Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam — better known as M.I.A. — is both rebel and scholar, educator and trickster, masterfully courting controversy. She just grabbed headlines by tweeting a New York Times writer's phone number. But what message is she sending?
Before the release of her third album, /\/\/\Y/\ (a.k.a. MAYA), Nylon, The New York Times Magazine, Complex, and NME all jockeyed for a few moments with the megastar and mother, framing her work and past controversies through a variety of prisms. But who exactly is M.I.A., and what does she want to accomplish? After reading more than fifteen pages across various outlets, the answer remains elusive.
Some of the confusion is part of Arulpragasam's master plan in the making. Fond of toying with themes of war and politics mashed up with danceable pop beats and color splashed videos, M.I.A. has been a whirlwind of hype, talent, and controversy since she first appeared on the scene. Her politically charged childhood is often manifested in her support for the Tamil Tigers, though her father (the family revolutionary) helped to found a separate organization, The Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS). This has led to considerable controversy, including articles and artists decrying M.I.A.'s political stance. However, she has remained popular, an offbeat creative force who is almost never described as a musician, but always deemed an artist.
The NYT piece — written by Lynn Hirschberg — appears concerned with exposing the various inconsistencies with M.I.A.'s persona. The interview takes place at the tony Beverly Wilshire Hotel and the author wastes no opportunity to juxtapose the plush surroundings with M.I.A.'s narratives:
In one of many contradictions that seem to provide the narrative for Maya's life and art, Ikhyd was not, as she had repeatedly announced he would be, born at home in a pool of water. As usual, she wanted to transform her personal life into a political statement. "You gotta embrace the pain, embrace the struggle," she proclaimed weeks before Ikhyd was born. "And my giving birth is nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp."
As it happened, Maya, who is 34, gave birth in a private room in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "Ben's family insisted," she told me a year later.
Hirschberg's article is thorough and interesting, and engages with a major part of M.I.A.'s conflicted image: is she truly a revolutionary using her art to draw attention to ongoing conflicts, or is she co-opting a complex struggle in order to sell records? Either way, Hirschberg carefully frames her narrative around moments like this one:
Unity holds no allure for Maya - she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. "I kind of want to be an outsider," she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. "I don't want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist."
The article documents Arulpragasam's birth, her early years in America, and her desperate plea to get into film school:
"I said to him, ‘Don't make me do it,' " she says now, smiling. " ‘If you don't let me in, there's only one option: I become a hooker.' He said, ‘That is emotional blackmail.' It might have been, but I couldn't stand that one person had that much power over my life, that if he said yes or no, it would change everything."
Hisrchberg's article ultimately paints a portrait of M.I.A. as an unreliable, somewhat callous master of fiction (ex-boyfriend and longtime collaborator Diplo is quoted praising her by saying: "She knows how to manipulate, how to withhold, how to get what she wants").
Hirschberg's narrative constructs an image of M.I.A. as inherently contradictory, someone who's more than a little spoiled but also uses controversy as an affectation, without any thought to how others may be impacted. That may be why today M.I.A. took to her twitter feed to retaliate, posting Lynn Hirschberg's phone number in a quick tweet:
If you call the number, it leads to the very full voicemail box for Lynn Hirschberg.
But the interview Arulpragasam delivers to Nylon allows her to voice why she is so comfortable with alienation and outsider status. While she mentions in the NYT that she left Sri Lanka only to be called a "Paki" by skinheads in Britain, her interview with Nylon's Luke Crisell reveals why she came to embrace her inner outsider in film school:
"I was the only brown person," she says. "So everyone was like, 'She's going to make films about arranged marriage.' That bothered me so much! There was so much going on in my reality!"
Alienation for being different appears to be a key theme in why M.I.A. is so belligerent in asserting both her image and her political views, even when the more profitable course after three albums would be to fall silent.
Complex Magazine is known for sexy photo shoots of leading women, but one of the things the lad-mag/shopping catalog does best is allowing their cover shoots to speak for themselves. The interview is straight Q&A, devoid of the looping narrative in the NYT. Yet here, MIA reveals herself even further. MIAs interview tangents expose a mind that's both brilliant and erratic.
M.I.A.: Google is the most powerful corporation in the world, and why do you think that is? It's 'cause they log the most data and they collect the most information and that's the thing that everyone's gonna want and that's the thing that no one's gonna have. That's what it's about and it's important to tell people in the street or poor people to arm themselves with knowledge 'cause that shit's a commodity.
Arulpragasam also crusades in the name of critical thinking:
M.I.A.: A journalist I spoke to who wrote an article about it said something like 11% of schools in America practice critical thinking, and the rest just want it simple, plain, in-your-face. And you believe what you read. You eat up what you get taught. You can Google the words "Sri Lanka" and it doesn't come up that all these people have been murdered or bombed, it's pages of: "Come to Sri Lanka on vacation, there are beautiful beaches." You're not gonna get the truth 'til you hit like page 56, you know what I mean? When Ikhyd goes on the Internet and taps in some words, he's gonna get exactly what they want him to get.
Don't we have a responsibility to be smarter and go to the 56th page and get the real information?
M.I.A.: That's true, but that's my and your responsibility to pass the information on that it's not easy anymore. When I came out in 2005, I felt like the Internet was a place where interesting new ideas and people could find new ways to coexist and ideas could be shared. But now corporations have gotten a hold of it and governments have gotten a hold of it. Everything we started, they've learned it, and now they use it for themselves.
If we only analyze the these responses, it would appear M.I.A. is on an anti-Google, pro-thinking crusade. NME also sticks to the basic Q&A format, and pulls more thoughts out of M.I.A. on data distortion, Google, and the music industry (including a dis or two at Lady Gaga):
What place does politics have in music today?
I'm always encouraging people to be more vocal. Google's more powerful than any government now - people think it's God. They're storing all our data and one day they're gonna turn against us. That's what my new album's about - I'm living fucking proof that politics doesn't work. Every time I breathe it's documented on my computer and yet I'm still on some stupid list somewhere that says I'm a terrorist.
Do we still need record labels?
Are they even interested in making money from music anymore? Lady Gaga plugs 15 things in her new video. Dude, she even plugs a burger! That's probably how they're making money right now - buying up the burger joint, putting the burger in a music video and making loads of burger money.
Who or what is the enemy of music right now?
Money is always the enemy of music.
It's refreshing to read an interview with a performer who doesn't lace her interviews with the same old tame answers about really expressing herself on her latest album. The end result is a bit jarring — the album is almost a side conversation to what she really wants to discuss — but perfectly in line with M.I.A.'s lifestyle and philosophy. Music is a method, but it is always secondary to her mission, however she defines it. As she explains in Nylon:
"Every time I just knock everything down and start from zero. And a lot of people think I'm really shit and I can't get past a certain point of success. But the way I judge my success isn't by how high my tower is; it's just how much I am able to be a part of people's lives."
M.I.A.'s Agitprop Pop [NY Times]
The Dissonant Undertones of M.I.A. [NY Times]
M.I.A, DeLon, and the Tamil Tigers [Racialicious]
M.I.A. Tweets New York Times Writer's Phone Number [In Headphones]
RIOT GIRL: M.I.A [Nylon]
Cover Girls - M.I.A. [Complex]
M.I.A. interview [NME via Oh No They Didn't]