more raw than the first one, but the audiences are going crazy; dancing to it.’
If she still sounds a little bit dazed, it’s because it wasn’t necessarily meant to happen this way. Almost everything distinctive about Kala – the nomadic, borderless melange of world music styles represented on almost every track, the succession of disenfranchised voices offering guest raps, the world-weary sarcasm pervading much of the lyrical content – grew out of a series of accidents.
Two years ago, riding high on the success of Arular, her stomping, grimey, dancehall-loaded and utterly uncompromising debut, M.I.A. arrived in America. She was laden with invitations to parties including one at Gwen Stefani’s house; she had an apartment in the hippest part of Brooklyn; she was due to cut her second album with star-maker producer Timbaland, the man single-handedly responsible for the rehabilitation of Nelly Furtado. However, she was refused entry to the country.
M.I.A.’s father, famously, is Arul Pragasam, the ‘Arular’ of her first album’s title, and a high-ranking member of the Tamil Tigers, the revolutionary Sri Lankan sect. They’re estranged; after a childhood spent dodging the civil war in Sri Lanka and in refugee camps in India, M.I.A.’s mother, Kala, moved the family back to London, where Maya had been born. Whether it was this connection, or whether M.I.A.’s own lyrics, namechecking the Tigers and the Palestine Liberation Army, had the American authorities worried (‘I got the bombs to blow you up,’ she chanted on Arular’s big floor filler, ‘Pull Up The People’) is unclear, and obviously things have been sorted out now, but at the time she was labelled as undesirable and sent back to the UK.
‘When I was denied the visa, I ended up just couch-surfing, sleeping at other people’s houses. I couldn’t access any of my equipment or my demos – it was already over in America, with the rest of my life – so I had to start from scratch with what was around me. The thing is, I get bored easily, and I don’t see the point of doing something twice. I made Arular in London; I’d already made a real London album. I just thought, fuck it. If I’m gonna couch-surf in London, I might as well go and couch surf in India or Liberia.’
She just kept travelling? ‘Yeah! And at the same time, I wanted to get out of people’s view: to go and spend time learning about myself and trying to be better. Not really technically better, but I just wanted to be better as a human being. And it’s really hard to do that when you make club music. There’s no such thing as a better human being in club music! It’s like, you either dance . . . or you get the fuck out! And I don’t want to be talking about ‘big titties’ and ‘fucking hos’. Dance music needs to be expanded, in terms of subject matter and substance, and that’s what I was trying to do.’
Around the same time, her relationship with US DJ Diplo (aka Wesley Pentz) began to fail. She’s been notoriously unwilling to discuss it in interviews, so it came as a surprise when she brought it up of her own accord.
‘I was totally in love with Wes, and we split up, because he felt he couldn’t be with someone who makes music. It was really difficult; suddenly I was in this situation where, you know, you either have to give it up and have kids – we’d probably live on a trailer park or something – or carry on being a musician, whatever that’s supposed to do, whatever this thing is that I’ve started. I felt really under pressure to either make an album or do the staying in, and you know, I was in love. And in so many ways I saw these parallels with the situation my mum had been in 20 years before, as a single parent and a refugee. Just trying to survive.’
Kala was named for her mother. Was it at this period that she decided to do that? ‘Yeah, this is it. My mum, she couldn’t really give me advice. She had an arranged marriage that didn’t really work, so she didn’t have any opinions on that side of it. When it comes to work, she’s just happy with whatever the achievement is.
‘So when I started this album, I really thought, “I don’t know why I’m doing this, I don’t know who I’m doing it for. I don’t know anything. I’m out of this relationship, Timbaland, that dream and hope, is not gonna happen, and I probably don’t even wanna make music.” I was exhausted, and then this album just came out from that weird place. I just didn’t care what anyone was going to think. And it just ended up being what it is because it came out from a time of just trying to survive, in music, as a woman.’
All of these things went into Kala, and it shows. Where Arular was direct and confronted world issues head-on and noisily, Kala’s politics are fuzzier, less tangible. The opening track, ‘Bamboo Banger’, comes from the point of view of a small child chasing a Western tourist’s car down a dust road; further collaborations come from the Wilcanna Mob, a pre-pubescant troupe of Aboriginal rappers, and Afrikan Boy, a teenage Liberian refugee.
‘Well, yeah,’ M.I.A. says, as though these were utterly obvious choices. ‘When I started making Arular, back in 2002-2004, there was just politics. Most people of our age, living in the West, were in the middle of the biggest saturated political moment of their lives. But now, well, we’ve seen where it goes. Everyone is out there talking about it. We’ve all watched Saddam Hussein being hanged on YouTube. What the hell have I got to add to that? Just trying to survive,’ she repeats. ‘That’s what it’s about. I wanted to speak for everyday people, living their everyday lives.’
Because Kala eschews any single ideology, style, form or even culture, listening to it can be as dizzying and confusing as inhaling the flashing day-glo graphics on her self-designed website. But then, the contradictions are typical; M.I.A. is a hard woman to pin down. She grew up in refugee camps and on London council estates listening to bashment and dancehall music; she’s also an Alternative Turner Prize-nominee who shared a flat with the slightly Sloaney designer Luella Bartley while they studied art at St Martin’s College, and who got her big break in music under Justine Frischmann’s privileged wing. Nothing seems to stick to her, although almost certainly not through any conscious deviousness on her part. Maya Arulpragasam is the sort of person who generates rumours around her head without apparently meaning to. The internet places her age at anywhere between 25 and 32 (most sources say she’s 30); casts doubt on the degree to which she is estranged from her revolutionary father, and is abuzz with speculation about exactly why she was refused entry to America. But it’s from – and about – this mess of contradictions that she makes her art. Maya Arulpragasam is the sort of person who can tell four different, possibly conflicting, stories about the genesis of her album, and have them all be true.
FRIENDS OF THE EARTH
The people M.I.A. doesn’t know in the cultural world probably aren’t worth knowing. Here’s proof that all roads run to M.I.A. AKA Maya
designed the cover of the sleeve for The Menace, the disastrous second album by . . .
Who traversed America with Maya in tow documenting their tour. The support on that tour was . . .
Who introduced Maya to the Roland MC-505 Groovebox, a sequencer and keyboard also beloved by James Murphy of . . .
Who invited M.I.A. out on tour across America with him and his band in 2005. The tour was witnessed by . . .
The director wanted to collaborate with Maya on a film. She didn’t do it but made one about London rapper Afrikan Boy. The film featured . . .
Who was nominated for an Oscar for Being John Malkovich. Fellow Oscar nominee . . .
Was an early champion of Maya’s art, which was nominated for the Alternative Turner Prize. When it comes to her music however. . .
Is a ferverent supporter of Maya. Her single ‘Boyz’ debuted on his Radio 1 show. Radio 1 also championed ‘Bad Man’ by . . .
Missy ‘Misdemeanour’ Elliot
Which guest-starred Maya. Missy is often credited with popularising the sampling of Indian music in mainstream hip hop. Like . . .
Who did the same for British indie pop on ‘Brimful of Asha’. Which paid tribute to Bollywood movie star . . .
Who inspired hundreds of movies like Disco Dancer, which has the song ‘Jimmy Jimmy Aaja’ covered as ‘Jimmy’ by . . .
A true woman for all seasons be it music, movies, design or political polemic, she can turn her hand to them all.
M.I.A. plays the Arches, Glasgow, Wed 12 Dec. www.miauk.com