M.I.A.: Follow The Leader

M.I.A. is a legend; a dynamic study of how divergent, intercontinental cultural influences can come together in their rawest forms, run amok in the most inspiring way, all while remaining palatable enough for eager listeners to get on with it. And if there ever was a time when many didn’t get the artist born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, it’s surely not the case now. Here’s a special throwback interview with her from 2009.

Words & Interview: Aimstar
Image: M.I.A. album covers

Over her decade + long creative career, M.I.A. has managed to awaken a generation of sleepy, head-boppers and creative types who got comfortable with the status quo, by being anything but average. Whether she knows it or not, or would even accept it, M.I.A. is a ruler. She’s an artist, activist, producer, singer, songwriter and visionary, the woman who helped pave the way towards our globalized, musical future. She’s also the around-the-way Tamil girl who, when she wasn’t on tour, lived one block over from Nostrand Avenue in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn before it was “cool”. The same girl who taught me how to use my then newly-purchased digital recorder (which so happened to be the same one she used to record things that inspired her on the daily back then), five minutes before I did this interview with her in June of 2009.

Quiet as kept, 2008, just a year before, was a crazy year for her. Through a partnership with Interscope Records, M.I.A. launched N.E.E.T. Recordings, with Baltimore artist Rye Rye signed under the bill. “Paper Planes” had dropped months earlier off of her second studio album, the highly-acclaimed, Kala. She went on what seemed to be a never-ending promotional tour. She and then boyfriend Ben Bronfman were already expecting baby Ikhyd, but the world didn’t know it yet. Months from now she would be welcoming him into her world, after performing while extremely pregnant (and thus confirming the rumors)—first with Pharrell at the Diesel XXX party, and then “Swagga Like Us” at the Grammy’s alongside Jay-Z, T.I. Lil Wayne and Kanye West. There was also the Oscar nomination for her contributions to the Slumdog Millionaire score. And there was so much more…

For M.I.A., being m.i.a. on the creative landscape was simply out of the question. Even her 2-yr sabbatical to raise her son hasn’t stopped her from making music or even seeing the residual effects of what she’s already done take root. This interview marks her words after the dust settled, when M.I.A. became the stuff that legends and folklore are made of. This is only part of her story that she shared with me that Saturday afternoon, as we milled about on Fulton Avenue in the Stuy.

M.I.A.: And now it’s recording…and I think that one recording, it lasts like an hour…

M.I.A.: You hit record again and it automatically goes to page two…

M.I.A.: And number three [Laughs], is the folder the interview is on! Go on…


What is your definition of power?

Wow, the definition of power… Okay, give me a context because it’s kind of different. Because there’s the power that people kill for, then there’s the power that you can have yourself over your mind, your body and that kind of thing. And I think that it’s really weird because I was in the Time 100 list because of influence, and I think that influence is power. Some people think that money is power, but I don’t think money is power anymore.

So what do you think is power now?

I think…

[Random fan in the street asks M.I.A. if she’s really M.I.A.. She breaks to say yes and share a laugh.] She says, “We’re in Bed Stuy!” before admiring what’s on offer by street vendors. “I like these tie-dye ballons…”

It is just a really weird question because it’s quite a big question and I think maybe influence is, and also maybe the power to resist a lot of shit is what’s important to me. I think that’s what’s power, like how is it like to be able to live in a world, pick and choose what you do and be able to control your quality of life. Like if you take people in Bed Stuy, like a lot of the time they have to take the brunt of how society’s setup, you know. Like a social sense, they don’t have the power to control what they eat—those crucial things, you know like how you live, the amount of sun you get or blah, blah, blah. Being able to give your children a certain education—all of those things that I think that are valuable, but aren’t necessarily acquired through money because I think that you can do it some other way, you know, just by choices. Yeah, choice, that’s power.

What do you think it is about you as a person and as an artist that is generating this type of influence?

I don’t know because when I first came out, Kanye and Missy [Elliot] and Timbaland were already reaching out to me—all of these people from the Hip-Hop world were already like my fans, so I was like an artist’s artist and only artists liked me. I was really flattered that you could be amazing to like a certain social set. Like I met Nas and that was amazing. Like Nas he really liked my shit, for like no reason, which was crazy because at that time I didn’t really think what I was doing was really Hip-Hop. It was difficult for me to communicate that I was a product of Hip-Hop but it was coming from like a third place. And I don’t think that at time, that people in Hip-Hop knew the affects of Hip-Hop and all that shit around them.

Loud music starts playing. [Laughs] M.I.A. repeats, “We’re in Bed Stuy…” Then continues, “It’s a guy wearing denim, denim with a boombox. And a pair of Vans! This is amazing. He’s like a blipster.” [Laughs]

So yeah, I think I didn’t know how to say that, but that’s what I was. It was like, “Hi, I listen to Hip-Hop as a Sri-Lankan refugee and that’s all I listen to. An now I’m this, and I make this weird music, but it’s totally coming from the backbone of Hip-Hop, you know.

Why do you think it was so hard for some to place you in the mainstream?

Because I think this is like the second generation of Hip-Hop. It’s not the first generation, well it’s not the second either. It’s really like third generation, so you have the original people who did Hip-Hop. Then you have those that made Hip-Hop and were successful at Hip-Hop, like the Puffy types. The next step is you see how far Hip-Hop went, like the consumers of Hip-Hop from other parts of the world coming back with Hip-Hop and their own weird style of it. I think that’s why it’s so difficult to place because it’s something that we now have to make room for in the future. You’re gonna get African rappers and—like we’ve had French rappers and stuff but those are people rapping in French.

Cars passes by playing loud Reggae music. A random passerby asks M.I.A. where she got her outfit to which she replies, “At a shop…in Manhattan.” [Laughs]

Something you said earlier triggered something for me…do you think artists of this new generation care about money like the second generation?

No, I think what is happening is that artistry is becoming important again. That’s really what it is. Like Kanye is really like into it, he gets the artistry and that’s what he aspires to be. He’s a three-dimensional, well-rounded artist who has opinion on what couches he likes to designing his blog, and then he designs shoes and wants to talk about what color his screens are going to be on tour, know what I mean? Like, when I meet him, he’s like on that thing, “I want to be the first person to do this and to do that,” you know. And that’s like an art school mentality, which is not a Hip-Hop mentality.

I kind of felt like that because I came out of a school where you had to invent a new kind of filmmaking or invent or new camera to make a film on, you know. It was like explore something that hasn’t happened before, and I think Hip-Hop became a business, where people were just churning loads of shit. Just like, “Money, money, money, money.” And also, the world has changed and that’s the other thing. Hip-Hop is so much about the Black struggle and the Black man and the hood, but now that person has become the president, and then you’ve got nothing to bitch about. Now everyone has got to do the next thing, which is now to use that and to sustain it and to explore new avenues of like putting an identity to Black music again.

I watching the Cops program the other day [Laughs], and it was really cool because they were filming all around here. It was like helicopters going through Brooklyn and like these guys—it was like a hood uniform, they come out all wearing white t-shirts one day because on the radio they were like, “There’s a guy wearing a black t-shirt, a leather jacket and denim jeans with boots on.” And it’s like, that’s everyone in the hood. And he’s [The cop] like, ‘Obviously that’s their uniform in the hood, they’ve redefined camouflage.’ So when one somebody wears a black t-shirt in the hood, everyone wears a black t-shirt that day. All the gangs do it so that they can’t tell anyone apart. The next day it’s a gray t-shirt and the next day it’s something else. And I was thinking about that, that it’s so established and it goes from music to what you talk about to what you wear, to the lifestyle that you have. And that lifestyle is like a ’90s thing and we’re really embedded in it and it’s going to take a while to change that.

I remember the first print hoodie I made in like 2002…

There is a large pop sound. Everyone looks around. M.I.A. says, “Whoooo…That was a balloon not a gunshot. [Laughs] I know we’re in Bed Stuy…”

So I made this hoodie with my friend. I wore it and at that time when I came to New York and stuff, no one had it. Then when I moved to Bed Stuy in 2005, 2006, it was in the bootleg shops and that’s how much it had gone through the thing and come out and everybody was making it—and everyone was wearing it, and now it’s here. So yeah, there are affects of it. I remember thinking that like my music is so weird and people don’t know that sense that there’s certain things— you pick and choose what bits of it you like, you know. Like the fashion thing exploded, and you know, you’ve got have loads of kids that come to my show in like crazy colors and sneakers and shit like that, when the uniform in Hip-Hop is to be quite toned-down in Hip-Hop, where you just wear leathers and crocodile handbags and shoes, and shit. I think that there’s positive effects and change that I think my scene has had on Hip-Hop and a huge influence that Hip-Hop has had on me.

I don’t know why I never pegged you as one who would start their own label. I always saw you as anti “the systems. What led you to that decision?

I don’t know. I just felt like, you know, with Rye Rye and stuff, she’s so young—she’s like 17, but I met her when she was 15—and she looked up to me. She wants to make it and that’s what she needs to do because at the end of the day, yeah she’s almost 18, but she’s from Baltimore. She’s got like five brothers and sisters, a single mom and like, she’s got that “I need to save them” thing, which is what I had. I still take care of my mom and my mom still lives in like the equivalent of the projects or whatever in London. It’s just the same. It’s like, “There’s another person who needs to do that for their family” and I kind of wanted to help her. So if it meant like setting up your business so you can stay on top of it and help her, and figure it out—I was just afraid that the industry would take her and turn her into like yeah, something else. So I wanted to show her, “Look, you can be normal and you can be you, and still do whatever you want to do.

How is it moving on the business side?

It’s okay because I kept my thing as long as possible, so now they’ve come around to me. I think the more success you get, you just get more comfortable with your instinct. And that’s what it is, the more I tune into my instincts, the more shit goes and I’m going to keep it that way. When I go into Interscope, I go just like this; It’s not like they expect to see a Pop star walking in. But that’s what some labels try to do to people. They take you off the street, then they make you into this Pop star and then you’re a slave to wearing high heels and fur, and being in full three-hour makeup. And that’s how you have to be, which is really difficult to maintain. [Laughs] You know what I mean? All of your concentration and energy goes in that shit and then on this side, you’re not doing anything important or cool. You’re just like in companies and mass products, and that’s not what I want to do. So I fight as much as possible.

Do you see more artists coming in under your label?

Yeah, I think not yet because I want to just focus on Rye Rye. And with Rye Rye as well, it’s 50/50. I only have like 50% control over her because she needs to like—I don’t want to be like too much of her mom, you know and she’s like a rebellious teenager and half the time I don’t want to deal with it. It’s literally like having two kids and that’s what I meant. I’ve got like a slamming-door teenager and a tiny baby [Laughs]. And then I have to deal with my relationship with my partner, which is pretty new because we haven’t been together that long. It’s just like so much personal life shit and I’ve just directed her video. I’ve shot it and I’m going to edit it when I get back.

Which video is it for?

“Bang”. So that was like, I could do that creative thing with her, but I hate all the business-y shit. So she turns around and says to me that she wants to license her song to a movie because it means a lot to her, I’m not going to be like, “No, it’s not cool. Don’t do it.” Whereas for my own shit, I’m more like that.

But you were nominated for an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire….

Yeah, I did. But Slumdog is cool, I didn’t realize it was going to be so big, but that part of the scene where they used “Paper Planes” and I felt it matched the song. So I was like, “Cool, that’s kind of the video I wanted to make.” Like she had “Bang” on Fast and the Furious, but I will put my foot down now and again to be like, “Don’t do that”, you know.

We stop inside Trinidad Ali’s, a popular Trinidadian restaurant on Fulton Avenue. I say, “Are you hungry?” to which M.I.A. replies, ‘No, I was going to get something. It’s noisy in here…’ I say, “We could stop recording for a while so you can eat if you’d like.” M.I.A. says, ‘No, I wanted to get some doubles but I actually need to go to the bank to get some cash out.’ I then offer to pay for it, and she declines saying if I use my card, she could use hers to, and she’d prefer to have cash so that she can just buy stuff if she sees anything on the street. I comply when she suggests that we take a walk to the nearest bank.

Tell me about your fashion line.

That was just like me setting up to see what I could do on an independent basis without having to go to anyone to help me do it and stuff. And I just really did it with the person who I made the all-over print hoodie, I kind of just did something with her for my tour, and it did really well where I was like, “Oh, I could do this.” But that’s the thing, it pisses me off sometimes because it is Hip-Hop to do a clothing label and now everyone is getting into doing perfumes, that I don’t want to be a cliché. And Kanye’s sneakers are way to expensive.

Regardless of how innovative and avant garde they they might be?

Yeah. No one can afford $800 for sneakers in a recession.

Inside the bank, M.I.A. goes to the available A.T.M. She starts her withdrawal process.

You don’t think people should charge higher for new innovation?

I think innovation should have people in mind, you know. It’s true you don’t want to just do posh shit, unless that’s Kanye’s thing; making stuff for really rich people and then taking their money. [Laughs] Then fine, do that…I can’t knock it and maybe I should do that. [Laughs] But right now I’m on, we’ve got to make the hood dress better, you know. Maybe I’ll make a shoe too, like a fresh, kind of interesting shoe. Yeah, I kind of make stuff to give corporations a run for their money, not people’s wallets. I want to have money. [Laughs]

Let’s talk about how you plan on using your power to change the world? You’ve done it musically, what other ways, I mean?

Well, I met Oprah the other day and I blogged about it, and everyone was like, “M.I.A. pledges to Oprah for help”. [Laughs] Which is interesting cause Oprah was on Twitter all the time and I wanted to Twitter her from beyond the table. I don’t know, I guess the more successful I get, the more haters I’ve got. I get death threats and stuff for talking about Sri Lanka. But it’s like, that was always my point to be like this is happening in Sri Lanka and this is kind of happened as a—It’s not that I talked about it before a lot, but I was influenced by it in my music and it’s just ironic that it’s happening right now. If I have all of the success, it doesn’t really mean shit if I’m not kind of using it for anything in my lifetime as I’ve witnessing it.

Yeah I watched you on Tavis Smiley and you said something like, it’s kind of ironic that here you were the only person from Sri Lanka in this space and you have the opportunity to talk about it and bring it to light.

Yeah because I never said anything when they were turning all my shit around saying like “Oh look she’s pro Tiger because she’s got tiger print shoes on in her video. And it’s like, you know when stylists turn up with that shit, I don’t say, “I’m not going to wear this” cause I want the same amount of freedom as anybody else. But it’s also interesting to have the opportunity to highlight that, to be like “Look, just because I wear a red t-shirt, [it] doesn’t mean I support the Communist regime in China.” If a Chinese person wears that, do you think that? No. But if I wear it, it’s okay. I’m not going to readily assume that. That’s the thing, I don’t wanna have limits and boundaries to what I do and what I wear as an artist because art can be that extreme. It’s supposed to be extreme and it’s supposed to raise questions and I think I did that. So fuck everybody else. [Laughs]

M.I.A. is currently in the studio working on her fourth studio album, which is set to be released sometime in 2012 or 2013.

Follow M.I.A. on Twitter, @_M_I_A_

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