M.I.A.: “I made it to where that actions begins”

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Short Profile

Name: Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam
DOB: 18 July 1975
Place of birth: Hounslow, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Rapper, songwriter

MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., the documentary about the life and career of M.I.A. directed by Stephen Loveridge, is in theaters now.

Maya, would you call yourself a rebel?

I’ve never really registered it as rebellion, but I got fucked up very young. Looking back, I was just like, “That is quite an intense thing,” but I didn’t give it a name when I was young.

Growing up, your father was a political activist and a revolutionary — is that sense of rebellion something he instilled in you?

It wasn't instilled by my dad because he wasn't around to instill anything. I just generally thought that rebellion was a bad thing because it brought so much hassle and pain to my mom's life, you know? I think it came because I just reached my limit in terms of how restricted certain things were in Sri Lanka.

Restricted in what ways?

Through the circumstances and situations of my childhood during the Sri Lankan Civil War, I realized that that being put in boxes was just a waste of time.

“My early days before the war were really great, but one by one those things were getting destroyed.”

Although your childhood years spent in Sri Lanka weren’t easy, they are apparently also some of your happiest memories.

I did love the life I had in Sri Lanka. But at the same time, my uncle says that apparently when he came to visit us in Jaffna, I was holding on to his leg going, "I'm destined to be more than this, take me with you." And dragging on the floor when he was trying to leave. I don’t remember that but he said that that's what I used to be like all the time. Every time somebody foreign came to our town, that I would run after the car and be like, "Take me with you!"

Like you knew you were destined for something else?

Right, “I'm just more than this.” My early days before the war were really great, I loved them but after the war started, I thought I was losing that, you know? One by one those things were getting destroyed. And that I knew it would never be the same for me.

Your family took refuge from the war in your native England in 1986, where you eventually got into making music. What drew you to it?

Music was instant and it was cheap, I never realized I would have a natural affinity to it. I came to it when I was old. It didn't even cross my mind that I'd be musical. In the documentary Matangi/Maya/MIA, you can see all the different ways that I’m creating music but I think it just stems from the sounds that I heard when I was a child in Sri Lanka being really important to me because they kept me entertained.

In a rap verse, you say: “I'm going to tell you this only once, I don't give a shit." Is that philosophy a reaction to your loss of innocence?

When that song with Madonna, “Give Me All Your Luvin’” came out in the early 2010s, I was in the midst of really finding life fascinating. I'd made this album in 2010 called Maya and it was about the Internet, how it was important that we shouldn't only see it for its capitalist value and that we should use the Internet for its ability to enhance humanity. I saw the Internet as a liberal space that encompasses all of humanity, that it wasn't necessarily belonging to the Americans, that everybody was part of it. But I got shut down.

How come?

Because it was seen as an assault on Americana! Musicians are not allowed to be smart or step out of their zones — especially a brown person touching something so fresh and new to people as the Internet. I knew that this was a war of perception and you that you could control people's thinking using buzz words. If you took that as an example and if you gave that as a template to other governments in the world, you could do crazy shit within six months. You could literally change the world. And everyone was like, "Shut the fuck up. You're not allowed to talk about this."

And now we’re basically living out that scenario right now.

Right, fast-forward seven years and that literal same tool got used against the American Empire. So that's why I didn't give a shit in that verse you mentioned. After that, you don't give a shit. People are happy with the world ending as we know it. These are the problems we want for the future? Fine, have them.

“There are consequences to certain actions and I come from the debris of those consequences.”

And then when you and Madonna eventually performed that song at the Superbowl in 2012, you gave the middle-finger and were completely blackballed by the industry.

Yeah, they absolutely blackballed me. Am I glad I stuck to my guns about it? I mean, it's just like a ridiculous thing in the scope of like other issues. That shouldn't be bigger than 100,000 people dying. A middle finger shouldn't be bigger than that. Sri Lanka is the number one human rights violator in terms of disappearances — so to put that next to the middle finger and have the middle finger be more offensive?

It’s ridiculous what the media will choose to hype up when it comes to celebrity.

Sure but there was no way of fighting it. It wasn't about my personal success at the cost of everybody else, [the backlash] just came down so hard that I couldn't get through the noise. Nobody there felt that I had the right to talk about some of the things… That album and the reaction to it allowed them to turn me into a villain, into a bad girl. They wanted me to play into the "baddie" role: “Be that terrible person who says and does terrible shit." So, there are consequences to certain actions and I come from the debris of those consequences. I made it to where that action begins.