M.I.A. claims that her latest album ‘AIM’ will be her last. Emily Mackay meets Mathangi Arulpragasam to talk refugees, controversies and retirement, and encounters a person with a lot more still to say and do
Every M.I.A. album seems to arrive in a storm of public controversies – and ‘AIM’, the fifth album from Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam, 41, is no different. There’s her run-in with the Black Lives Matter movement, when she suggested that US celebrities were less keen to say Muslim or Syrian lives matter; the threat of a lawsuit from the Paris Saint-Germain football team, when she doctored their shirt’s Emirates Airlines sponsor logo to read “Fly Pirates” in the ‘Borders’ video (in which she joins crowds of refugees boarding an overcrowded boat and scaling barbed wire); her spat with MTV, which she accused of “racism, sexism, classism, elitism” after ‘Borders’ missed out on a VMA nomination; the Twitter tongue-lashing she gave her label Interscope for underpromoting and delaying her work; and, of course, there’s the fact that every album she releases she claims will be her last.
So what is it about the process of making new music that leads one of the decade’s greatest pop provocateurs to feel like giving up just at the point she should be most triumphant? In 2016, in particular, you’d think she’d be loudest and proudest, when the things she’s always focused on – the refugee experience, corporate control of culture and the internet – are more talked about than ever.
But in May this year, M.I.A. tweeted that ‘AIM’, released in September, was “a break-up album – with music”. Some of the songs were written after a literal break-up, but there’s very little of romance, failed or otherwise, in them. Instead, the likes of ‘The New International Sound Pt.2’ on the Deluxe Edition (“Keep your fame and I’ll keep my faith”), suggest that it’s the music industry itself Maya’s splitting from. So what’s caused the rift?
“I’ve been saying this from the first album really,” Maya muses intensely (she doesn’t really muse any other way), resplendent in orange and pink nails and socks printed with cats. “‘Oh my God, ‘Arular’, I quit!’ It’s just, as we go on and on in time, I feel like I’m in this really weird situation because I straddle three generations of music. I came through the Britpop era. Then there was this turn-of-the-millennium era which I was part of, and then you’ve got this weird era where everything’s been corporatised to the max and you’re only allowed five, 10 pop star brands, who are as corporate as Sky TV… It just needs a little bit of rewriting.”
This is standard stuff in an M.I.A. interview: the song of the system-baiting rebel. But she’s more complex, more interesting than just that. She’s an acrobat, twisting along the precipice between pop business and arty subversion, just as she bends atop a pile of folded garments in Rewear It, her recent – and, you guessed it, controversial – video collaboration with H&M, which aimed to encourage clothes recycling. But commentators reasonably wondered why an artist who aligns herself with refugee and developing-world voices was promoting a company recently criticised for failing to make improvements after the 2013 Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh. M.I.A.’s argument, also reasonable, was that it’s all very well promoting the sort of ethically made gear favoured by the well-off few, but meaningful change only comes by engaging the big companies. It’s emblematic of the way she approaches the music industry: not pure, not perfect, but working from inside to try to make a difference.
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Even the most limber contortionist can only bend so far, though, and the industry seems to be trying Maya’s patience. “I just need time away from it,” she says, cool evening air drifting in from the balcony of the Soho hotel room in which she’s fielded questions from HBO and others all day. “I don’t want to change how I think creatively, to brand myself into an acceptable brand.”
Acceptable, it’s true, is definitely not on-M.I.A.-message. From day one of her career, she drew fire as well as delirious hype: critics questioned her back story, her grasp of the Sri Lankan politics they’d just hastily Googled, her authenticity. Add to this her ongoing US visa difficulties, the lawsuits, the furores… just trying to be M.I.A. over the last decade must have been pretty knackering. “It’s like I went through the washing machine on every level you can possibly think as a human,” she confirms. “If you say to me, ‘You went through all this sh*t, but you need to shut up because you had such an amazing run at the music game,’ it’s like, ‘No, I didn’t.’ Every step of the way they were like, ‘Shut the f**k up about your politics,’ and now it’s super-trendy. I never thought it was gonna be cool, otherwise I would’ve stockpiled my records and started releasing them now.”
For all HER current dissatisfaction with the industry, ‘AIM’ is a powerful record, in word and in beat, not least on Skrillex collab ‘Go Off’. It also contains, in ‘Freedun’, her most gloriously pop moment in years, a keen contender to follow ‘Paper Planes’’ huge crossover success, with a startlingly beautiful, gorgeously layered chorus from Zayn Malik. The perfect stalking horse arrangement: cred boost for Zayn, 1D-sized sales boost for M.I.A. and a gorgeous song couching lyrics like, “Refugees learn about patience”.
‘Freedun’ was supposed to be on her 2013 album ‘Matangi’, but didn’t fit. ‘AIM’, meanwhile, was originally meant to be Mahtahdatah, a globe-trotting video series made in partnership with Apple Music, but that didn’t work out beyond the first instalment (the excellent Scroll 01 – Broader Than A Border). The practical considerations proved too complex for a then managerless Maya, bringing up a young son, to pull together. Perhaps fulfilling her Interscope contract with ‘AIM’ will free her up to explore other ways of having her say: film or art maybe, although she’s not sure if they’ll feel any less tied up than music. “But in terms of exploring a way to tell a story that’s so complicated, it could lend itself to other formats.” She also plans to set up a cloud-based education service for people living in refugee camps, funded by selling her “Fly Pirates” T-shirts, and possibly to tour next year. She still thinks it’s possible for music to make a change, to inspire tolerance, but first artists have to challenge the companies controlling internet culture. “At the moment, people are looking at each other and tearing each other apart. And I think when they’re smart enough to look at the actual five corporations that are creating this weird thing, then there will be hope.”
However we next hear it, it’s good to know Maya’s voice won’t be lost; it’s been one unlike any other in pop culture. “What I thought I should do [with ‘Arular’] is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about,” she told the Observer in 2005. “Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?” Eleven years on, the number of exiled and displaced people around the world is at its highest – 65 million, more than the population of the UK – since the United Nations High Commission for Refugees started keeping count, and ‘AIM’ is still flying their flag. Literally: its sleeve shares the colours of the orange-and-black flag of the Refugee Olympic Team, itself inspired by the lifejackets worn by those making perilous Mediterranean crossings.
“The best thing I ever got,” recalls Maya, “was a letter and a necklace this kid threw onstage at Fabric in 2008 or 2009. The letter just made me cry. I carried it around wherever I moved. She said her mum died and gave her that chain, and she gave it to me. And she said, ‘I was living in a camp in Lebanon and I was listening to your music, and it made me feel really good.’ It was so painful and just like… that was it. That’s the end you’re trying to get to.”
‘AIM’, she says, is about the grinding survival stage of a refugee’s journey, “when you’re trying to piece your life back together, or you get a job as an Uber driver and you have to work 23 hours a day for this dream… Those moments where you stare into space and find the strength to just carry on.”
‘Ali R U OK?’ finds Maya singing to that overworked driver, and ‘Survivor’ assures, “Who said it was easy? / They can never stop we”. But there’s damage under the proud persistence, “I ride through the sea like a pirate / Just to flow with the water / Can’t carry feelings /Like basket can’t carry water”.
“If you’re coming from the war zone, you definitely got an issue,” says Maya. “You have to adapt to a new place, you have to start new schools – every kid is going to go through all the things I went through. They’re gonna be in a council flat, they have to fill out the forms, sit in the waiting rooms, get housed, wait for your voucher for your school uniform. And you had to come up with how to make luncheon vouchers look cool because you’re the only kid that’s got ’em!” She laughs at the memory. “It’s my experience I had in England, this weird fabric of communities I experienced, that are all part of my sound in the end.”
‘AIM’’s focus is global, and some of it was recorded in Jamaica, but it’s also in part a return to M.I.A.’s musical origins in London. Completing the circle wasn’t easy. Having decided that Europe would be a more integrated place to raise her son Ikhyd, Maya had to go through a custody battle with his father and her former fiancé, billionaire environmentalist and music industry heir Benjamin Bronfman, who wanted mother and son to remain in the US. Now she can’t get back into the States to promote ‘AIM’ and has to drop Ikhyd at the airport; the fact she counts WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange among her friends, she thinks, isn’t going to help that much. “The person that most hates him is Hillary [Clinton] and now she’s gonna be the President.” Back, meanwhile, in the city that shaped ‘Arular’ – to which she makes lyrical callbacks on ‘Visa’, as well as sampling that album’s ‘Galang’ – she is, she says, “very Team Normal” – working a lot, hanging out with Ikhyd. “Just friends, family, like normal stuff…. that’s what I like about England. Even if people recognise you, they don’t really say anything. I get to be just like everybody else.”
‘AIM’ also features old friend and lover Diplo on the pun-laden, nagging, deceptively deep ‘Bird Song’ (the pair are on friendlier terms after a very public war of words a year ago; Maya posted a pic of her with the producer in a playful headlock back in March 2015) and Richard X, who worked on some of ‘Arular’’s most exuberantly poppy moments. “If it is my last record I wanted to go and touch base with certain people that were part of the beginning of the cycle,” she told her fans on Periscope. This sense of taking stock, and the “last album” threat, leads you to wonder how Maya sees her legacy. Those who kick out against the system, and those who try to work within it, are often ultimately absorbed and made safe.
Will her subversive voice survive? “I read a story in National Geographic,” she replies, “about this Egyptian queen who had to pretend to be a king. In the hieroglyphics she always got etched in with a fake beard. And then when the prince, her stepson, came in to reign, he had her deleted. Wherever you find the history of her, it’s been chiselled out. And I feel like that’s basically what men do. You rewrite history and you absorb things and you dilute it.” Maya won’t be chiselled quietly, though; her aim is still true.
“To me, my work’s really important and it’s part of my salvation,” she says. “I’ve always used the points about me that are very, very to the core my own. So it’s impossible for me to lose it.”