FEATURE: MIA Returns With an All New Agenda

MIA Returns With an All New Agenda

Photographer Leonie Purchas
June 30, 2010

Today, MIA is not as you would expect. She looks tiny eating a chocolate and vanilla cupcake while perched on a heavy tapestry couch, her dark brown eyes massive and watchful. She isn’t wearing the clashing mélange of colors and fabrics that normally characterize her sartorial choices, instead paring down to a dark grey sweater, a black parachute-like jacket (bought in Mexico for $1 and referenced in recent single “Born Free”), hair up, tawny construction boots on. Her only concessions to MIA-ness are textured halfleggings, half-jeans. She’s 34, but could pass for ten years younger, even though she’s been up all night making sure that the launch of her video for “Born Free” is pixel perfect, tweeting up a storm, finessing the webzine for her label and generally preparing the plan of attack for her new album, /\/\/\Y/\. The setting for this one-woman hub of activity is the unlikely Miller’s Residence, a five-room boutique hotel brimming with antiques and curios: a collection of toadstool figurines, glass paperweights of every color, gilt-edged books stuffed into ceiling-tall bookcases, a fi replace with a mahogany-carved mantel, candelabras, chandeliers, austere marble busts. The music piped in through a hidden soundsystem is 1920s speakeasy jazz. Although her mom, Kala, lives in London, when MIA, born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, visits from America, she prefers to stay here. She says it’s a good place to take time out. Not that she’s been in London or had much time off recently. For reasons both within and beyond her control, MIA hasn’t left the States, where she now resides, in 18 months. “I’ve never, ever, ever in my whole entire life been in one place for 18 months!” she says, reflecting the restless life that brings her here.

Born in West London, MIA moved with her family to Sri Lanka when she was six months old, then took up residence in India, then back to Sri Lanka before returning to London as refugees when she was 11. It was during MIA’s early school days in Sri Lanka that she first realized the political potential of her creative gifts. Each class was color coded by the teachers—the fairest students at the front, the darkest at the back. MIA’s dark complexion put her in the last rows with the children of goatherders who had little interest in studying, so she started writing and drawing for them—an apple for A, a bat for B—making herself indispensable to the class and quickly moving up the seating ranks. It’s a skill she’s refined to an art itself ever since: bridging cultures and classes through a mixture of her own self-interest and genuine concern for others.

During the recording of her last record, 2007’s Kala, visa issues locked MIA out of the US, sending her on an adventure that took in Australia, India, Trinidad, Liberia and Jamaica. In each country, the people she met inspired new layers to her songs, resulting in the dazzling, polyrhythmic melting pot that earned her a Grammy nomination for the Clash-sampling “Paper Planes,” followed by an Oscar nod for “O… Saya,” her tune on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack co-written with Indian Tamil composer and filmmaker AR Rahman. Though she announced her retirement onstage at Bonnaroo in 2008, MIA clearly had far too much left to achieve.

Two years later and visas are still a problem, however. MIA says immigration officials told her, “If you leave America you’ll never get back in.” She says the US government sees her as having some sort of terrorist connection because she’s dropped the word “genocide” in relation to the Sri Lankan confl ict. And because her estranged father Arul was at one time part of the Tamil separatist group EROS, the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, a movement that she says the Tamil Tigers—with whom she’s been associated—saw off in the ’80s. Since then, she says her father has actually been working for the Sri Lankan government. “He negotiated peace processes, brought in the new army, and when he goes to Sri Lanka, it’s the government who gives him security against the Tigers,” she explains. “They used it the other way and told the world my dad’s a Tiger which got me to this point. It’s like, ‘Wow I didn’t know this guy, and this guy has been working for you for 20 fucking years, and when you feel like it you want to use my own dad against me to discredit what I do.’” Besides which, “I actually want a nice wedding. I’m not going to blow that.”

MIA is engaged to Benjamin Bronfman, founder of record/media label Green Owl (and son of Edgar Bronfman, Warner Music Group CEO and Seagram’s heir), with whom she has a 15-month-old son named Ikhyd, and could easily end her green card woes with a quicky marriage. “That’s what they want me to do, but I’m not going to lose my integrity for that shit,” she says. “If they’re going to kick me out, if it’s going to be a fight, it’s an important fight to have.”

We discuss the amount of time planning a wedding takes, how much of a pain it is. “It’s like making an album: it takes up a lot of creative space!” she says. “And what’s really going to be different? We already have everything. For now that’s what counts, just to be with Ikhyd. It might be kind of cool when he can remember it too, when he can walk and carry a little basket.” She makes a cutesy mewling sound and screws up her face at the thought.

About a month before Ikhyd was born, MIA decided she couldn’t envision bringing a baby into the frigid winter clutches of New York, so she and Bronfman left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, for a house with a yard and a park you don’t need a taxi to access. She went into “Scarlett O’Hara mode,” sewing curtains, printing fabrics and turning the bowels of her house into a studio where she recorded the new album, variously with collaborator-producers Rusko, Switch, Blaqstarr and Derek Miller from Sleigh Bells (Diplo contributed during the final stages). It was within what she calls her “four-by-four cell” that she created her most commercial and most caustic work to date.

On the one hand, there are songs like the distorted “Meds and Feds,” the doomy-dub swirl and breaks of “Story Told,” and “Lovealot” with its shimmy-shaking verse that jackknifes into jarring beat switch-ups. And of course, “Born Free,” the hypnotic, clattering, Suicide-sampling riot with MIA’s reverbed vocals hollering I don’t wanna live for tomorrow/ I’ll push my luck today. While aurally abrasive, the video is more divisive still. The Romain Gavras-directed statement piece features soldiers rounding up redheaded boys, who are then taken to a dusty field and told to run—their fate to be blown apart by landmines. It’s powerful, it’s uncomfortable and it was banned from YouTube just a few hours after its release.

On the flipside, there’s “XXXO,” the album’s mosttraditional pop song. With its ascending overflow of bleeps and a killer hook, it’s sure to be her next fullblown smash. “‘XXXO’ and ‘Space’ are MIA’s best vocal performances ever,” says Leeds-born producer and dubstep don Rusko. “It’s going to shock people. She’s really singing.”

For this album, MIA has a new bee in her lyrical bonnet, as well. While on lockdown, she found herself relying even more heavily on the internet to communicate. As an artist coming up in 2004, she undoubtedly benefi ted from MySpace and an international music scene that thrived online. But now, MySpace belongs to Rupert Murdoch. For MIA, the internet has turned into a sinister space. The other day she printed a thousand pages of her YouTube comments, explaining that over a six-month period the posts were “pure abuse, name-calling and racism.” She says the Sri Lankan government had people posting round the clock, that sometimes they’d get it wrong and post on German band MIA’s videos. “’You fucking terrorist you’re going to die” were the nature of the misplaced slurs, she says. “At eight o’clock this would end and someone would log in and start back on me. My friends and I used to laugh—everyone called Mia is getting it.” It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but the proof’s in the postings.

With every Google search, she says, we’re being siphoned into boxes, our choices being ticked off and used to create consumer profi les: freedom within a controlled framework. “Eventually, all the information they collect on you and all the tools we’ve been given to exist on, and been trained to use, it’s going to turn into you’re for them, or you’re with us,” she says. “I’m that person on the internet looking up what a font looks like on a Hamas poster and the next minute I’m on the fucking list! And you’re doing it because of artistic reasons. You have to slow that process down.”

This is, in part, why MIA set up her label, NEET, which stands for Not in Education, Employment or Training. Just added to the ranks is Mexican visual artist Jaime Martinez, who finds the name particularly apt. “Before it was not important to be a part of a team. I learned to work almost alone,” he says. “Now I’m learning I can make different things with a collective, there’s a chance to make something great together.” NEET also includes hyperactive 19-year-old Baltimore rapper Rye Rye, fellow B’more citizen, futuro R&B singer/producer Blaqstarr and scuzzy electro-rock duo Sleigh Bells. In the Los Feliz-Silverlake area of Los Angeles, MIA has set up a NEET house where musicians can hang or crash. It’s also where her brother lives and Rusko, Diplo and Switch all reside nearby. “A lot of people are being really dumbed down,” MIA says. “The only thing that’s got the power to snap people out of it is creative people—they’re the most important tools in our society. As an artist, first you have to become a person who can survive without the system, who can say what you need to in lots of different mediums and not be dependent on one avenue.”

Though all of this sounds as much like an underground political faction as it does a musical one, MIA deftly treads the line between her system and others. NEET is an off shoot of Interscope and MIA says she could’ve had a $50,000 photographer shoot her—the label would pony up. Instead, she got her mom’s Tamil phonebook and selected a wedding snapper at random, telling him she needed some modeling shots. The results are brilliantly surreal: MIA awkwardly superimposed on the hood of a red convertible, multiple MIAs dancing around a blue pyramid. “It’s important that women are told you don’t have to have a hundred grand Dior dress in order to be relevant,” she says.

Longtime collaborator Diplo aka Wesley Pentz elaborates, “It’s never how can this work? It’s always, what’s the weirdest thing I can do right now?” This is what initially attracted the Mad Decent, Florida-born producer to work with her. ”We’re not even musicians,” he says. “We just see connections with things and exploit them. Her motto was always ‘fake it til you make it,’ and then she was kinda like, ‘Well shit I made it—what am I doing here?’” Diplo and MIA became romantically involved for a number of years, splitting after the release of Kala, but the music that brought them together ultimately broke them. “I wanted a normal relationship, I didn’t want to be in this weird world where you’re always flying different places,” Diplo says. “We came up together in that scene. It’s hard. I was trying to grow as an artist too, and she thought that was a knock on her, but really I just wanted to make music. No matter how much we fight, we make music really easy. There’s still a chemistry that I’ll probably have with her til I die.”

“He always said he’d date me if I was a receptionist at a dentist,” explains MIA, resting her cheek in her palm. “I was like, that’s just not going to happen.” They talk about each other the way only people with history can. She thinks he’s gone too commercial. “We got what we on the radio, a weird song with gunshots; we never sold out. Sometimes when I hear him make music that’s quite normal, it really pisses me off because I always thought he was my beacon holder for being fucked up, but I’m more fucked up than he is.” In spite of this, there’s a musical marriage between them that works.

There’s no doubt, though, that MIA is happier now than she’s ever been. It comes out in her new music. The mellow “It Is What It Is” is probably the closest she’s come to a song about love and domesticity. “I was really willing to explore that. It’s quite embarrassing how honest it is sometimes,” she says. This shift can certainly be attributed to the stability of her family unit. She talks about how her body “reset” during pregnancy. MIA found she was able to sing more than before, and naturally, her priorities were changing too. “I saw music diff erent,” she says. “You’ve got a baby, this is a person, nothing else matters. You have to communicate on such a raw level. You have this crazy ball of unconditional love and good times. I don’t ever have to go to the cinema ever again because I just watch him all the time. I don’t have to look at art because I stare at him all the time.”

Hand-in-hand with this is Bronfman. Introduced by a mutual friend, the connection was instant. “I was like, all I want is a key to a front door!” she reveals, her eyes softening. “But seriously, it’s true, I never had that. I think that’s why we hit it off really fast. He was like, ‘I’ll give you that,’ and I was like, ‘Okay cool, let’s go.’” They are, she adds, at opposite ends of the spectrum. “I think you need that in a relationship to balance it out. I’m quite reactionary, and he’s just really solid.”

Their son’s name embodies the couple’s complexity—part Jewish, part Palestinian, part technology, it’s pronounced I-Kid. “He’s in a really crazy position because he’s quarter black, quarter Jewish and half Tamil. It’s like oppression baby central so we want him to not really
think about that and be a bit…” Universal? “Yeah.” I ask if she was scared to have a baby, but she says she’s wanted to be a mother since she was fi ve years old. In Sri Lanka, she explains, where the family unit is life, being a subservient wife, mother and a great cook are tantamount. “Even though my life never turned out like that, it’s always been a parallel reality—like a nagging thought,” she says. “I think what I have now is more representative of a lot of people. You have to be a mum, you have to work, you have to do your shit.”

Not that motherhood has mellowed her. In fact, she seems even more ambitious. In light of this, when Diplo tells me MIA feeds off negative energy, it’s initially surprising, but the more I think about it, he’s right. It’s not an insult, MIA said it herself—she’s reactionary. “I put in probably ten times more eff ort just to be difficult,” she says. “I want a disgusting piece of work on the table because people should look at it and be like, ‘Why would you go there?’”

Because what other artist with her platform is willing? MIA could bail out right now and be that woman in her alternate universe, or she could take the label money and run to global domination. But MIA was born an outsider, her life defined by opposition, and she lives to question, test boundaries and break through them. While Maya’s personal life may finally be on an even keel, MIA’s world remains in flux. And in the space between is the person we’re just beginning to know.

FEATURE: MIA Returns With an All New Agenda