M.I.A. is pregnant. And not just with revolutionary ideas for her next record. The British-Sri Lankan vocalist/visual artist/producer/record-label founder/clothing designer, born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, is due to give birth in February, and despite what you may have read online, it’s not Kanye’s baby. (Daddy is indie-rock guitarist Benjamin Brewer, son of Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr.) As for the sex of the child? She’s pretty sure she knows, because, well, a clairvoyant bird told her. “In India, they have these parrots who tell your fortune,” says M.I.A., lowering herself into a folding chair at the spartan home studio of her Los Angeles-based production partner Switch. She’s in town to do some work on her next record and hear a new Jay-Z remix of her track “Boyz.” “They come and pick up cards for you. The guy who read my cards said, ‘When you were born, your parents thought you’d be a boy, so you came out with a lot of male energy. You can do a lot of things that men can do. You’re brave, like a dude.’ There’s a lot of male energy in me that needs to be exorcised, that’s how I know it’s gonna be a boy.”
Forget seeking advice from Madonna’s ob-gyn, because M.I.A. has her own unorthodox ideas on how to proceed, and that’s what makes her recent commercial success all the more remarkable. Near a year and a half after the release of her critically acclaimed second album, Kala, the 31-year-old is grabbing the attention of a public who should consider her culture-jamming ways far too weird. Go ahead – try to think of an artist who’s combined Baltimore club beats, separatist slogans, Bollywood homages, multilingual slang, Clash samples, and vivid refugee tales on one album and made it out of her bedroom, let alone onto a major label or high on the Billboard charts? Unlike her peers, many of whom still sound staunchly rooted in the prosperous Clinton years (Gwen and Missy among them), M.I.A. clearly lives in our post-NAFTA/9-11/Abu Ghraib/AIG world.
Still, it took a Trojan horse called Pineapple Express – and some serendipity – to launch her into the mainstream. A trailer for the stoner comedy featured the gun-shot-and-cash-register chorus of her “Paper Planes,” and suddenly this woman who’d rapped about Darfur, the PLO, and Trinidad’s hardest shantytowns was playing back-to-back on your local morning zoo with that sugary breakfast cereal known as the Jonas Brothers. The unlikely hit, which includes the hook “All I want to do (bang, bang, bang, bang, ka-ching) is take your money,” leaked into the American consciousness right about the time those mortgage companies – who’d been taking our money – imploded, bringing the economy down with them. At press time, she’d sold 1.3 million downloads of “Paper Planes,” and Kala had risen to No. 1 on Billboard’s electronic album chart and No. 8 on the hip-hop chart. (This month she’ll debut a digital EP featuring the Jay-Z track.)
Suddenly, the five-foot-three artist’s power-to-the-people slogans felt as marketable as “Get Ur Freak On” did ten years earlier. “I’m glad ‘Paper Planes’ happened when it did,” she says, sipping a Cherry 7-Up. Her maternity wear is a pastiche of stretchy pieces from her nonpreggie wardrobe: a Day-Glo leopard-print bathing suit under a sheer lavender sundress, accented by a pair of worn tiger-striped high-tops. On anyone else, this combo would induce nausea. On M.I.A., it looks cutting-edge cool. “The goods were there to back it up,” she continues. “It was much more relevant than when people were like, ‘Yeah, I got my Hummer and things are good.'”
Now luxury SUV rollers like T.I., Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West have sampled her (“Paper Planes” figures prominently on their hit collaboration “Swagga Like Us”), and fashion hounds wear her 1,000-watt, Malcolm McLaren-meets-Basquiat designs. In the last six months, the Brooklyn, New York-based fine-arts grad has launched her own clothing line, Okley Run, at New York’s Fashion Week (a bright, busy collection that includes the $180 watermelon hoodie and $85 Afrika leggings), birthed the new label N.E.E.T. (Not in Education, Employment, or Training, or teen spelled backwards), signed and is producing Baltimore underground star Rye Rye, and funded a new primary school in war-torn Liberia. In fact, M.I.A. became so determined to pursue all her different interests that in June she announced onstage at Bonnaroo that she was playing her last gig. She admits now that the proclamation was a bit premature. “I wanted to be more creative, make new kinds of art, go back to college, maybe make a film,” she says, with characteristic casualness.”Nice ideas, but I like making music, too, so they didn’t really last.”
How does an artist who aligns herself with refugees, revolution, and ragga negotiate fame, the high-flying world of fashion, and marriage into one of America’s wealthiest families? “The word ‘fiancé’ makes me feel so, you know, French,” M.I.A. says with a laugh when discussing Brewer, a potential heir to the Seagram’s beverage fortune. “When he asked me out on a date, I thought, ‘I don’t know,” she says. “It’s like crossing over to the other side. I’ve always had that fuck-the-system mentality, and his dad is so ‘the System.’ But then, they’re the most liberal family — they bootlegged alcohol, for God’s sake. They’re rich because they threw big, illegal parties, so I don’t mind.
“Still, I know I’ll catch flak,” she says, a slight exasperation in her voice, as if she’s already analyzed the subject a billion times over. “But I think I would’ve been screwed either way. I kept dating guys who were broke, who came from the streets, or from backgrounds like mine, but they didn’t necessarily treat me any better. My fiancé is really a great guy.”
For a girl who recently finished a tour dubbed “People vs. Money,” familial ties with the Bronfmans may appear hypocritical, but as M.I.A. says, “What can you do? I fell in love. It is what it is.” In retrospect, the lyrics to Kala’s “Bird Flu” seem prescient: “Streets are making ‘em hard / So they selfish little roamers / Jumpin’ girl to girl / Make us meat like burgers / When I get fat / I’ll pop me out some leaders.” Is it another case of a bird — or at least a bird-themed song—predicting M.I.A.’s fate? She laughs at the suggestion that she knew any of this was coming, though she will say that her late maternal grandmother was an avid drinker of Martell cognac (a Seagram’s product) and believes that, through heavenly intervention, Gran brought her and Brewer together. “She was, after all, Seagram’s number-one customer,” says M.I.A. proudly.
Eccentrics, militants, farmers, and intellectuals — all are represented in M.I.A.’s DNA. She likes to tell tales of growing up in Sri Lanka between her mother’s creative family and father’s pragmatic clan. Their influence is not only reflected in M.I.A.’s art and music, but in her conversation as well. She can talk about the State of the Union one minute, then why couture clothing is so boring the next. Then address Wall Street greed and water birthing. She uses terms like “intellectual currency,” then refers to change as a “chuggy thing.” But when the subject of music comes up, she stops to ask, “Where the f—k has all the rebellion gone?” then pauses, as if waiting for an answer to materialize on the mixing board in front of her. “Music is still reliant on the same shit: sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. They don’t use it as a tool to stick their finger up at the rest of the world. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I got a shorty coming up to me, and we’re about to have some liquor, chill in the SUV.’ Maybe it happens everyday like that in R.Kelly’s world, but it’s not realistic for me.”
M.I.A. does not own a car or even drive for that matter, but even if she did, she’d be more likely to write songs about the kids in India who were paid two cents an hour to make the vehicle’s after-market seat covers than the hoochie riding shotgun. “If you’re having problems paying rent, then rap or sing about it,” she says, lifting her soda can in the air as if it were a symbol of resistance. “Or is life really that great for everyone else, and I’m the biggest pessimist in the world?
“I have to know, ‘cause now I’m having a child,” she says, looking down at her swollen belly.”Do I need to turn it up or tone it down?”
Toning it down is not an option for the daughter of former Tamil militant Arul Pragasam. M.I.A.’s father was known in ’70s and ’80s Sri Lanka as Arular (Maya named her first album after him), founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students, or EROS. One of many emerging separatist groups, they opposed the rule of the Sinhalese majority government on grounds that the Tamils, an ethnic minority, were being oppressed and discriminated against. Their goal was the creation of an independent Tamil state. His life as an activist and fighter found him moving his family from the U.K., where Maya was born, to Sri Lanka when she was just an infant, only to leave his wife and three kids behind for the cause. M.I.A. spent much of her young life destitute in the Sri Lankan countryside. “‘Jimmy’ used to be my anthem when we lived there,” says M.I.A. of the Bollywood disco hit she revamped on Kala. “For a living, I’d dance to that song and people paid me. I’d come home and bring my mom food or money. If not that, I’d go to parties and draw stupid portraits of people, and they’d give me money.” Ironically, the movie Jimmy came from, 1982’s Disco Dancer, concerns a poor boy who performs on the street for money and grows up to be a star.
She was just six years old when war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, and by the close of the decade, she fled the violence and poverty with her seamstress mother (whom she named Kala after) and two siblings. Back in England, they settled in a government-funded South London housing project. There, in a neighborhood called Mitcham, she would learn how to speak English, fall in love with American hip-hop, and aspire to be a filmmaker. She attended London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where she received a fine-arts and film degree and was soon commissioned by the band Elastica to create the artwork for their second album, The Menace. She eventually toured America as the band’s videographer.”People always said, ‘You look like you could do music, and you dance like you could, but it’s clear you’re really tone-deaf,'” recalls M.I.A., launching into a bar of “Thriller” to support her point. “When I sang songs down the school corridor, people would be laughing. Even now, ‘Paper Planes’ could be a rip-off of ‘Like a Virgin,’ but you’d never know, because I’m that out of tune.”
She says she recorded her first song out of boredom at a friend’s flat using a keyboard and Dictaphone. From that impromptu session came the track “M.I.A.,” which ended up on Arular. From there, she banged out “Galang,” with its battle cry of “Ya, ya, hey!” It was picked up by the U.K. indie hip-hop label Showbiz and pressed into 500 vinyl singles in 2003. Though there was some confusion as to exactly where her sound fit, it became a favorite of club DJs in the U.S. and U.K. The single also spread via the Internet, reaching a global fan base well before the album was even released. “In the beginning, my battles were so different from now,” M.I.A. says. “People were like, what is it? Is it rap? Is it grime? I’d have to go to these meetings where they didn’t get it. I was going through managers left, right, and center because finding someone who believed in me was difficult. Then Wes came along and finally, someone believed in me.”
Wesley Pentz (better known as Diplo) was a DJ from Philly who made a song M.I.A. loved called “News Flash.” After she finished recording Arular, she sought him out to collaborate on what would become 2004’s Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape; they became an item shortly thereafter. Arular was released in 2005 on XL Recordings, complete with guerrilla artwork by M.I.A. herself: Arabic graffiti, stenciled images of tanks, bombs and machine guns, and colorful African-style prints. “The first album, I wrote it to be really cheeky, to say, ‘I’m so outside of this, I don’t even care if I throw a dirtball and get killed for it. I got nothing they can take from me,” she says matter-of-factly. “Then I started thinking that I don’t just want to go on about coming from a war and guns and bombs and blah de blah blah. I wanted to talk about economy and education and how the first world is collapsing into the third world. How everything’s changing. I wanted to be part of that.”
M.I.A.’s attempt at assimilation would include signing with Interscope in 2005. It was not an easy decision for a girl who’d made her name as an outsider, but she says the label, which rereleased Arular in the U.S., promised her full creative control. “It’s definitely something to do with embracing the system while at the same time having something else to offer,” says M.I.A., who teamed up with one of Interscope’s major production talents, Timbaland, for a track on Kala. “In the beginning I thought if your song was in a commercial, that’s selling out [‘Galang’ had been featured in a Honda Civic ad]. But if someone working at a nursing home in Wyoming can hear me, that’s actually good because, well, I was heard. It’s not a war between the mainstream and underground to me anymore. It’s about polluting the mainstream, or hacking into it.” The recording of Kala brought M.I.A. to Trinidad, Liberia, India, Jamaica, Australia, and Japan. The U.S. would not be part of that global recording blitz until late in the process, thanks to tougher Homeland Security restrictions on immigration that delayed her ability to get a visa.
Released in August 2007, Kala was ironically less immediate, and more complex, than her indie debut. She took chances with down-tempo tunes (clearly, the risk that was “Paper Planes” — a track that samples the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” — paid off), warped production techniques (on “Mango Pickle Down River,” she lays the lopsided raps of kids over a bass line that sounds like a didgeridoo channeled through blown speakers), and incredibly dense assaults like “Bird Flu” (a blood-pumping anthem or sonic aneurysm, depending on who’s listening). It’s no wonder it took more than a year for people to really get Kala. “I made some mistakes on this album,” says M.I.A., whose dark brown, wavy hair has grown out since the publicity campaign that saw her bleach, bob, and even straighten it. “I got locked out of America, so l said I’m not gonna deal with American s—t. I kind of wanted to be an outsider, and that was the problem. Some people thought that was (a) mad and talking gibberish, or (b) I was arrogant.” M.I.A. recalls one incident in an Apple store: “I used to have this M.I.A. sticker on my computer, and this guy who worked there said, ‘Oh, do you like her?’ and I said, ‘She’s all right.’ And then he said, “The first album was so much better – at least you could dance to it. But the second album – l just don’t get it.” The people I was with were like, ‘You want me to punch him in the face for you?’ But I did kinda miss it on both ends. Maybe it wasn’t dancey enough to be mindless, and then maybe I didn’t make the point enough to be cerebral.”
M.I.A. is never truly convinced she’s hit the spot, achieved the goal, or struck that perfect, imperfect balance. Her search for inspiration has found her mining Baltimore’s club scene for talent, recording the vocals of aboriginal kids, and dancing in the streets of Caribbean ghettos. Just take a look at her official and nonofficial videos, which are all over YouTube: M.I.A. cutting the dirt with locals in Angola, beating clothes on river rocks with girls in the jungles of India, and hitching a ride in a roach coach through decaying East New York. But not everyone’s pleased with her unique global perspective. A rapper of Sri Lankan descent who goes by the name DeLon made his own video based on “Paper Planes,” on which he raps, “M.I.A., you represent terrorism in the worst way,” over graphic shots of violence purportedly linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers. Despite reports, M.I.A. says that her father was not a Tamil Tiger, though she has mentioned the word “tiger” in songs and dropped the animal’s image in her artwork. “You know what the tiger represents?” raps DeLon. “The death of the innocent.”
Over the past year, intense online flaming – even death threats — have been a harsh reality for M.I.A. But she says that countering the spread of misinformation is one of the reasons she’s decided to continue making records. “I get called a terrorist everyday,” says M.I.A., who claims that a tiger graphic on her website, or even a pair of tiger-striped sneakers she wears in a photo shoot, can set the vitriolic blogs in motion. “These people try to link me to the Tamil Tigers, then link them to Al-Qaeda, which is ridiculous. It sounds small, but I’m pretty sure DeLon has made it so I can never go to Sri Lanka again. And if I can be called a terrorist just for saying what I say, I feel for the people in Sri Lanka who don’t have a name or a lawyer or who aren’t a British citizen. If you live in a village there and get called a terrorist, you’re dead. You don’t get to say, ‘Well, actually I’m not; I’m a singer and you can Google me.”
Her dad, now a writer, is aware of the threats against his daughter. M.I.A. says that she and her father are in contact but her relationship with him is complicated — they don’t speak much and rarely see one another. “I think he feels sorry for me, that I’m now catching flak, especially since he’s had no associations with politics in Sri Lanka since the 1990s,” she says. “Last time I saw him, he was coming to MIT in Cambridge to teach sustainable, global development.” M.I.A. pauses as if, for the first time during the conversation, she’s at a loss for words. She plays with the pop top of her soda can, then continues, “My dad is a really weird and amazing guy. He’ll invent things: ‘Here’s the cow, the cart, and the tree — with these three things I can power a whole city.’ I sometimes wish he’d been a corrupt politician, though, because that’s what you need to get the power.” Unless you’re M.I.A.
Her trajectory from immigrant London to America’s pop charts clearly does not mirror that of a despot ruler, but it is an impressive leap from disenfranchisement to dominance. M.I.A.’s success has been less about assimilation than it has been about following her instincts, and her latest project is no exception. M.I.A.’s staunchly against having her baby in a hospital “all tied up to tubes and wires” and, of course, has her own ideas on how it should be done.
“In Sri Lanka, my grandma had all her 15 kids under a tree,” she says as she rubs her belly. “She slung a towel over a low branch, squatted, and out they came. Something inside me wishes I could do the same.”