A new son, a new album—and the same revolutionary attitude. Fresh off hiatus, Complex wifey supreme M.I.A. finally returns our call.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's June/July 2010 issue.
Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam doesn't trust Google. Sure, the company's motto is "Don't be evil," but she's not fooled. He who controls information controls power, and she's never been one to relinquish control easily. After a childhood spent missing an activist father who was on the lam from the Sri Lankan government, she came to music after touring with a band as a videographer—and then created a global fanbase before she'd ever done a live show. This isn't some doe-eyed ingenue who caught a producer's eye; this is the first true success story of Internet DIY music (sorry, Drake).
Even now, on the verge of her third album, the globe-trotting MC/producer/Oscar nominee/tastemaker is as restless as ever. She spoke to us from the U.K., nestled in her mum's home with her 1-year-old son, Ikhyd. Ikhyd's grandpa may be a billionaire (Maya's man Ben Bronfman is the son of Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr.), but M.I.A. is determined for her child to grow up outside a life of easy comfort. He might not be lacking, but he damn sure won't be slacking.
As a mom, do you hope for struggles for your son in his lifetime?
I don't hope for them, but he's probably going to have them. I think their generation is probably going to have the craziest, you know?
I threw the hard drive that had 'Paper Planes' on it out the window, like, 'F**k this song.'
In what respect?
Any kid being born in these times is gonna have to be resilient to a million and one things. We thought we'd seen it all, and our parents thought that they'd seen it, but every generation it gets more and more intense.
Do you think our grandparents would think we have it harder than they did?
Yeah, I think so. When I look back on my grandparents' time, there was no rush in their lifestyles. More family values, better food—I'm assuming everything they ate was organic because it was grown really locally—local culture, and all of that is gone now. My baby's generation, in his lifetime everything is gonna be a struggle to gain all the things they took for granted: privacy, good food, and time to spend with family. It's gonna become more isolated and more technology-based.
As painful and tough as those times are, I hope my kids have tough times to learn and grow from.
I have those thoughts about my son, but I think his adversities are going to be on a different scale. I had to spend ages on stupid shit, like getting to know about racism on a really street level, growing up in the projects. I think he's gonna have it in a different way.
At the moment, he's staying with me at my mum's—her house is in the projects, so the house is like the size of somebody's closet in California. But at the same time, he's got his grandpa on the other side, Ben's dad, who is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I think as long as he has both extremes, that's where his lessons are gonna be learned. I want him to grow up here and spend as much time as possible with his grandma to learn the things I learned growing up in this house. He needs to hang with everybody and meet people and find out what they need and find out what the problems are and what the solutions are. I can't explain it.
No, you have.
Good—I've made it clear to Ben that Ikhyd will be working in a sweatshop at age 4. [Laughs.] But sometimes I do get caught up. I always say I'm gonna send him off to China and I want him to learn Chinese, because the next hundred years is about China being a superpower and he should know how to speak it. So maybe he'll go there.
Did you see much violence growing up?
Yeah, all the time. My kid's gonna see it, but he's gonna see it in computer games. I don't know which is worse. The fact that I saw it in my life has maybe given me lots of issues, but there's a whole generation of American kids seeing violence on their computer screens and then getting shipped off to Afghanistan.
What's the link there?
They feel like they know the violence when they don't. Not having a proper understanding of violence, especially what it's like on the receiving end of it, just makes you interpret it wrong and makes inflicting violence easier. When I put on the History Channel or Discovery Channel in America, there's this insane fascination with the end of the world. Every program on television was, "The end of the world! Armageddon! 2012! 2016! Unlocking the theory to when it's gonna end!" And supersonic intercontinental ballistic missiles and nanotechnology that's gonna end the world. Everyone's so obsessed with Armageddon, the dates they're talking about is Ikhyd's generation.
But that's been an obsession since the beginning of time. Every civilization has had its own ideas about when and how the world will end.
That's true, and they thought Y2K was gonna be the end of it. But 10 years ago, they weren't making 24 hours' worth of content on Armageddon.
At every turn of the century there's a section of society that thinks the end is near. But there's more access to media now, so it's more in our faces.
I just wonder if it's to create so much fear that people will start buying loads of stuff and enjoying themselves now. And everyone starts developing an attitude like, "Yeah, whatever, the world's gonna end."
That's one of the most important things, to always stay creative on the Internet and not get bogged down by it.
I wonder about that too, but I don't think people, the world, or even government is that organized.
Yeah, I mean, this is the first time in our lifetime that we've seen conspiracy theories on mainstream television. They've got a show called Conspiracy Theory! That used to be an underground thing for people who smoked lots of weed. [Laughs.] Now it's on the news and it's kinda weird. Maybe there's something to be said about the fact that everything's owned by corporations and corporations have more say than ever before.
Sure. Hey, did you see many animals growing up?
Yeah. Elephants, lizards. I ate an iguana once.
I know. My grandpa had a farm and on the farm was all kinds of wildlife. He got his shoulder dislocated by a wild elephant.
I know. It was just part of the culture, I suppose. We had goats, you saw snakes there. It's cool.
Are there animals you liked to ride?
When I was a little kid I used to ride the goats like they were horses. I'm just waiting for Ikhyd to get old enough to do that. I definitely want to go to the desert and ride a camel.
What was your impression of America when you were little?
The first place I came to was L.A., and I just loved it. From the airplane looking out the window, the landscape just shines—all the lights are twinkling, all the cars are reflecting the sun. It was very Tinseltown. If you're coming from Sri Lanka and you want to experience the West, that was the extreme end of Western civilization to me—the vastness of L.A. was truly different. I wasn't impressed with New York, 'cause it's a bigger version of London. But L.A. was kinda cool.
Has your idea of America changed as you've grown up?
When I first came in the mid-'90s, I was listening to loads of hip-hop, and the gangsta-rap era completely engulfed me. There's where I spent my time. Those were the clubs I went to, and those were the people I was hanging out with, so I had a weird understanding of it. But now I get to see a bigger picture of America. It's different.
The thing that I enjoyed about it when I came to L.A. was that it was just people doing whatever they liked. It was your life and you could do things and you were in charge. There were barbecues all the time in every park, house parties. Just so much more joy. And now it doesn't seem like that. And it's because it's so expensive there. By the time you've got to doing your house, insurance, your car, and paid a bill for your baby, it's just too hard for you to have any fun, you know?
I don't think it's that dismal...
It's not that dismal, but if you go to South Central now, there's not speakers on every side of the corner and people hanging out. Maybe culture has changed, but I also feel like the hustle's changed. It's come into this corporate hustle world. That's the times we're living in.
When you're making art—whether it's visual, music, or fashion—does it all feel the same? 'Cause your visual stuff looks the way your songs sound to me.
Yeah. I think so.
Do you have a process, or do you create when you feel like it?
I'm really into some sort of digital ruckus and that's kind of what it is in the sound and imagery. I don't wanna say it's chaotic, but if we're being given certain tools, it's rediscovering and reassembling, I suppose. The bottom line is: Sometimes my work is really uncomfortable and doesn't sit well, but that's the point. It's OK to push it out this far—someone's gonna be like, "But I like it over here." But at least the door's open and you've pushed it that far, so the possibility of a range can exist.
Are you conscious of trying to make art to live up to your reputation, or do you start clean every time?
It really depends on what you're going through at the time. The last album I was making was really chaotic. I was traveling all the time and was just mad, angry, pissed off. I threw the hard drive out the window with "Paper Planes" on it and was like, "Fuck this song." Luckily, it didn't smash. But the world has changed since I worked on the last album. I started with writing an intro for it, the intro was, "Connected to the Google/connected to the government." That was like 10 months ago, and every day I felt more and more like I was tuned into whatever was going on.
That's what my album's about. Making it so uncomfortably weird and wrong that people begin to exercise their critical-thinking muscles.
What was it that was going on?
Google is the most powerful corporation in the world, and why do you think that is? It's 'cause they log the most data and they collect the most information and that's the thing that everyone's gonna want and that's the thing that no one's gonna have. That's what it's about and it's important to tell people in the street or poor people to arm themselves with knowledge 'cause that shit's a commodity.
But hasn't knowledge always been the most important currency? Information is more accessible now than ever.
Yeah, but America's not raising its generations saying, "Knowledge is currency." Corporations are raising themselves saying, "Knowledge is currency, and we're gonna collect it all." And the people are not being told that. Do you get that from watching My Super Sweet 16 or reality TV, that they're trying to tell the masses that it's about knowledge? No.
But there's always been self-indulgence. On the other side, I've never seen so many educational shows—those are popular, but they're not sensational so they're not covered the same way. I think both have evolved.
Maybe. When I read papers in America and I read newspapers anywhere else, I definitely see a big difference in the way shit is covered.
Papers I've read in England are different, they're more like what I expect from the Wall Street Journal.
That's kinda what I'm talking about, just the quality of it. So many corporations are merging, I don't even know who's telling the truth anymore. If TIME is bought by CNN, am I gonna get a different opinion in TIME than from CNN? I don't think so. Corporations mold politics, and if the agenda of a corporation is to make money, then surely the information that we're gonna get is edited so it makes you think a certain thing at the end of the day.
But that's also an argument for why the Internet is great—you can go to another news source and get another perspective.
But you have to tell people to do that. Critical thinking, that's called. That's what my album's about. Making it so uncomfortably weird and wrong that people begin to exercise their critical-thinking muscles. Apparently, America is the place that has the lowest critical-thinking percentage in schools or whatever.
What's that based on?
A journalist I spoke to who wrote an article about it said something like 11% of schools in America practice critical thinking, and the rest just want it simple, plain, in-your-face. And you believe what you read. You eat up what you get taught. You can Google the words "Sri Lanka" and it doesn't come up that all these people have been murdered or bombed, it's pages of: "Come to Sri Lanka on vacation, there are beautiful beaches." You're not gonna get the truth 'til you hit like page 56, you know what I mean? When Ikhyd goes on the Internet and taps in some words, he's gonna get exactly what they want him to get.
Don't we have a responsibility to be smarter and go to the 56th page and get the real information?
That's true, but that's my and your responsibility to pass the information on that it's not easy anymore. When I came out in 2005, I felt like the Internet was a place where interesting new ideas and people could find new ways to coexist and ideas could be shared. But now corporations have gotten a hold of it and governments have gotten a hold of it. Everything we started, they've learned it, and now they use it for themselves.
So far, I think we're staying a few steps ahead of those corporations.
Yeah, to me that's one of the most important things, to always stay creative on the Internet and not get bogged down by it. Every day someone is saying, "Oh my god, she has a tiger on her T-shirt, that must make her a Tamil Tiger." You have to constantly dumb shit down. You have to constantly liberate yourself.
What do you like about hip-hop today?
I think Kanye is trying to take it into a new realm and he's sort of putting the artistry back into it and sort of taking it in that direction. I was having a conversation about Jay-Z and Nas and how it was really crazy how they were having this Nas vs. Jay-Z moment 10 years ago and no one really talks about it now.
I'm always going to travel. I want my son to have a firsthand experience and not just go to a really amazing posh school and learn it.
You clearly haven't been to complex.com!
Jay became the biggest representation of rap music who's still alive, started dating Beyoncé—everything was so much bigger and better with Jay-Z. I hope people don't think that that wins. The fact that Nas didn't become all this sort of stuff changes people's perception about the music and the work he achieved in his lifetime. I don't wanna say Jay-Z sold out, but I just feel like we have to wait another 10 years to see what happens. Jay-Z's ambition was to become like Frank Sinatra, a household name all over the planet, and own a casino in Vegas and stuff like that. And I think Nas was really sticking to knowledge. I still think the biggest point about hip-hop is in there somewhere, what happens to those two artists.
Did you decline a tour with Kanye?
Because I was pregnant. I know Kanye makes it out to be this big thing, like, "She dissed me when I asked her to do a song." Then he was like, "Then you said no to me and my tour." I was about to have a baby! But I love Kanye, I think he's been super-consistent, everything he's done has been good. I like his interaction with the media, too—he's just him, and he's living it.
How did you meet Ben?
I'd been touring the whole year and I was as fried as you can get. I thought I was just going to go and die. I was gonna do a song with the Beastie Boys as my last song and then go and completely change my life. So I walked in and Ben was there. I kind of spent the whole night bitching about the music industry, and he was a really good listener. And that's what happened!
Was it uncomfortable with him coming from money and you not?
Yeah. I think it's still sort of weird, but Ben is different from anyone I know, including his own family. He's really odd, and that's what I like about him. I think he's a little bit uncomfortable, and as long as it doesn't stop me being who I am, it doesn't affect me.
Are you worried about it changing you?
No, 'cause it's not like I've changed my lifestyle. It's more about Ikhyd; I don't want him to be comfortable. I'm always going to travel and be open to the world and people, and I want Ikhyd to have a firsthand experience of it all and not just go to a really amazing posh school and learn it. And Ben lets me do it how I want to do it.
Sounds like a good match.
When I first met him, I was like, "Oh my god, I don't think I can go out on a date with this person." A friend of mine was like, "Look, you being judgmental about him and his family is the same as someone being judgmental about yours." And that's probably the truth.
WATCH M.I.A.'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Anoma Ya Whittaker. (HAIR & MAKEUP) Benn Jae/Opus Beauty. COVER IMAGE: Dress by Henrik Vibskov / necklace worn as a headpiece by Dame Jewelry / Necklace by Subversive Jewelry / bracelets by Alexis Bittar / gold bracelets by Fenton/Fallon / rings by Matina Amanita / jeans by Tripp NYC. FIRST IMAGE: Earrings by Alexis Bittar / necklace by Subversive Jewelry / top by Derek Lam / shorts by Kova & T / bracelets by Fenton/Fallon. SECOND IMAGE: Sunglasses by Super / pants by Shelly Stefee / necklace worn as bracelet by Suversive Jewelry / ring by Laruicci / shoes by Ruthie Davis. THIRD IMAGE: Dress by Henrik Vibskov / necklace worn as headpiece by Dame Jewelry / necklace by Subversive Jewelry / bracelet by Alexis Bittar / gold bracelet by Fenton/Fallon. FOURTH IMAGE: Pants by Shelly Steffee / necklace worn as bracelet by Subversive Jewelry / ring by Laruicci. FIFTH IMAGE: Jacket by Obey / jeans by Kova & T / shoes by Suyoon. SIXTH IMAGE: Necklace worn as a headpiece by Dame Jewelry.