(All photos by Francesca Allen)
Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam says this is her last album. She says she's tired of fighting with the world, tired of being an agitator. A few months ago she was telling people her new record, AIM, was going to be more personal, less aggressive. She was telling them that after years of making music about struggle, she's fed up with struggling. She's made an album that's more personal, and now that's it. Done.
That seems like something of a surprising life choice for an artist that has spent 15 years being celebrated for her fierce activism, visual motifs, and outspoken views. There is an old adage that Noel Gallagher should sell his interviews and give his albums away for free, and while MIA makes much better records than the High Flying Birds, there have been times when you sense she might have benefited from that business plan. She has covered just about every relevant print publication in the world, providing provocative quotes that try to reframe some of the biggest debates of the modern era: around terrorism, security, immigration, and activism—often challenging dominant Western narratives. Even her best-known musical performances—on stage with Kanye at the VMAs with a baby bump, flipping the bird at the Super Bowl with Madonna—have become iconic pop-culture riffs, subverting the idea of what a big female pop star should be.
But she has also run up against problems with those she's criticized or irked. She's barred from entering the US despite her ex-husband, Ikhyd, living there and their child regularly visiting his father; she's found herself in lawsuits with both the NFL and Paris St Germain football club, and has been accused of being a terrorist by everyone from rappers in her home country of Sri Lanka to Fox News. You can see why she's had enough, why the simple life might start to appeal.
So I thought, as I walked to meet her at a hotel in Shoreditch, that's the chat we're going to have: a sort of retrospective about the highs and lows of the past decade, about why she's taking a back seat, about her new record which seems to shy away from provocation with dad jokes and bombast. (On "Freedun," the track she recorded with Zayn Malik, for example, she raps, "I'm a swagger man, rolling in my swagger van, from the People's Republic Of Swaggerstan.") I thought we'd talk about how she became what she said she always wanted to be: a global pop star, border-less, country-less, known across the world.
So we start to talk, about recording the video to "Freedun" in the Himalayas, with Maya, "walking around like Howard Hughes trying to direct a video with a tank on," because of the lack of oxygen. Slowly though it becomes clear that she has one thing on her mind, and it's got nothing to do with us discussing her new album or quitting music. Indeed, some initial attempts to talk about AIM are quickly swatted away, so we change tack and start by talking about the refugee crisis.
Noisey: It's a year since the photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on a beach, was taken. After that there was maybe a month where you were reading The Sun and they were writing really sorrowful portraits of refugees and it briefly seemed as if the whole world had found its compassion.
M.I.A.: And then we went the other way and we Brexited.
Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. How did England make that decision? It's gonna affect England in a worse way than if they let 100,000 people in.
Do things like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation study, that found that the majority of people who voted for Brexit were working class, surprise you?
Well yeah, because they're the ones that have to live with immigrants.
Well often they live in towns where there isn't much immigration. In London, where there is obviously loads of immigration, people voted to remain.
Why do you think people are scared?
Because they were threatened that the new immigrants were gonna be put in their neighborhood. It was based on theories that weren't really gonna happen. You can paint whatever you want on them, it's not real. The reality of these 65 million people is that they are the modern slaves—they are the ones that are gonna do really shit jobs, they're not gonna have a say in anything, they're gonna get treated like shit. They are the truly oppressed, they're gonna run our factories and do all that stuff and probably be the ones that get sent to war.
"Quitting music" is famously a smart marketing ruse; a way of drumming up extra interest in some farewell shows and then coming back five years later and charging everyone twice as much, à la LCD Soundsystem. I didn't think MIA would succumb to those kind of tactics, having so virulently opposed any kind of traditional marketing strategies throughout her career. But nothing about Maya seems like she's ready to stop throwing herself in the political melee. Her eyes are lit up, she's energized, and now you can see that she wants to get stuck into things, things that have been buzzing in her mind for ages, things I'm not asking her, but she desperately wants to talk about.
"It's weird," she says when I suggest this isn't the new, softer MIA she'd promised, "because I don't wanna be talking about it but at the same time I feel like I have to because no-one else is gonna. Due to protecting certain ideologies I wasn't allowed to talk about politics or the things that mattered to me."
I look at her, a bit incredulous—I don't think there's ever been an interview in which MIA hasn't called a president a terrorist or shone a light on some global struggle. "Err, when were you not allowed to talk about politics?" I say.
"Well, when I talked about shit on the Maya record, I had a massive backlash because of that. I was meant to go on the New York Times and do this big feature... "
This is one of the things that Maya seems desperate to talk about today: an interview she gave to the New York Times. The writer, Lynn Hirschberg, made MIA sound like an out-of-her-depth phoney, who made stuff up about her lineage, had inconsistent political views, and lived a bougie lifestyle while professing to be representing the global poor. She suggested MIA was a fine pop star but didn't really know what she was talking about when it came to global events. Maya responded to the piece by tweeting the journalist's phone number so that her fans could seek revenge on her behalf. That was six years ago, and she seems haunted by it. She brings it up at least another half a dozen times.
"That piece was really about saying that we can only embrace 'the other' if there's no politics to them. And if there is, we're just gonna have to cut them out and build the wall. I feel like that sets up a weird arena for pop music to not have to deal with outsider issues."
I suggest it's more complicated than that, because in the time she's been an artist it feels as though politics has moved to the forefront of pop music. Big artists are more outspoken on issues than they were ten years ago. Superstars like Kanye and Beyoncé regularly talk about racial and political struggles, not just in a well-meaning, "donate to charity" kind of way, but often wrestling with radical ideas about privilege and prejudice in America.
"America's about to go through an election right now, so you're only allowed to talk about things that support the political agenda," is her retort. "You're allowed to talk about immigration if it helps Trump, you're allowed to talk about feminism if it helps Hillary, you're allowed to talk about oppression if it means that any of those people in America who are feeling oppressed can vote for whoever is talking about it —anybody else outside of that election campaign doesn't really matter, and that was my point."
That seems a little glib. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is about giving voice to people who have been continually ignored and abused by the political system, by the criminal justice system. And while there is a party politics angle to it, you could hardly say it's the kind of activism created to win votes.
But with Maya, I'm quickly learning, her statements have to be taken at more than face value. When she says, "That was my point," she's not referring to her point right now, in this discussion. She's talking about her point from five months ago, when she gave another interview to the Evening Standard. I quickly learn that's something else that's been on her mind a lot recently, the furor around those quotes and her subsequent removal from the Afropunk festival line-up.
Some background: Earlier this year, she was booked as the headliner of the first Afropunk festival in London. A franchise of the popular New York festival, the London show featured a broad range of black artists including SZA, Kwabs, Akala, and Loyle Carner. She gave an interview to the Evening Standard in which she said:
"It's interesting that in America the problem you're allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter. It's not a new thing to me—it's what Lauryn Hill was saying in the 1990s, or Public Enemy in the 1980s. Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That's a more interesting question."
Many criticized Maya, including Black Lives Matter activists, for ignorance about the race struggles in America. Shortly after the interview came out, Afropunk festival removed her from the bill, saying they wanted to do their first London festival "right" and after speaking with "the artist and the community" it was decided Maya would no longer headline.
The criticism boiled down to the fact that she was a British woman of Sri Lankan descent. She had no right to be commenting on the struggle of Black Americans, nor did she represent the struggle of Muslims or Syrians. MIA seemed to understand this, tweeting at the time that she'd been told to "stay in her lane," although concluding: "Ha there is no lane for 65mil refugees who's lanes are blown up!"
In truth, Maya's view on the whole saga is more complicated than that, and that's what she wants to talk about. She wants to talk about that through the lens of the global refugee crisis, immigration, Brexit and Islamophobia. Sometimes she can't even talk, and just starts on hand-drawn diagrams and scribbled notes. So we get into it. At times she sounds ranty, and comes back and forth on a lot of points. But it didn't feel like that at the time. It felt like someone just trying to be understood.
Noisey: What did you mean by the comments you gave to the Evening Standard?
M.I.A.: The reason why internal political issues are cool to talk about right now is because they can easily be tied into the election, and immigration can only be talked about in a certain way right now. I don't like people saying that "Syrians have to become Syrian pop stars in America to talk about Syria" because it's not gonna happen, is it? How come nobody talks about that?
What do you mean?
How come nobody ever talks about how there's a lack of any outsider voices in American pop culture? Everybody who threw mud at me forgot that whole chunk of conversation. If you look at pop music in America and you look at the top 15 artists, none of them—apart from Adele and Coldplay—are non-American? And even Adele and Coldplay are white and British. So how can anyone else come up to talk about their own shit?
But isn't that exactly the kind of the role that you've played in the last few years?
I'm only one, and I'm sick of being told to shut up and just talk about my own experience. That would actually be nice; that would be a fucking amazing privilege if I only needed to talk about Tamils, but right now I'm having to talk about the Tamils, and the Pakistanis, and the Syrians, and the Cambodians. I've already got a massive struggle on my shoulders. But just because I talk about these things doesn't mean I'm unaware of the struggles in America. I would like to support the LGBT community, and the black community, and the Latino community—I can still identify with their struggles. But also, coming from outside of America, I can see where the unfairness is.
People might say that a Syrian is best placed to talk about Syrian struggles.
How can people say that when there are no opportunities for Syrians to become pop icons in America, because we haven't made a political arena in pop music for these people to come up and discuss these things. As you can clearly see in the New York Times article when they deliberately told me to shut the fuck up about my own politics, and told me I would be a pop star if I would just stop talking—they said that to me for many years! I chose not to.
Did you find that people were advising you to be quiet across the board, beyond just that piece?
Look at what I had to do. Look at all the other pop stars: They just did whatever it took to be a pop star, whatever it is you have to do. I became a pop star like an immigrant. I came working 23 hours a day, I made my own art, I sewed my own clothes, I made my own beats and wrote my own raps. My identity is made up of many communities and people and sounds and experiences and layers. When I first came out they were like, "What the fuck is your genre?" They couldn't put me in world music, or rap, or R&B.
I had to make the template. I had to be a worldly artist that knows her music but is also opinionated and political and can talk about the difficult shit when everybody keeps throwing mud at me. I had to be resilient, and attached to a real revolution where people are actually dying while people kept calling me fake. They told me they couldn't sell my record in HMV because it was made up of too many weird influences and was not a particular genre.
But they sell your music in HMV. Didn't you win in the end?
In the end! But that's exactly what I feel like I'm having to defend. My music is a mixture of all these communities. A white person said this to me, a black person said that to me, an Indian person said that to me, and I made a whole sentence out of it—it can be possible. It's that literal.
But the mood in popular culture is really going against that at the moment; the idea is that you can only talk about the struggles involved in your own background and you can never talk about anything else.
It's so divisive. That's not what I did, and that's not my work.
How do you feel about that?
Well, the reason this ties into the conversation about how only Syrians can talk Syria and why it doesn't work, is because you're ignoring the bigger picture: This is an American playground. You have a football pitch and the football pitch is actually IN America. It's not in the middle of the ocean in the Pacific surrounded by five different continents in a neutral space. [At this point Maya starts drawing a football pitch and demonstrating which sections belong to which artists.]
So when you made those comments about Black Lives Matter that led to this whole thing...
I was like, "Okay, fine, I will shut up and you win. I will only talk about Tamils from now on, but how many Syrian players are you going to let into the field this year?" Even when you judge me, it's from the privileged eye of an American. And don't deny that you've experienced some of those privileges, compared to a Syrian kid or a kid in Thailand working in a factory, you know what I mean? Compared to them, even if you are coming from Compton, you still have more privileges than those kids.
If you feel this strongly, then why are you stopping? In the course of this conversation, you've said, "I'm the only one that can do this and I need to keep going," and also, "I've given up, I'm retiring, you've won." Surely it can't be both?
I wanna go! I feel like I came down from the mountain for this conversation. It's like: I'm gonna go, but please let five other refugees become pop stars. If you're saying all these different people have to become famous to have their country discussed, then I'm gonna watch this fucking space. I'm gonna watch that the next time you give out awards it's gonna go to a Syrian kid. I've fought this fight for 15 years, but I'm gonna make sure that you're gonna let Syrian kids come through, or Libyan kids, or Yemeni kids. Also, I'm gonna see what happens the next time we're blowing up mines in Africa, that those African kids are getting the same opportunities that kids are getting in America, based on color.
People can argue that Maya doesn't understand the nature and the history of the American race struggle, they can argue that different subjugated groups don't need to exist in opposition to each other, but should be part of the same movement. You could question the vagueness of the conceptual 'they' who are always putting her down, and the sometimes simplistic way she views complex struggles.
But there is a point in what's she's getting at. If we decide that only people who have a direct experience of a particular struggle are allowed to be spokespeople for that struggle, then we had better make sure that there are plenty of refugee celebrities from war-torn Syria, otherwise we're only going to hear about the struggles on our doorstep. Who was the last Palestinian pop star? Where are the famous Syrian actors who have the legitimacy to talk about the intricacies of civil war? It's a long and arduous road to tell your own story—in America especially, it can take generations before an immigrant is able to move through the social ranks to reach a point where they can share their own experience. In the meantime, maybe having a fearless cheerleader willing to bring those voices into the mainstream is a good second best to having no voices at all.
What doesn't make sense to me though, is why she wants to stop now. If she so vehemently believes that she needs to give a voice to the voiceless, then why is she quitting now. So I try one last tack.
Noisey: Do you ever wanna fight that fight in a different way, even if you're done with music. Maybe it's time to pop on a suit and go on Newsnight and talk about it that way.
M.I.A.: No—I can only talk about it as a musician, and I can only talk about it as a musician who actually got fucked over on this point five years ago. That's why I think it's important to mention the context of who I am. If you read that New York Times article it says, "She'd be a great pop star if she didn't talk about politics." It's like, you're saying exactly the opposite thing to me now. Now you're saying it's cool for your pop stars to talk about politics, now you're like "Why don't you talk about yours?" I did, and you laughed at me and said, "Well, if you only shut up and put on some high heels and do a dance routine you'd be amazing."
Well that door was open to you, you could have done that. Seeing as you made the choice to continue talking about politics and that this is going to be your last record...
I would never go into politics. Why would I? It's not real is it. It's not real enough for me. I'd much rather start a cab company than go into politics.
Sam Wolfson is an editor for VICE UK. Follow him on Twitter.