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.”