No Good No Evil
by: Blaine Skrainka
photography by: Saga Sig
April 1, 2014
Maya Arulpragasam, born Mathangi but known to the world as M.I.A., has never been one to stay in place too long. Even today, as a mega pop icon, she considers herself forever a refugee. Before returning to the projects of London as a teen, the place of her birth, she spent adolescence in her native Sri Lanka, a place so rife with ethnic violence that her family was forced to flee. Years later, as a visual artist and film student out of London’s Central Saint Martins College, Arulpragasam began toying with combinations of sounds on a Roland Groovebox, and before she knew it, was putting out a mixtape with soon to be legendary producer Diplo. M.I.A. hit the scene touting infectious beats emblazoned with politically outspoken rhetoric as striking as her looks—one could hardly look away. Two critically acclaimed LPs, plus a chart-topping viral party hit “Paper Planes,” and suddenly she was redefining dance music. Hip hop titans Chuck D and Nas described her sound as the future.
M.I.A.’s icon status was sealed when she took the stage at the Grammy Awards in 2009, nine months pregnant, to perform with top-of-the-game rappers Kanye West, T.I., and Lil Wayne. A petite woman, to whom bed rest might have otherwise been recommended, was on the world’s biggest stage, scrapping with the big boys. She had reached the top of the pops, an unequivocal success by conventional standards, but her position as music’s agit-pop darling began to wane throughout the next year as her third full length album, /\/\/\Y/\ (Maya), failed to live up to expectations. M.I.A. said she put her “blood and guts” into /\/\/\Y/\, a record she once described as “confused,” because “so was I.” As she was ripped in the music press, the New York Times released a now infamous profile that set up the singer to come across as a privileged Westerner, out of touch with the political realities of issues for which she so often spoke out, especially with regard to the conflict in Sri Lanka.
M.I.A.’s cross-cultural spirit and mashup sound was perfectly suited for the rise of the Internet. Ironically, the artist has a vexed relationship with the Web, which, she believes, has gone from a democratic frontier to an increasingly corporate- controlled and government-interfered space. The video for the /\/\/\Y/\ single “Born Free,” a Romain Gavras-directed short that depicts the systematic
execution of “gingers,” was pulled from YouTube. To M.I.A., it wasn’t the “clearly fake” violence and blood, but the social commentary that was too uncomfortable for censors. Recent revelations of government snooping by way of NSA dragnet data collection only furthers her long-held suspicions of the corruption of the Web as a creative space. At a recent concert in New York City, M.I.A. was introduced to the stage by a new friend, controversial transparency activist and Wikileaks chief, Julian Assange—via Skype.
With mouthy critics and spoiled relationships in her periphery, M.I.A. set forth to create anew. Navigating toward the future, she looked for concepts from the past. This year’s release, her fourth full-length, draws from a theme centering on the Hindu goddess Matangi, who, according to a release for the album, “spoke truth to power by communicating from the heart.” The concept has a tenuous connection to the album’s lyrics, but is more fully cultivated visually. Videos in support of the new album—all completely over-the-top in true M.I.A. style—feature her as a surreal and all- encompassing character, glowing and splashed with colors that reach out from the screen as if three- dimensional. If the album is difficult to sit through in its entirety, the complete opposite is true for the accompanying short film projects.
M.I.A. has always been hesitant to label herself as a musician; ultimately, her greatest talents lie in executing a vision. Curating elements of sight and sound to fit her very unique ideas, she taps the perfect collaborators to make the vision come to life. This is displayed best in her music videos, where her unique stylings of fashion, art, and music are allowed to come together in one complete vision. Like Kanye, who himself once said that M.I.A. “got the Genius,” she pushes—or tries to push—music and art forward. This is not to say that she refuses to fail, but rather, that she creates without fear of so-called failure.
In our conversation, as in her lyrics, and career for that matter, she is both insightful and evasive—often at the same time. Her habit of espousing weighty ideas with abstruse explanations is often the target of critics, but it’s also exactly what makes M.I.A. such a gripping pop culture icon.
You’ve become known the world over as a musician, but you are also a visual artist and filmmaker. Do you approach your art forms in different ways?
Yes, I think that was always sort of part of my work anyway, so it’s not something that I seek to develop now, but it’s always been a part of what I do. The concept for this album—the whole Matangi thing—is pretty big creatively because it opens up to creativity as a whole. It was pretty interesting combining it all. And so much of the music industry is so monetized today, it’s not really a very creative space.
Speaking of Matangi, a Hindu goddess, do you consider yourself a religious person?
It’s more sort of like the confusion. I think the Internet is a really interesting space, and my last relationship with it was me being very critical of the Internet changing ownership. In the beginning when it was invented, it was sort of like squares getting with the hippies, and this idea of abandoning utopia. But then the ownership changed hands and killed off any possibility of anything becoming something new. It became old very quickly. The apps and the software and the things you can do on it advanced, but ultimately everything that comes of it is really old and it got a bit boring.
When I found the concept of this weird spiritual gateway, through the Internet, by discovering Matangi, it was just like a possibility. I don’t know if it was a spiritual thing or a religious thing but it was like a possibility of discovering something that’s not like: Here I am, implanting more information into the matrix. It was a different world; it wasn’t just straight up spirituality or religion. Spirituality is just a weird concept to me because I don’t know who defined it in the beginning and how you can maintain something like that around the world. There’s not a set spiritual path, the way religion tells you.
It’s really hard to define a sense of spirituality on a record. I think the whole Hindu thing is about the self. It’s not about heaven and hell, or good and evil. It’s not those undefinable concepts. It’s really basic stuff like your routine, your health, how you breathe, your vibration, how you empty yourself to the planet—magnetic fields and forces. It can be scientific and mathematical, and it can be really practical stuff—it’s a state of mind and a philosophy—but then it goes towards enriching a person and expanding my mind. Once you expand it, you can’t really take. It’s when culture interprets it throughout history and the definition of spirituality is re-defined and re-defined and re- defined—it loses itself in the blueprint and it no longer makes sense. It gets twisted to people’s advantage and different agendas. It wasn’t to define my path to something, but it’s more like appreciating and being conscious of your steps.
A release for the record describes Matangi as a goddess who carries a parrot, “a bird smart enough to say something but not intelligent enough to know what it’s saying, a reminder to humankind of the inherent danger in all our babbling communications.” What drew you to that symbolism?
It was just kind of interesting that she represents the power in words and how people put words together. It was weird to find that [concept again] after two to three years of people tweeting about what they’ve been eating. It was an interesting time to be reminded that words can be important. In society, not only were we quickly getting over that because of the pressure to communicate in 140 letters, but people were trying to have revolutions on Twitter; the C.I.A. and Hezbollah were trying to communicate over Twitter, but confined to 140 characters. And when that happened, the style of speech and content in different areas were also merging into one big thing—like the president sounding like a rapper, and the rapper sounding like a president—it’s all getting really confusing. It’s an era of headlines and things being condensed to punchlines, and a time when people don’t have the patience or the time to really dig deep into concepts.
Ten years ago when I first came out, it was all about discussions, and there were discussions being had. It was something that the Internet was a part of in an interesting way. Without the Internet, first of all, people wouldn’t have discovered my music, and second of all, the debate it caused in America at the time, or globally, was something really amazing to see. For me, it was more important than the songs being a success or being on top of the charts. The discussion that it caused was way more satisfying. Nowadays, that’s not so. Now we’re discussing if a woman should wear a thong in a music video. We still can’t outwardly discuss and communicate very real problems from today.
What sorts of social or political discussions do you feel are missing?
That’s what Matangi represents to me. She encompasses many concepts, there’s no one thing. Having to connect [those ideas] to what I was doing creatively, and to draw parallels, was really difficult—to actually digest the concept that Hinduism is about you being born again, and there is no good and evil thing. In 2012, it was all about the end of the world and wearing upside down crosses. The biggest artists, and every fan, were some sort of form and take on something evil. Matangi was something that for me turned that thing upside down and cleaned it away. I had to start from scratch.
It was spirituality, but it was creative. It was something that even I was having problems embracing because it wasn’t something that I was used to. I was definitely very far away, like in my lifestyle. But it was nice for me to be in it because it helped solve my issue with Sri Lanka. I was feeling really frustrated that so many people died, but it was a very easy way to be like, Okay, these people are going to be born again. It’s not completely over for them. It was a very temporary relief, but I was like, Imagine it was real, imagine if Hinduism were real, that’d be amazing. But it’s hard to say.
As someone with an interest in the art of fashion and human rights, how do you balance being a consumer with the ongoing reports of inhumane labor conditions for garment workers? Is it inherently contradictory for those of us living comfortably in the West to espouse a position of advocating for global social justice?
It’s crazy, but it’s not like that—it’s kind of like the East and the West, and the rich and the poor, but it’s hard. Ten years ago, I was like, Okay I’m never going to wear Nike, because this is the fucking reality of what it is. And now, when I go to these countries, it’s not [as simple as] just, Oh look, this company from the West has come over and it’s got a whole bunch of slaves.
Within the West there is also the rich and poor divide and I think that’s way deeper. The rich and poor divide here is actually growing far more rapidly.
When you go there, it’s hard. When you go to India or the Philippines or China, wherever they have these sweatshops, they have their own social and political divisions within each country. China, for example, aspires to be the number one global empire, but by doing it exactly the same way as America, the same landscape of what it looks like. What it takes is people being more balanced and conscious.
This is why I think putting forward this Hindu thing is not a bad thing. Whether it’s something that I can 100 percent put money on, whether it’s real or not, to me it’s a good thing to put forward, to be like: Look, these are the things that makes every person feel good; this is what any human being needs in their environment. Everyone can work towards that.
The way we develop the future has to be considered. If you’re going to build cities and roads and factories, you have to consider that general basic shit that’s good for humans. Right now, it’s not, and that’s the problem. The need to do stuff faster and the need for money and the best performance—it’s too imbalanced. And ultimately it’s also not good for the person at the top.
What is your WILD Wish?
I wish I could get rid of the concept of human nature. Because the definition of human nature is that we’re supposed to be terrible, and all these terrible things about us are a part of our evolutionary habits. We’re constantly conditioned to be like, Well that’s just a part of our nature—that’s what we like doing!
It’s so amazing to me that people can develop so much technology and so many tools to help our intellectual development, yet we haven’t achieved that. No one’s slowing down to say, Look, we built all this crazy shit but we’re dumber than before. No one is saying that there is something wrong with this plan and it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. And to excuse that with, oh, it’s human nature—that doesn’t work either. It’s not pushing evolution forward. We’ve come so far in terms of technology, but we haven’t even fixed our environment or our mentality. The definition that needs to change is human nature, and what we allow and don’t allow in 2014.
Blaine on Twitter Follow @themindofskank