"The way Sri Lanka operates, you’ll get killed and the government will say, 'Ah, she went swimming, she was eaten by a shark, what can you do?'"- M.I.A., on why she does not want to revisit Sri Lanka
It’s a spring afternoon in Hackney and I am sitting with Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam in an airy, upmarket yoga bar, discussing her public persona. “I have a reputation for being difficult,” she tells me. “I still don’t get invited to the BRIT Awards. I think they’re scared of me. And, I hardly ever get approached by corporations or brands. I have this massive ‘No’ sign on my face.”
Dressed in silver loafers, black Adidas tracksuit bottoms and a fluoro-floral shirt—her signature hi-lo, borderless collision of styles—at first she barely meets my eye, darting looks at me from underneath a cascade of copper-black hair. But, between mouthfuls of a Leon salad that she shouldn’t strictly be eating in here, she considers her answers carefully, feeling her way, her responses coming in a soft south London accent intertwined with occasional transatlantic inflections. She turned 40 last year, but she’s so fresh-faced and whelpish that you’d assume she were half that age.
In the decade or so that she has been creating music as M.I.A.—euphoric, provocative, tacky-glam music that makes other pop stars sound hopelessly homogenised—the Anglo-Sri Lankan artist has revealed an equal talent for controversy. She has offered confusing accounts of her father’s role in the Tamil separatist movement, and has herself been accused of being a terrorist sympathiser by the Sri Lankan government (and, politically naive by just about everyone else). She has been sued by the National Football League in the US for making a one-fingered gesture while sharing the stage with Madonna and Nicki Minaj at the 2012 Super Bowl XLVI.
In her most recent video, Borders, she sang from a dinghy full of actors pretending to be dead refugees in a doctored Paris Saint-Germain shirt (it read Fly Pirates, rather than Fly Emirates), which didn’t go down all that well with the French football club’s lawyers.
She appears to be unafraid of contradiction: the spokesrapper for the world’s underclass, who has a child with Benjamin Bronfman—a scion of one of America’s richest families; the anti-corporatist rebel who’s suddenly fronting a recycling campaign for H&M.
As we’re talking, a beggar wanders in from the street—south Asian ethnicity, pleading mouth. He begins to ask all the Hackney yoga-mums for money. Arulpragasam seems genuinely pained, she has nothing on her and tries to offer him some food instead. Eventually some cash is found. “Don’t let that be an example to you of what immigrants are doing,” she warns me, her first instinct to be defensive. It’s fine, I say, you can’t live in London and fail to notice the amount of beggars these days. “It’s always there—it’s just the cultures that come in that change,” she reflects. “When I arrived in London in the 1980s, there were loads of Sri Lankans. It used to drive me crazy. Me and my sisters were trying to be cool London teenagers but we’d just be surrounded by Tamil refugees. But after that, it was Somalians, Bosnians, now it’s very Eastern European. It comes in waves.”
Arulpragasam was born in Hounslow in 1975 to father Arul, an engineer and activist who was later involved in the Tamil separatist movement, and mother Kala, a seamstress. Her parents returned to Jaffna in Sri Lanka when she was a baby, meaning her early childhood was marked by the civil war then engulfing the country. After a spell in Tamil Nadu, her mother brought the family to England and they were housed as refugees. Arulpragasam grew up in the heart of the Tamil community in Tooting, while her father remained in Sri Lanka. Later, she ‘blagged’ a place at Central Saint Martins, studying fashion and film, and worked her way into the music industry via a friendship with Justine Frischmann of Elastica.
Her debut album Arular (named after her father) was released in 2005 to enormous acclaim, followed by Kala (named after her mother) in 2007. The name M.I.A. is a play on Missing In Action and Maya, her assumed name.
In the early years of her success Arulpragasam moved to New York—and it is in America where she feels she has had greater recognition. Her migrant anthem, Paper Planes, with its bang-bang-bang-kerching chorus, became one of the most downloaded songs of the digital era, while magazines such as Time rushed to herald her as the first superstar of the globalised era. She counts Madonna and Kanye West among her admirers, though she can be airily dismissive of her peers. When I suggest that modern pop is as much a style game as a music game, she cuts me down. “I wouldn’t say that Rihanna or Justin Bieber or even Lady Gaga have a distinctive style—it changes according to whoever’s styling them.”
When Arulpragasam first moved to the US, she had a high-profile relationship with dance producer Diplo, aka Thomas Wesley Pentz. The fiery dynamic was professionally productive, but, eventually, too intense, though there has been a recent rapprochement (“I want to find a new artist I can fight with all the time and make awesome songs with,” Diplo joked last year). Later, in 2008, Arulpragasam was engaged to Bronfman. They had a child, Ikhyd (now seven), and lived in Brentwood, LA, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, NYC, but the relationship ended acrimoniously with a custody battle. Arulpragasam is now single and living with Ikhyd in East London, although she says he sees his father regularly.
Like any parent, Arulpragasam has been revisiting her own childhood as she raises her son. “I’m not very good at being a mother,” she says. “I didn’t spend my childhood here, so everything is new to me: the school system, the ABC, phonics… I don’t know what books to buy him.” The regimented approach to life is in stark contrast with her own childhood in Jaffna, where she remembers running wild with a great big gang of kids in the neighbourhood. However, at least it’s better than New York. “When my kid was two he was saying things like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so in my personal space right now’. That’s when it was time to leave. Personal space! I slept in the same room as ten other people until I was ten.”
Mercifully, Paris Saint-Germain have dropped their legal warning after Arulpragasam tweeted their letter to her 6,78,000 followers. “I haven’t heard anything since then,” she says. “It’s awesome. The support I got from my fans actually made them go away. I’m going to do that all the time now, ha-ha!”
A lot of M.I.A.’s frustration comes from the fact that she’s pretty much the only south Asian musician on the world stage. She has been accused of naivety in the past, but when she describes the refugee camps that she recently visited in Tamil Nadu, she is nuanced and knowledgeable. These problems are live for her. The Sri Lankan authorities no longer class her as a terrorist cheerleader, but she doesn’t plan on returning any time soon. “They keep saying, ‘It’s all great now, come see for yourself!’ But I have a kid, I don’t want to take that chance. The way Sri Lanka operates, you’ll get killed and the government will say, ‘Ah, she went swimming, she was eaten by a shark, what can you do?’”
Arulpragasam may lack the obedience of your modern production-line pop star, but isn’t that how we prefer our musicians: unpredictable, contradictory, even a little infuriating? When I ask what scares her she doesn’t pause. “Nothing. I feel like I should have died a long time ago. I’m surprised I’m still alive, to be honest. I came from war. When I was growing up I didn’t really think I’d live beyond about 25.”