After almost a decade in the public eye, M.I.A. is resigned to being misunderstood.
During her five-year ascendance she was hailed for her borderless, mashed-up approach to music, art and fashion, landing an unlikely global smash with the Clash-sampling single ‘Paper Planes’ and making it onto TIME magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. But then came 2010’s Maya (aka /\/\ /\ Y /\), her third and most divisive record.
Though she’d made her name flirting with violent imagery and riffing on her background as a refugee from the Sri Lankan civil war, her depiction of a genocide against red-headed youths in the video for ‘Born Free’ proved too much for some critics, who lambasted the album’s political naivety, particularly opening track ‘The Message’, which put forward the unthinkable idea that the government might be using Google to spy on its citizens. M.I.A.’s dethroning came to a head that year with a New York Times interview that cast her as a political poseur, a hypocrite who liked her agitprop with a side order of bling and truffle fries.
This is the mysterious dichotomy I’m trying to unpick as I arrive at the central London hotel where Maya Arulpragasam has been receiving the press all afternoon. My heart sinks slightly as I note the lobby’s business class glitz and the smooth foreheads of the door-opening staff; I’d hoped, as a casual fan, that she’d be at pains to position herself as a fellow prole in order to avoid a repeat of the New York Times’ fiasco (her reaction to which – tweeting the number of the hatchet-wielding journalist – was rather less than dignified). I remind myself that M.I.A. is actually very famous, and hiring a hotel suite for a press day is fairly standard procedure on the promotional trail.
The mistake I’m making, though, is the same mistake made by every critic of her politically charged music. From the way her conversation flits bird-like from one thought to the next, to the way she orders her soup (“any!”), eating it with her limbs tucked under her like a kid in front of the TV, it’s plain that the main force propelling M.I.A. through the universe is spontaneity. And that gets her into trouble.
“I always feel like a teenager,” she tells me, getting up to fetch the newly arrived soup. “I do! I still suffer from a bit of teenage angst, where I think, ‘nobody understands!’” When Maya’s misunderstood – which is often, from her perspective – she can’t just “chuck a hissy fit, because I’m not allowed,” she says, half-joking. “But eventually the things that I’ve been misunderstood about get cleared. It takes time. And time is a bitch.”
Time has moved slowly for Maya this year. Her fourth album, Matangi, will finally be out on November 5 after months of delays (a release date magically appeared when she threatened to leak it herself). Legal battles have also wearied her; after successfully winning custody of her son Ikyhd, she now finds herself at the sharp end of a lawsuit from the NFL over the middle finger she deployed during her Super Bowl performance last year (they’re demanding $1.5 million as an apology; she’s dismissed the move as a “massive display of powerful corporation dick-shaking”).
But Matangi is not a record borne of turmoil and strife. After years of constant motion, travelling across cities and continents and briefly making her home in the US, the 38-year-old finally returned to the UK two years ago after ending her relationship with Ikyhd’s father, the billionaire environmental entrepreneur Ben Bronfman.
“It’s good that Matangi was made two years ago, because it was made when I’d moved back to London and I was really happy. I was really settled, I was in love and I bought my home, which I’d never had before in my life. It was my little space, and it was the first space anyone in my family had owned,” she explains in a London accent thick with glottal stops. “It was all falling into shape – because it just never was, it was crazy before.”
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Making the record was a refuge from the “shitstorm” raging in the US, “the discreditment of my achievement or my name or me as an artist,” she says. “The people who did it were reaping the rewards of it and benefiting from that mentality, and it was the time of the bros–”
“The time of the bros was this type of music and concept and philosophy – ‘Y.O.L.O.’ goes with the time of the bros,” she smiles. “So I made the record at the most peaceful time, then when shit hit the fan again and I was in this custody battle, I played my album a lot and it got me through.”
The last song written for the album was ‘Y.A.L.A.’, a karmically inspired retort to the ‘Y.O.L.O’ catchphrase (her version stands for ‘you always live again’). Completed just a few months ago, it’s a bombastic, dancehall-shaped jamboree that threatens to topple under the weight of Maya’s signature ricocheting percussion and effortless ad libs. You get the impression she wrote the words on a napkin in five minutes, but it’s the feeling of spontaneity – that word again – that seals the deal.
Matangi is her birth name (she opted for the easier-to-pronounce Maya when she moved to the UK as a child) but also, as she discovered during a cursory Google search, a Hindu goddess of music, speech and the arts. It’s a striking coincidence, and one that fuelled her perception of Matangi as an album she could retreat to amid the turbulence.
“I was test-running this shit,” she says. “I would put it on and I saw if it gave me strength to get up and keep going and fighting.” Fortunately, the album was written before the custody battle reared its head. “It would’ve corrupted this concept album I was making of, like, tranquility,” she says, which is a strange word to describe an album in which even the most peaceful tracks (the Hit-Boy-produced ‘Warriors’, for instance) are propped up by martial percussion and a kaleidoscopic array of chopped and looped samples.
While Maya’s ex-boyfriend Diplo is naturally absent from the album credits, his former Major Lazer partner Dave ‘Switch’ Taylor shows up on six of the songs (thanks to Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine forcing the pair to “literally hug it out” in his office, as she told NME last week), alongside US hitmaker Danja and French electro producer Surkin, among others. As ever, Maya’s skill isn’t her musical ability, as such, but her musical ear and her magpie-like obsession with collecting shiny ideas and piecing them together in spiffy new ways. In the early days, music was just one aspect of the art she was making, alongside videos, books, stencils and her own customised clothes.
“Musically, it had to be very fast, disposable, instant – ‘cos that’s how everything else I was making was,” she says of her first songwriting attempts. “l didn’t know how to play any instruments and I had no proper musical knowledge, so it was all put together in a really scrappy way. I think that helps it, and it also makes you think about different things in a different way.”
Does she still think of herself as an artist rather than a musician? “It’s weird, I mean I was doing the same stuff before, but music just took off and it’s the thing that I became famous for,” she says. “This Matangi, she’s the goddess of music but also spoken word and articulation of inner thoughts, and that could be anything. I do get frustrated with music sometimes, because it is a bit limited.”
Given her taste for spectacle and ceaseless ability to get tongues wagging, it’s odd to think that M.I.A. isn’t especially known as a live performer. Her appearance at the 2009 Grammys, rapping alongside Lil Wayne in a revealing dress pulled tight over her nine-months-pregnant belly, proved she was no longer afraid of the stage, but doesn’t she ever fancy beating Beyoncé and Gaga at their own game and rolling out the mother of all world tours?
She pauses. “Well,” she starts, suggesting she’s thought about this one before. “In order for me to do ‘MIA Live: The Musical’, it would have to have loads of screaming ethnics,” she laughs, “and that could be really problematic with visas! It’s true – the number one thing that has kept me down is that I can never fucking find visas for these people. All the people that I try to articulate for, they can never be a part of my show because none of them can get visas.”
The dance moves might be tricky, too, she admits. “I just cannot do it. Even if you say, ‘I want you to take eight steps and enter the loo right now’, I would not take eight steps! It’d be the wrong number.”
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But there are other avenues for Maya’s creativity. A few weeks ago she unveiled a range of clothes for Versace’s Versus line inspired by counterfeit luxury brands, with logos piled upon logos to form gaudy, eye-popping patterns. The fashion shoot took place on Ridley Road, an east London market where similar ‘Versace’ items can be picked up for just a few quid. Surely the grand Italian fashion house hated the idea?
“They liked it, because I was like, ‘this is all I have’,” she laughs. “It’s the only thing I could bring to it. I only know Versace from when it filtered to the streets, and if I had to think of a high-end Versace thing then I could think of the Liz Hurley dress, or something J-Lo wore, but you’re not gonna hire me to design that, d’you know what I mean? So I took them all the bootleg stuff and it’s sort of working out, ‘cos it’s two weeks into it and my fans have started complaining that they can’t afford it – so now I can turn around and be like, ‘yeah, but the operative word in this whole collection is bootleg‘,” she smiles. “Off you go.”
But in light of the dressing down she got in the New York Times piece, which juxtaposed her rather ritzy lifestyle with her terrorist sympathies and soundbites like “give war a chance”, wasn’t she concerned that a collaboration with Versace might fuel the fire of criticism against her?
“It’s my year of saying yes,” she answers quickly. “Which I’ve never done before. I’ve had 10 managers in 10 years, and this year I’m saying yes to everything.” She didn’t care what people would think? “What it’s saying is that I value a bootleg as much as a high-end fashion label,” she offers. “If I can use a high-end fashion label to get that message across, then it still brings it to a place where it’s not really about authenticity. And it’s nice that Versace is letting me say that, it’s really cool.” Like an infiltration method. “Infiltration stations,” she nods.
After the NSA revelations proved that Google was more intimately connected to the government than we could have feared, the paranoid lyrics of ‘The Message’ seemed more like a prophesy. Is she bothered that people might see her as a crackpot conspiracy theorist?
“It’s not a limitation on my part, it’s a limitation on the way we’re trained to digest information and who it comes from,” she says carefully. “That is the problem with our society, you know – we have all the technology in the world that we want, and yet we still have difficulties digesting shit and doing something with it. You have to not limit information, because then it makes people limited, which only benefits consumerism.” I want to point out that designing a clothing line might be said to benefit consumerism, but then I remember I’m supposed to be bootlegging her designs.
As ever, spontaneity rules. If it’s tempting to dismiss Maya’s politics as garbled or naive, they do at least seem authentic and deeply felt. “Even the most craziest person in the street who talks crazy shit while they’re sat outside selling the Big Issue with a dog, if they say something crazy, I do give it a second to think about it,” she continues. “I don’t just dismiss it, because you have to put everything in the pot and draw your own conclusion.”
Maya has a way of fixing her gaze on you so you can be in no doubt that she means what she says. “I feel like, as an artist, that’s all I do – I just chuck shit in the pot and then the conclusion people draw is up to them.”