M.I.A. is curator of this year’s Meltdown (June 9-18). The fearless singer and artist had promised to ‘redefine the concept of a melting pot’ with the programming of this year’s festival. The line-up for 2017 is temptingly underground. And young. And global. From the scorch of Parisian afro-trap star MHD to the whiplash of pioneering Californian queer rapper Mykki Blanco, Meltdown 2017 looks set to be a winner.
‘Man, honestly, I am so normal,’ MIA tells me, unconvincingly. We’re sat around an enormous boardroom table at the top of the Southbank Centre, discussing her plans as curator of Meltdown – the annual, ten-day cultural festival she’s currently programming when we meet.
Bossing Meltdown (only the fifth woman to curate it in 24 years) is a good look for an artist who has made a career of bringing together different sounds, styles and ideas from around the world. It’s also perfect timing: while political turmoil is making activists of many, the idea of an activist helming Meltdown makes so much sense. As early as her 2005 debut album ‘Arular’, Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam was proud to boast, ‘I’m a fighter, nice nice fighter.’ She has supported the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka, was outspoken over the Iraq War, has criticised state surveillance, championed the rights of migrants, predicted Edward Snowden’s revelations and even performed while heavily pregnant at the Grammys, eight years before Beyoncé did.
Despite all this achievement and fame, I’m desperate to find out something at least a bit normal about the life of MIA. Her response is brilliant. First, she effortlessly asks her assistant: ‘What normal things do I do every day?’ To help, I give an example from my normal life – that I emptied cat faeces from the litter tray this morning. This doesn’t seem to provide much normcore inspo. ‘Ah, I don’t have pets,’ she replies. ‘I’m away too much. I wanted to get a finger monkey once, but I was scared I’d squash it accidentally.’ No, I don’t know what a finger monkey is either. Yes, MIA is amazing…
What’s your relationship with London right now? Is London your home?
‘Yeah, I’ve been back here for five years now. For the first couple of years, nobody knew I was here. I’m in east London, which is one of those places that’s really changey. But I’ve been around here for decades, and had so many lives around here, that I’m basically like a museum now.’
What are your favourite bits of town?
‘Well, actually, the South Bank has always been quite special to me. I used to come here a lot when I was a student at Saint Martins. It collided all the things I like about the city: you can watch a movie, you can buy books outside, or skate and meet weirdos doing tricks off bridges. It was always really beautiful and interesting.’
How is London as a place to bring up your son?
‘I’m team normal when I’m in London. People don’t recognise me much here. I’m always recognised a lot more in other parts of the world. I never really step out of what I know, that’s the way I want it to be. I want to be able to take my kid to all the places I know, without it all being tampered with by my fame. I take him back to the estate where I grew up, for example. My mum still lives in the same house I grew up in.’
That must be really reassuring.
‘Yeah, it’s not like I made millions and bought her a mansion! It’s really important for him, because he has very extreme influences in his life so it’s really important for me to have that and do things that don’t change, like go to the market with my mum. It doesn’t change.’
Aside from the artists you’ve booked, tell us about what else you’re planning for Meltdown this year?
‘What I wanted with Meltdown was to have things I loved about the city when I was growing up here as a teenager, which revolved around different community spaces across the city. If I went to certain areas in London, the different cultures were so strong; there was bashment in the Harlesden community centre for Independence Day, or on the Stonebridge Estate you’d get Trinidadian culture. People had the most fun because there was freedom and they were chaotic. I want Meltdown to feel like that, like going to a Mela in the ’90s.’
It was widely reported when you publicly tweeted Radiohead asking them if they’d play Meltdown. Did they say yes?
‘No. Not at all. People got back to me, but it’s summer and people’s schedules are hard to work out. What do you think I’m missing anyway? Have you got anything to contribute?’
You could get Elastica to reform? You designed some sleeves for them back in the day.
‘I tried. That was my first ask, actually. It didn’t go too well. I hadn’t talked to Justine [Frischmann] in three years. The band were cool with it, but she didn’t want to do it. “That’s just not what I do any more,” is what she said. Any other ideas?’
I had an idea that 101 Julian Assange lookalikes should go for a walk together down the South Bank together, leaving people to wonder if the real Assange was in there or not.
‘So “Spot the Julian”, basically… Yeah, I could make that happen. We can just say Banksy organised it. What else?’ How about getting your old beau Diplo to do an all-2007 set, circa the time you made ‘Paper Planes’ together? ‘I did ask. He said he didn’t want to do it because everyone hates him right now. He thinks everyone in England hates him. I’ll text him now.’
Tell Diplo we won’t hate him if he plays. What’s the status with you two anyway? Do you actually hate him?
‘I just don’t know. I think as you get older, you can’t hide who you are any more. I think he crossed over and now there’s things he can’t support publicly. Politically, his thing isn’t my thing any longer. I really don’t know, though: I haven’t been to America for a while so I don’t know what’s in people’s minds, politically. When I last went, I went for one day.’
It begs the question: would you go back to America given the current climate? Are you prepared to give up your email passwords, for example?
‘They already have mine. I’ve lived for ten years knowing they’re in my emails. So there’s nothing there. Not because I’m plotting some crazy shit! My Twitter followers have been frozen on 700K since 2012. It’s like they’re saying, “You can have a bit of power: but not a lot.” I’m just very uninterested in technology right now. I think it’s going backwards.’
So shall we just end it? Shall we commit social suicide right now, you and me holding hands like Thelma and Louise?
‘You can if you want to. It just means nothing really any more. The only positive thing that came out of Trump was that people are talking about fake news. He highlighted it, and now you can’t deny it exists. Also, everyone’s in danger of becoming racist now.’
‘I think it comes from the media ramping up news about immigrants, how many were coming over. It made it okay for people to go back to their caves and beat their chests. It made it acceptable to believe that some people, like immigrants, are disposable, while others, like middle-class educated people, aren’t. I feel that in my personal life, around people I know.’
Do you mean there are people around you who say ‘I’m not racist, but…’
‘Exactly. That’s exactly what people have said to me since Brexit. This weekend, I was talking with people I thought were nice everyday people about taking my son travelling. And they said: “I wouldn’t go to a Muslim country because it looks dirty.” I was like: Do you think that’s because half of them have been bombed, and they were like: “No no, it’s the way people live, even before the bombings.” A country isn’t shit because it’s not Instagrammable and there’s no Costa coffee!’
Surely this is exactly the kind of fire you need to keep fighting?
‘I’m not sure any more. I’m definitely an instigator. But I always expect people smarter than me to step in and actually drive the train. I can put the train on the tracks, fill it up with people and press start. But I’ve realised that getting it somewhere is someone else’s job.’
Meltdown runs from Jun 9-18 at the Southbank Centre. MIA plays on Jun 18. Portraits by Andy Parsons.