The controlled chaos of M.I.A. mourns a lost age

The artist M.I.A. discusses why she’s quitting music (for now), her visa situation, and the state of counterculture

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M.I.A. performs at the Sasquatch Music Festival at The Gorge on May 24, 2014 in George, Washington. (Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

M.I.A. performs at the Sasquatch Music Festival at The Gorge on May 24, 2014 in George, Washington. (Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
M.I.A. performs at the Sasquatch Music Festival at The Gorge on May 24, 2014 in George, Washington. (Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

On her new album, AIM, M.I.A. imagines herself sneaking across the Mexican border into the United States. In real life, the U.S. had refused to renew the London, England-based artist’s visa from 2014 until Oct. 12, when she triumphantly announced she was able to tour in America again. It’s unclear why the U.S. had stalled—she has suggested it’s her support for WikiLeaks, or maybe it’s because she has been public enemy No. 1  ever since she raised her middle finger during Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime show—but regardless, Canada has been rather more welcoming.

Sitting in a luxury downtown Toronto hotel suite in September, she’s in town to claim an award from the Canadian Tamils’ Chamber of Commerce, and she’s thinking back to an earlier visit, in another life. In 2000, the art-school grad was filming a tour by friends and fellow Londoners Elastica. The opening act, Peaches, played her own late-night set in a small, sweaty College Street club with a pre-fame Feist (in track shorts) and Gonzales (partially disrobed) as backing vocalists, and almost everyone in the venue ended up onstage, dancing and chanting Peaches’ joyously bawdy slogans until—and after—the venue cut off the P.A.

“It was chaotic,” smiles the singer, rapper, producer, video director, and provocateur born Mathangi Arulpragasam in 1975 in West London. “It was a microphone and a machine and some people going nuts in a basement. Now, that needs to be sponsored by Nike and Red Bull and Adidas, and it’s on Vevo the next day, whereas we did it to get away from all those things.” Peaches would later show her how to work said machine (a Roland MC-505 Groovebox), and M.I.A. would bring her own confrontational DIY aesthetic to the mainstream in 2004 with her free-to-download mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1, and her follow-up album, Arular (named after her father, a Tamil activist in Sri Lanka, where M.I.A. spent much of her childhood), released by independent label XL. Today, she says, counterculture is co-opted as soon as it emerges.

She’s fed up with the state of the music industry, and has declared that AIM—released by the world’s biggest label, Universal—will be her last, or at least for a while. It’s nearly impossible to pin her down to a single, simple point of view, opinion, or decision, but her embrace of contradictions makes her work compelling. She merges east with west, technology with blood and guts, and on AIM, spirited cockiness with surprising tenderness, even as her lyrics focus on the plight of refugees: “I didn’t want to be like, ‘It’s all struggle and strife,’ [but to] show the human aspect that connects them with other people every day.” She spoke with Maclean’s about the rich and the poor, the politicization of music, and the dangers of selling out.

Q: How do you think it would have affected you as an artist if you had grown up in London now, as opposed to the 1980s and ’90s?

A: I feel so terrible for the kids now. In London, even people in their forties can’t afford to buy a house or have kids. That divide between the rich and poor is so crazy, because even white kids are suffering now. I’m not sticking up for white kids—I’m going to have a barrage of hate mail—but it’s true. If you’re poor, you’re really poor.

Even if you’re frustrated, how do you express yourself? There’s no subculture like back in the day … Across the world, on your phone, everybody gets the same list of things to read, listen to, and watch. With homogenized culture, even if you feel frustrated, you’d have to write a Taylor Swift song to get heard.

Q: Can underground culture still thrive in some way?

A: I don’t know, because in England right now you’re not good enough until you get validated. Now, [hip-hop/grime artists] Stormzy, Skepta, or the Section Boyz have to be validated by Drake, Rihanna or Beyoncé. They’re rolled into this one urban culture bubble; it’s not really to do with, “I’m specifically f–ked off about my country and what’s going on in my town.” We’re very much only showing success to artists who impress American artists, and I’m one of them.

In 2005, it was important to me, on a political level, to talk to them: “Hey, this is all happening outside of your country, so I learned your language in order to communicate to you.” It wasn’t me taking their thing and becoming them. Nowadays, [young musicians] are so quick to be like, “OK, fine, I’ll take the cheque, or I’ll get the stamp from XYZ, and I’m expanding my brand,” rather than thinking, “I’m part of this space over here, and in order for it to grow, you can’t have it assimilated by this bigger bubble or corporate brand.”

Q: Do you feel there has been a double standard to the way people talk about your work? If a gangsta MC raps about a Glock popping off, people don’t bat an eyelash, whereas if you sing about bombs—

A: Yeah, I get called “ISIS” now. Why don’t we have a name-and-shame weapons dealership website? Instead, we’re like, “Oh my God, are you really talking about the refugees again, making yourself into a caricature?” And it’s like, “Until you stop the person in your country who’s making billions of dollars from selling weapons, yeah, I have to talk about refugees.” Whatever I say will get twisted or messed with …

All of my battle this year has been about, “What can you say as a pop star?” You can’t talk about other pop stars. My experience has to be funnelled through a black experience or a white experience, or it doesn’t exist, because that’s how we’re going to deal with the world. “Right now, Team A is talking, so all the other teams have to shut up, and when it’s Team Z’s turn in 2019, we’re going to deal with that when America’s ready. Now take this little slap on the wrist and sit down.” So bringing it back to guns, yeah, you can talk about it within an American context, or if you made [M.I.A.’s 2007 hit] “Paper Planes”—a song that’s understood by the streets—but if you were going to say, “Why the f–k can you buy AK-47’s in Africa for $20?” it wasn’t cool.

When I did [the video for] “Borders,” I was thinking [about how] Vice, who were crazy kids, had gone into the CNN realm, and [started] dictating how we viewed subjects and issues. Everything had to get funnelled through their way of looking at it: “Oh, look how f–ked up the world is, and I’m glad we’re not there.” They could go and talk about ISIS and wouldn’t get called ISIS, or they could make a series on guns and film in Pakistan and talk about cocaine in all of these countries, and that was OK. You had to have this “journalist pass” to touch these subjects, and if you didn’t, then you were obviously a terrorist talking about it from the other side. The “Borders” video [which MIA directed, in India, singing amongst a host extras playing refugees on a boat and washed up on a shore] is constantly playing with, “Are you a journalist? Are you one of them? Are you on the fence? Are you in front of the fence?” [laughs] Culturally, I found myself in a very weird situation: you were the person that had made that journey to the West, and then you were going back to comment on something, and then suddenly you were questioned and told, “You can’t touch that now because you’re a pop star.”

Q: Is the problem that you’re making art—and that’s going to open itself up to interpretation?

A: Yeah, I come from a generation where you put the art out and had the luxury to sit back and watch the world deconstruct it, and that was valued. Unfortunately now the work lives in a weird context. I was being criticized by certain people: “Oh, she’s exploiting the refugee crisis to make a video, to sell a song.” And it’s like, “Well, actually, this is something I’ve talked about from day one, and how come you have the right to talk about it and I don’t?” You can manipulate things on Vevo—it’s not like it lives in a gallery.

Q: Do you mean “manipulate” in terms of people making comments?

A: Yeah, “Borders” or any piece of art, when you’re putting it on a certain platform, if the platform becomes a political place, you can manipulate things. We know that those huge U.S. brands do have political sway.

Q: What’s happening with the documentary about you that has been trumpeted for years?

A: I just don’t know. I haven’t talked to [director] Steve [Loveridge] for months, and he lives in New York now. I’m like, “I’ve written two albums in the time you’ve been making that documentary,” and he’s like, “Shut up. Just be thankful you’re getting a documentary while you’re still alive.” And I’m just like, “Well, at this rate, I don’t think I’m going to be”—but we’ll see. That’s also the thing: that documentary would help people in how you can make it DIY. I don’t know if that is useful for now, because how do you make counterculture? How do you control its growth in a natural way? Creativity needs time to harness before it goes out, and because that’s difficult, memes have become the creative language.

Q: Maybe there just needs to be a countercultural means of distribution, like kids mailing cassette tapes?

A: That’s what I say in the interviews that they always edit out. The reason why we’ve been doing interviews this time around is that I think someone will understand that.

The music industry is so tied up politically. They’re afraid they might let other voices in. That happened in the last 10 years, the fear of otherness: “We must stop them and build these walls.” Suddenly to turn around and go, “Talk about your own self,” as though that template exists for us, is bullshit, and in order to really make the next M.I.A., you have to make the next XL Records. They’ve got Adele, and they’re not going to take risks on people like me. And then you have to have the Jimmy Iovine [from Apple Music], building a brand new distribution thing that is more open to the world and isn’t fearful, and you have to have your fashion stylist person not sell out and sell your s–t to another pop star because they can pay them twice as much, and do it for the belief and the love of art. You need everyone to get together and just believe in it, and lead by example that it is possible to be outside the system, and that’s really super-f–king hard, and I’m sure there’s some geniuses out there who can achieve it.

Q: Where does this M.I.A. go from here?

A: I think I have to expand my creativity a bit, because it’s difficult for critics to be, “Oh, this person writes their own lyrics and sometimes writes their own beats and sometimes makes her own videos.” They funnel me through, “Oh, is it as good as blah-blah’s record, which has had 50 million writers on it?”

I’ve gotta go write something: At the moment, everything I think seems to be controversial, so I feel like I need to just go away for a second and put it all down on paper until the storm passes. I don’t have a community like a black community to belong to [with] a musical platform that’s been built for years and years and years, or the film-making culture, and I don’t have the white one to belong to. If right now, culture’s so divisive, it just leaves these millions of people like me out. Predominantly in the West, if you can only have creative voices that are either black or white, I’m going to say whatever the f–k I want, because no one’s going before you, and if no one’s coming after you, I’m just going to be the freakiest of all freaks! [laughs]

Q: So you’re not going away.

A: No, I’m not! I’m just not going to do it via an album, because I feel like all those avenues are locked up now, and the key’s been thrown away. Whoever’s inside is inside; whoever’s out is out. I was in, but it’s weird … Right now, it’s such a political space that I’m like, “What the f–k? I didn’t sign up to be a politician.” And if it’s just politics that’s running music, f–k that. I’m out of here! I can’t think of anything more boring.

[Laughs] That’s so weird that I said, “If music’s a political place, I’m out”—because I kind of created it as a political place! But I’m saying that it shuts people like me out. It’s become so narrow-mindedly political: “Join up with the political campaign,” and right now, you can’t make music that says anything else—you have to have the right hashtags—

Q: —Just a quick single about Donald Trump.

A: Yeah, exactly. I’m too realistic. I can’t do that, because I have to be there to know it. I don’t want to digest it from afar. I feel like I can’t really have a comment.

Q: For once, M.I.A. has no comment on something?

A: [Laughs]