Understanding M.I.A.: 5 Things You Need to Know

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Illustration by Billi Kid
WRITTEN BY
Jon Dolan

Confused revolutionary? Brilliant provocateur? Maya Arulpragasam is the most polarizing figure in pop today, a neon blur of contradictions and conflations -- but she may also be the most thrilling. Here's a handy guide to her life and art and everything in between. [Full Magazine Story]

By some accounts -- including her own -- we should all be done talking about Maya Arulpragasam. In 2007, promoting her sophomore album, Kala, the singer known as M.I.A. told an interviewer, "I feel like a mirror reflecting back everyone's perception of me. Part of me wants to carry on. Part of me wants to stop." Eight months later, onstage at Bonnaroo, she went even further: "This is my last show," she announced.

Like many things she says, the statement posed more questions than it answered. And soon enough, M.I.A.'s career was on another upswing: In the summer of 2008, the trailer for Pineapple Express turned Kala's best song, "Paper Planes," into a hit; she performed at the Grammys (on the day she was scheduled to give birth); got an Oscar nomination for Best Song for the Slumdog Millionaire track "O...Saya"; and saw Kala go gold.

Now, she's just released her third and most anticipated album, ///Y/, and the mirror is only getting bigger and bigger, shifting fun-house-style. The ultraviolent video for "Born Free" caused a media shit storm. The New York Times Magazine chimed in with a nine-page feature that attempted to expose M.I.A. as an entitled, politically naive hypocrite (if you missed the ensuing Internet-fueled micro-scandal, you really need to spend less time outside).

Of M.I.A.'s many talents, explaining herself may not be her strongest or her favorite -- she declined to go on the record for this story -- but that's okay. We're happy to give it a shot. In that same 2007 interview, she predicted, "I might be in carpentry next year." Or maybe not.

HER MUSIC

M.I.A. has claimed that when she moved from war-torn Sri Lanka to London in 1983 at age eight, she only knew two English words: "Michael Jackson," as if her beats-without-borders worldview came via some sort of Thriller-inscribed primal scene. When "Galang" hit in 2004, it worked a space between hip-hop, dancehall, and then-trendy grime, like the Slits meets rave meets Missy Elliott. Never much of a singer or dancer, she worked in the tradition of technically limited geniuses like Madonna and Miles Davis, who only used exactly the amount of talent necessary to make a scene.

"She's got a million ideas," says Rusko, one of the producers on her new album. "When we record her, we fix some of the out-of-tune notes and keep some in. A lot of recording with her is happy accidents."

M.I.A. got her start as a London graphic designer and scenester, hanging with English pop heavies like Elastica's Justine Frischmann and Blur's Damon Albarn. In 2000, while working as Elastica's tour videographer, she learned how to operate a Roland MC-505 drum machine with help from the tour's opening act, smut-rapper Peaches. A large coterie of producers and engineers worked on her 2005 debut, Arular, but it still had the euphoric feel of a novice punching buttons and letting her chanting-rapping-trilling-spieling vocalese bounce off the sounds she conjured.

"Today, hip-hop is club music," says Rusko, who notes that having M.I.A. on his résumé led to work on new Britney Spears tracks. "Hip-hop and R&B are looking towards club music for ideas right now. She and [ex-boyfriend and frequent collaborator] Diplo were some of the first people to do that. It's the rule now."

2007's Kala was supposed to be the record where she went pro. Timbaland was on tap to coproduce (he ended up doing one track). But when the U.S. government denied her a long-term work visa, she regrouped and recorded throughout the third world, culling performances from Nigerian MC Afrika Boy and a 30-piece Indian drum circle, among others. On Kala, the sounds of third-world slums hammer at the gates of first-world pop; "I put people on the map that never seen a map," she sang on "20 Dollar."

In a sense, ///Y/ is a map, a global picture of the matrices of technology, power, and money. The technology theme gestated during her pregnancy, where the housebound mom-to-be became obsessed with new media. (Google is thanked in the liner notes.) "XXXO" turns on a metaphor about flattened identities in the iPhone era; bonus track "Internet Connection" is a meditation on aloneness inspired in part by a three-hour bout with customer service; "Lovealot" is the story of Russian Islamic teen terrorists who met online; and the album-closing "Space" turns the floaty phrase "My lines are down, you can't call me" into a double metaphor for romantic disconnection and techno-alienation.

The music is as universal as the theme, less worldly in that it doesn't use global beats but more of-the-world in that it plays off the pop music that most people actually listen to. It's folk music for the iPad age, her most radical gesture yet.

HER POLITICS

In 2004, M.I.A. and Diplo released their first mixtape, titled Piracy Funds Terrorism, comparing downloaders to suicide bombers. It established her unique political posture, charging herself with being the chief Western voice of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, an ethnic group that has been subject to systemic oppression at the hands of the country's Sinhalese majority. This has forced her into a problematic rhetorical relationship with the militant separatist Tamil Tigers, whose most extreme tactics include the use of child soldiers and many suicide bombings (which they are credited with popularizing). M.I.A.'s father founded a nonviolent forerunner of the Tigers, called EROS, and while many early stories on her fabricated a Tiger connection, she strenuously claims he was never in the group. In 2008, she said, "I don't support terrorism and never have," and she doesn't support the Tigers. Other statements ("Give war a chance"), suggest a radical-chic identification with violent rhetoric that recalls '60s groups the Weather Underground and Red Brigades. Detractors point to her use of tigers in her videos and on her website; in 2008, a Sri Lankan–American rapper named DeLon posted a parody video of "Paper Planes," featuring images of Tiger atrocities.

She has been articulate in explaining the ways reactionary leaders brand all dissent as "terror": "When [Westerners] think Tamil, you automatically think Tiger," she said in 2009. "If you're a terrorist organization, you don't have the right to speak. That's been passed on to the Tamil civilians." At the same time, she can play fast and loose with facts. She claims, for instance, that the Sri Lankan military is "a million soldiers big" -- it's closer to 340,000. She has also been criticized for calling the civil war in her native country a "genocide," though it hasn't been officially designated as such.

"Any time you're trying to address a complicated situation or complex ideas, you're going to have a hard time getting it across," says Boots Riley of leftist Bay Area rappers the Coup (and rap rockers Street Sweeper Social Club), who caused a media maelstrom by depicting the World Trade Center exploding on the cover of a record that was supposed to come out right after 9/11. "When it's CNN interviewing you and you've only got five seconds, you've got to cut to the core." In 2009, shortly after her genocide claim, hostilities in Sri Lanka came to an end. Yet at least 80,000 Tamils still live in army-run camps.

M.I.A. throws herself into this mess headlong, embodying the impulse to incite and also to heal. If her comments often seem contradictory, that too is a kind of message. "If I represent anything, it's what it's like to be a civilian caught up in a war," she said in 2005. In other words, she represents not just struggle, but dissonance, a kind of permanent refugee status. Maybe that's why her political statements can at times end up sounding like this recent tweet: "i got digital cash Hactivism at its best Google Bombing with my Infotainment."

HER BUSINESS

M.I.A.'s only hit began to bubble up just as the global economy started to tank. "Paper Planes" was built around a sample of the Clash's "Straight to Hell" and its refrain ("All I want to do is [boom boom boom] and take your money") circled a nexus of capitalism and nihilism, the rallying cry for the AIG gangstas torching our 401(k)s.

Like everything about her, M.I.A.'s own connections to capitalism are complex. This year, she turned down licensing offers from Coke and Pepsi, and recently said, "Money is the enemy of music." Yet, in 2008, she told this magazine she was "polluting the mainstream" by licensing "Galang" to Honda. It's a measure of M.I.A.'s heart-tugging power over leftoid music fans that this engendered debates about the nature of selling out and quaintly harkened back to the early days of punk. Reflecting a less tortured impulse, her own actions, and those of her fiancé, Benjamin Bronfman, suggest a positive relationship between wealth and power; Bronfman used seed money from his father, Warner Media Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr., to cofound Global Thermostat, a sustainable-development firm. M.I.A. gives extensively, though quietly, to a number of charities.

She claims that if she does license her music, it will only be to help her protégés. M.I.A. has signed several young artists to her boutique label, N.E.E.T. (based on the acronym for "Not in Employment, Education, or Training"), bankrolled by Interscope. "Record companies don't have the money to pay A&R people anymore," says Diplo. "They give these labels to everyone. A lot of people don't do anything with them. She has." M.I.A.'s big score is punky, crunky Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells, this year's buzziest New York band. She's also played Henry Higgins to 19-year-old Baltimore rapper Rye Rye and oddball producer Blaqstarr, who lent his dark, grimy beats to ///Y/. She sees N.E.E.T. more as a media company than record label (one signee is a photographer, Jaime Martinez). And while her role varies -- she was very involved in Rye Rye's forthcoming debut but less so with the Sleigh Bells album -- it all enhances the sense of M.I.A. as an arbiter of boundary-busting possibility.

"I'm all about hip-hop and R&B," says Rye Rye. "She introduced me to other genres, tribal stuff. People thought a couple songs sounded more like hers than mine. We compromised."

HER AESTHETIC

"When I met her, she was silk-screening her own covers for the 12-inch for 'Fire Fire,'?" Diplo recalls of the pre-Arular M.I.A. "I was amazed. It was hand-painted, with these Molotov cocktails and her tiger prints and stuff. She always knew this was the angle." Before the candy-colored images of guns, war planes, bombs, and tanks that decorate the Arular CD booklet caused controversy, they won her acclaim as a visual artist. In 2002, she was nominated for a prestigious Alternative Turner Prize, and early profiles of M.I.A. often noted that Jude Law was among the early collectors of her work.

The mix of hyper-bright and vaguely insurgent is a thread she's followed in making the now-standard pop-star move into fashion design. M.I.A.'s own look can run from futurist-aerobics instructor to new-wave pirate to dancer in an old X-Clan video to queenly candy raver. Early-'90s photos of African slum kids carrying AK-47s and wearing Michael Jordan jerseys donated by American charities goes a long way toward explaining this.

The clothes she sells are pastiches, radiantly bright and button-pushing, not exactly the kind of thing you can expect to see trickling down to Filene's Basement. From a bomber jacket ($210) resembling a hodgepodge of African flags (like the cover of Bob Marley's Survival) to a sleek hoodie festooned with watermelon slices, her music's themes of commodification, appropriation, and noticeability-at-all-costs (including a $65 tank top) are all there.

"She samples styles and mixes colors and prints the same way she constructs music," says designer Carri Munden, who has worked with M.I.A. since the "Galang" video. "It's chaos. But the end result is unique, and she is one of the only female artists on her level to be completely in control of her own style."

Indeed, in an era in which music occupies an increasingly thin, crowded cultural bandwidth, being a "multi-platform" operation is essential. "Even when we were working on tracks, she'd be putting pictures together and getting images off Google," says Rusko. "She was always thinking about the whole package."

M.I.A. smartly gives this strategy its own global-revolutionist cast. "The Kala artwork and sound and clothes are all about being worldly and representing the idea of the whole world being mashed up into one," she said in 2008.

HER LIFE

Ironically, ///Y/ is actually less steeped in the iconography of terror and revolution than her previous work; there is a song called "Teqkilla" but nary a Molotov cocktail gets flung. It's easy to credit this shift to a savvy assessment of her fans' rosier Obama-era worldview. Those close to her credit the shift to something more basic that isn't easy to discern from outside. Confrontational videos and guerrilla media tactics aside, her life is more normal than ever.

"She's content now," says Rusko, who lived in the L.A. home she shares with Bronfman and traveled with her to Hawaii while recording ///Y/. "Her life is a lot more settled now. She's got the baby. When we were recording, she'd do vocals, then go upstairs to be with the baby for a couple hours. There wasn't much drama."

It shouldn't be shocking that the less hard-knock her life has gotten the more hits she's taken and the more paranoid of the press she's become. When M.I.A. first arrived in 2005, the gorgeous, impossibly cool singer with the exotic background and "freedom fighter" father made for ideal copy. Five years later, the image has flipped. In the lengthy Times Magazine profile, writer Lynn Hirschberg mustered a wide range of evidence (the food she eats, the house she lives in, the way in which she gave birth) to imply a disconnect between M.I.A.'s radical political rhetoric and her comfortable lifestyle. M.I.A., who sings, "I fight the ones that fight me" on "Lovealot," walked the walk by tweeting Hirschberg's phone number and posting an incendiary dis track on the N.E.E.T. site.

"That writer was setting her up," says Boots Riley. "An artist has access to media now that allows you to hold a writer accountable. Her move was brilliant."

The track is at once confrontational and wounded. Titled simply "I'm a Singer," it gives off a sense of awe at the values of a world that cares about the words of a pop star and ignores the real suffering of real people. ("Babies lying in the ditch / Thinkin' if they had a Kyte phone, you'll see this shit").

The old mirror paradox is back in play -- scale, proportion, focus, all out of whack. "All I ever wanted was my story to be told," she sings on ///Y/. For someone so skilled at image manipulation, that's hardly the whole picture. But if tomorrow night, the CIA black helicopters of her wildest fantasies really do swoop in and remove her to some undisclosed location for waterboarding and Justin Bieber–enhanced interrogation, and "I'm a Singer" was her final statement to the outside, its message would be clear enough: In the end, it's really all just art.

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