M.I.A.: The Permanent Revolution of Pop’s Most Fascinating Radical
"I'm interested in why I always seem to press the button," says M.I.A. "Everyone knows that pressing buttons is bad. You press a button and you get punished." It's a sparkling July morning, and she's drinking coffee in London's Hyde Park, dressed in a forest-green sweater dress and matching dark-green shades. It happens to be her 41st birthday, but M.I.A., who was born Mathangi Arulpragasam but goes by Maya, says she doesn't care about birthdays. Instead, what's on her mind is her seemingly endless ability to stir up trouble.
In recent years, M.I.A. has managed to piss off both the NFL (which sued her for $16.6 million for flipping the bird as Madonna's guest at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show; the case was settled for an undisclosed amount) and the U.S. State Department, which right now is denying her a visa to enter the country. Maya, who was born in London to Sri Lankan parents, has a seven-year-old son, Ikhyd, whose father – Maya's ex – is the American entrepreneur and environmentalist Benjamin Bronfman. And yet she still can't get a visa, quite possibly because she has been pegged in the past as a supporter of the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan separatist group that the U.S. says is a terrorist organization. (Maya denies supporting the Tigers, though she has been an outspoken advocate for Sri Lanka's oppressed Tamil minority.) "They never tell you 'no,' and they never tell you 'yes,' " she says of the visa process. "[They] just keep saying they're investigating me."
In April, M.I.A. came under fire for comments that were perceived as dismissive of Black Lives Matter – and, perhaps more problematically for M.I.A., dismissive of Beyoncé. "It's interesting that in America the problem you're allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter," she told the Evening Standard. "Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter or Syrian Lives Matter?" Maya later clarified her position: "My criticism wasn't about Beyoncé," she said in a tweet. "It's how u can say A not B right now in 2016." But in the wake of the controversy, M.I.A. lost her headlining spot at London's upcoming Afropunk festival.
Now, Maya says that all she wants in the world is to put out her new album, AIM, in peace, then walk away from the music business. "I'm really fucking tired and I want to fucking retire and raise my kid," she says. If this is truly her last album, she's going out with a hard left turn. AIM is lighter, airier and less overtly political than what she's known for; Maya calls it "the most positive album. There's none of these hot topics – no racism, no gender stuff, no politics. It's going to be an interesting journey for me, this spreading love." She smirks. "I'm trying hard not to sound like Madonna." Blaqstarr, her friend and frequent producer, says Maya has a softer side the public rarely gets to see. "[She's perceived as] very La Femme Nikita," he says. "But underneath that armor there's the urge to be a motherly figure."
Maya has apparently even made up with her ex-boyfriend and former collaborator Diplo, with whom she had frequently exchanged barbs in the press. Last year, shortly after calling him "controlling" and saying he "couldn't wait to be Taylor Swift's best friend," she posted a photo in which she embraces the producer, who even remixed a song from AIM.
Still, Maya knows there will always be buttons waiting to be pushed. "Even if I said to you, 'I'm going to stay in this park and build a little tent and just live like a yogi here for 30 years,' I would find it," she says. "I end up in the eye of the storm all the fucking time! I don't know how. I'm dealing with that now. Like: Why, why, why? I'm going to have to really change my life to know the answer."
At the start of M.I.A.'s career, her rebel attitude was perhaps her greatest asset. "It was the 'axis of evil' and blah, blah, blah," she says of her rise to fame in the early 2000s. "That's the reason I came up, because I wasn't afraid." She crashed onto the scene in 2005 with Arular, which had a global hip-hop sound and sensibility that connected the struggles of young kids in Compton with oppressed people in developing countries. Creatively, her direct descendants are subversive pop stars like Grimes and Santigold, but in a larger sense, she helped create our current moment of pop activism, paving the way for everything from Nicki Minaj's unapologetic feminism to Beyoncé's "Formation." "I'm not the person that makes billions of dollars off talking about oppression," she says. "I'm the icebreaker and you come in behind me and monetize that shit."
M.I.A. recorded her second album, 2007's Kala, essentially on the run. She had planned to work mostly with Timbaland in the States, but visa problems forced her instead to work with producers in studios from India to Angola to Australia. Out of the globetrotting chaos came a surprise hit: "Paper Planes," a shot at immigrant-fearing Westerners that M.I.A. co-wrote with Diplo. It hit Number Four on the Hot 100, helped along by being featured in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and the trailer to the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy Pineapple Express.
Around that time, Maya split with Diplo and met Bronfman, whose family ran the Seagram Co., and whose father, Edgar Bronfman Jr., had served as CEO of Warner Music Group. M.I.A. was nominated for an Oscar, toured with Björk and wrote for Christina Aguilera. By February 2009, she was nine months pregnant with Ikhyd, but that didn't stop her from performing with Jay Z, T.I., Lil Wayne and Kanye West at the 2009 Grammys. It seemed the singer-rapper was poised to become a superstar – or, as she puts it, a "supermegaconglomerate brand. I had a massive platform in front of me to be like, 'You are gonna be the icon of the fuckin' millennium – embrace it.'"
Instead, she pushed the button. She began to speak about what then seemed like paranoid conspiracy theories, like how the Internet had become a tool for governments to spy on their citizens. She told a journalist that Google and Facebook were developed by the CIA and tweeted that President Obama should give back his Nobel Peace Prize. When The New York Times ran a profile painting M.I.A. – unfairly, arguably – as a hypocrite for claiming to represent the underprivileged while living with the son of a billionaire, she retaliated by tweeting the writer's phone number and releasing her own recordings of the interview. Her next album, 2010's Maya, was brilliant but abrasive, full of industrial beats and electro-punk noise. For its lead single, "Born Free," M.I.A. made a video in which a cherubic red-haired kid gets shot in the head.
At times, Maya says, it seems like "I don't even know what I'm saying, it's just coming out and I can't stop it." But she does remember what was primarily on her mind around Maya: the Sri Lankan civil war, which was coming to a brutal end. Maya's family belongs to the country's Tamil minority; her father was initially part of a separatist group, but later served as a peace mediator between the government and the Tamil Tigers. "My family, my dad, started a war that lasted 35 fucking years," says M.I.A., who throughout her life has rarely seen her father. "I was really unhappy about how it went down for Tamils. And I had no help and nobody cared."
Maya peaked at Number Nine on the album charts, then quickly sank from view. This time, there were no surprise hits. "I got told, 'You could have been Rihanna if you'd just shut up,'" Maya says, summing up the aftermath of "Paper Planes." "And I was just like, 'Well, I have to stay true to myself. I'll take myself out of the game.' And I did."
"I don't know how i'm going to make it through an interview right now," Maya says. It's late morning the next day, and she's sitting at an upscale breakfast spot, feeling like death. She may not like celebrating her birthday, but her friends sure do. Last night, they took her to a Peruvian restaurant where she drank innumerable tiger's-milk cocktails. "That's right, bitches!" she shouts, raising a fluorescent-orange manicured hand after recalling the name of the drink. (Some part of her appears to still be at the bar.)
Before she went out last night, she says, "something really beautiful happened." She unlocks her iPhone to display a photo of a giant bird that flew into her house and has not yet left. "I was going to have eggs, but I don't want to have anything bird-y, out of respect," she says solemnly. Maya orders avocado toast and a fruit salad, then leans back in her seat and smiles. "My kid, I FaceTimed him," she begins. Ikhyd is in New York right now. (She and Bronfman appear to share custody.) When they spoke, she showed him the bird flying around his room. "He was like, 'Yeah, you should cook it.'" She cackles proudly. "He's like, 'What are you waiting for? Stab it and eat it!' "
It's unclear when she broke up with Bronfman, but by the end of 2010, she got on a plane for London and never really came back. "I had a baby at that point," she recalls. "I needed my mum." It's been a contentious split – in 2013, Bronfman filed a restraining order against Maya to keep her from taking Ikhyd to the U.K., which we know because she chose to tweet about it.
Being the mother of a child of privilege has been weird for Maya, who moved to Sri Lanka from London at six months old and grew up seeing government forces beat her pregnant mother, among other horrors. Her first instinct was to try to toughen up Ikhyd by re-creating some of the circumstances of her youth. "I was giving him bread with butter every day for a week, and he's like, 'You don't have to eat like that. You are, like, a musician pop star.' "
She sees her son as an insider in a way she never had the chance to be. Even in Sri Lanka, ostensibly her homeland, she never got to be "normal," she says. Thanks to her father's activism, there was always an adversary in the midst. "I was in the most hunted political family. You're reminded as soon as you're born: Somebody is going to kill you."
When Maya was 10, she and her siblings returned to England with their mother. As a member of one of a handful of brown families in her South London council estate, Maya was either spat at in the streets or treated as invisible. "It's not even racism, it's beyond that," she says. "You are just not there."
Maya takes me on a driving tour through East London, where she spent her teenage years going to raves and hanging out with members of a Bengali street gang. "If we'd been here when I was 15," she says, gesturing at the well-heeled, artsy, mostly white people walking around a recently gentrified neighborhood, "all of these people would have got murdered." As a teen, Maya turned her outsider status into an asset. "Me and my sister," she says, "we'd go to the Jamaican community, the Pakistani community, the Indian community. When I started making music, I was like, 'Yeah, all of these people are important, and they're important to my story.'"
Since moving back to London, she's tried to stay under the radar. She's rarely recognized, she says, though other kids at Ikhyd's school expect her to look like a pop star. "The kids really comment on the way I dress," she says. "Like, if I'm not doing my bit to look like the thing, they complain!"
Maya sometimes talks about AIM like she's recorded 12 "Kumbaya" covers. But it's true that the firebrand of the past is now in a more conciliatory place – even in "Ola No Visa," she insists, "I'm a fighter and a lover . . . I ain't really lookin' for no drama." "I can and have preached a lot of hate. I have every right to," she says. "It's just . . . I can't back that as a thing. Because it's not the truth." Maya doesn't want to empower those who would see her as a dangerous immigrant. "Refugees are still faceless, they still don't have a voice," she says. "They're still at the bottom of the ladder."
Maya isn't sure what she's going to do after AIM comes out. The week after we meet, she heads to Greece to work with refugees, and she talks of returning to filmmaking, which she studied in school. Maya would like to take one last stab at America – if she can get into the country, that is. "By the time I get [my visa], Trump's gonna be in power," she half-jokes.
In a way, whatever happens with AIM is gravy. Our tour of East London takes us close to the Christ Church Spitalfields youth center, where Maya hung out as a teen. A worker there once pulled her aside with a warning: "He said, 'You need to get the fuck out of here. If you do stay with this, you're going to end up in a council flat with six kids before you're 21.' " Her response? "'That sounds amazing. Who wouldn't want that? I could be dead.'"