Carnival queen MIA arrived in Britain as a refugee, pitched up in India, Jamaica and Liberia to record her latest dazzling slice of mutant worldbeat, yet yearns to rest up in a place of her own. One problem: America's vetoed her access to her NYC pad since '05, and now she's on tour. 'It's like dragging a big boat over a mountain,' she tells Time Out
Everyone knows that ‘world music’ is a crappy, woolly term which should have been retired years ago, but no one’s yet come up with an adequate replacement. That’s not the fault of world music fans, rather it highlights how retarded pop’s view of global culture is. Take MIA – aka Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam. Currently everyone’s favourite grime/electro/ravehall artist – beloved of the broadsheet fashionistas yet simultaneously patron saint and pin-up for the Day-Glo nu-rave kids – her influences actually come from all continents except (so far) Antarctica, and include Angolan kuduru, South American cumbia, Jamaican dancehall and Bollywood soundtracks. Not musics you’d expect your average scenester to bosh pills to.
And the global references of her music have thrown obstacles in the way of her seemingly charmed career. Until recently she has been effectively, according to many reports, barred from the US as a result of lyrics on her first album which were taken as support for the PLO. Quite a problem considering she’d just bought a flat in New York where she was hoping to settle down for a while.
Maya is, nominally, a west London girl. She moved to the capital as a refugee in 1987 following her journo-pleasing spells in Sri Lanka with her Tamil militant father, and India with her mother. This, as well as her convoluted musical meandering, makes her appearance at Carnival this week as obvious as it is exciting. It also means she has exceedingly fond memories of the carnivals of her yout’, even if she does think they take Carnival ‘more seriously’ in her would-be native Brooklyn.
‘I used to go every year from like 1990 onwards,’ she says. ‘I had different phases: as a teen it was amazing, because we’d just go and check boys there, and that’s where you see all the different boys from all the different areas. It was just really cool and I got to see all my favourite dancehall artists there back in the day – like Shabba Ranks or Super Cat used to be stood on a little cardboard box singing – or, like, Lil Kim, or Ice Cube. I sold beer there too, just ’cause the boys bet me I couldn’t do it.’
She’s probably as well (if not better) known for her biog as her music, although it’s a fair bet if your life had been as eventful as hers, you wouldn’t spend much time being asked about your job either, unless you’re a lion tamer or a spaceman. It’s a shame, as MIA’s music is great – meaning genuinely great, rather than ‘currently great’. First album ‘Arular’ was seen in the context of the then emerging baile funk scene, as it shared a similarly lo-fi, low-rent production and was part-produced by the scene’s nominal curator Diplo. The new record, produced with current hit boys Switch and Blaqstarr, sounds similar – it’s a load of clashing noises piled up on top of one another – but those noises are drawn from new sources and piled up in new arrangements in an effort, Maya says, to ‘keep myself interested; I normally only do anything once’.
Time Out: If you’re not used to doing anything more than once, how did you approach following up such a well-dissected debut?‘When I was making the first album I didn’t realise that I was doing anything new. It was only after everyone went “Oh my god!” that I thought about it. But this time I wanted to be really specific. I didn’t wanna do any Brazilian funk stuff, and I wanted to make it more African-sounding, like a Rwanda beat. We also have Indian drummers on it, so it’s like a mash-up of an African/Indian drum thing.’
Was there anything you consciously decided to change about the way you put together your music?‘I built the skeleton in India, around the way people play drums there. They’ve played it for generations, it’s a rhythm you catch on to, like a feeling. So you can’t actually say to anyone: “Look, can you play a 4/4 beat? They’re not that mathematical rhythmically – it’s emotional. You just have to start them off where you want them then make sure you get enough of that, and then let them go off wherever they wanna go. I was never aware of what I was actually getting, I was just making it up as I went along.’
Being apparently persecuted for your lyrics must have made you realise how easy it is to offend the wrong people these days…‘That’s one of the reasons why, with this album, I put more into production. I found that really exciting. So [recent single] “Boyz” is just a bunch of happy accidents. I made that in the week when the papers said I was banned from the US because of my lyrics, and it seemed everyone was talking about the PLO reference. So I thought: I’m gonna write a song with no content or lyrics in it – just like “na na na na” all the way – and see if I still have to go through bullshit.‘Me, it was always about being able to bounce around to where I wanna be. Like, with “Arular”, people always say it’s so political but I think 50 per cent of the album is not very political at all. It’s just really a shouty shouty girl thing.’
Are you making an effort to separate your musical and political lives?‘Um, not really. It’s a bit weird, because I don’t really know what people expect or think being political is; I just don’t get it. What am I supposed to do as a pop star-stroke-revolutionary? Get up and put my balaclava on, go to the grocery store and then invent some Google viruses, and then go to rob a bank to fund my revolution on YouTube? To even have me in that position and then judge it is really bizarre for me. Yeah, I am opinionated and I do talk shit that other girls wouldn’t talk about but that’s because I don’t really give a shit and I’m not scared. But in terms of actively living out a revolution, on this album I just decided that the struggle you have, the war that you face day to day is bad enough.’
So you’re moving from the obviously political to the personally political?‘Music is a powerful thing and if you’re gonna say anything on it, you have to be really careful. “Arular” was outwardly political because, in 2003-2004, we were getting that type of shit shoved down our faces every day. The way I was spoken to was exactly the way I spoke back; the television talked to me that way, so I’ll talk to the television that way. I think my battle just has to be whatever happens to me that moment. And when I was writing the new album, I had immigration problems, I was coming out of a relationship, I had issues with being successful and how people treated me. I was just concerned about how to evolve as a human being. To me, now, music is all part of a bigger picture.’
…so presumably you don’t want to tie yourself down to a strict manifesto?‘There is no manifesto, but the point is that just to be on your own and to do this and not give up no matter what happens – it’s good enough. Just to try and keep some sort of integrity when this is the age of getting bought out as soon as you blink. If you make something, as soon as you have some credibility or you do something that comes from a real place, it’s like nothing is safe. Everything gets stamped and labelled. You just have to have faith in your evolution as a human being and where you’re going with it.’
In that respect, being denied entry to the States was a good thing. You were scheduled to produce the album with Timbaland, surely the biggest brand name in beat-making…‘It’s true. The first time I got denied, it was a bummer because [going to the US] was the natural progression – making a bigger and more commercial-sounding album. But what’s rare right now is somebody that actually sticks their neck out and makes something that’s artistically driven. When I couldn’t get into America I was just off doing shit on my own. I didn’t really have any communication with [US/UK labels] Interscope or XL or even my management. I felt like I was trying to drag a big boat over the mountain, like a Werner Herzog film or something. You have to have this belief in following a thought process or demonstrate some sort of willpower. I don’t understand why people make me want to make music that’s a join-the-dots thing by numbers. I find it really difficult when people say, ‘Aw, you should have made a really big hip hop record, that would have been really good for you’ or, ‘You should have made a song like Lily Allen, that would have been so great’. The new album is dirty, it’s scummy, it’s got flies on it and it’s got all the ink and the dirt and the blood and the sweat. It has all the sounds that represent that.’
Despite being barred from the US, you still managed to get around. The album was recorded in India, Jamaica and Liberia. Do you find that travelling is crucial to your creativity?‘No, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t get back to my house. I’ve never really had a place of my own, and that’s the only thing I thought I could possibly want and get. I wanted months in my house, where I woke in the same place every day, and it still didn’t happen. I moved out of London in March 2005 and I never went home. I didn’t have a home anywhere. When I got one in New York I wasn’t allowed in. I’m still homeless. From ’05 I was couch-surfing or staying in hotels, and I still live like that. By the time they gave me the visa – which was only two weeks ago – I was already on tour, so I’m gonna be doing this for another year. I’m gonna be homeless from 2005 to maybe 2008 non-stop. It’s kind of art imitating life and life imitating art. I sing about being a refugee, and I am one still.’ MIA’s new album ‘KALA’ is out now.
- Add your comment to this feature