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An Interview with MIA

In the beginning of May, the Believer engaged in a conversation with M.I.A., a Sri Lankan artist who was born in London, studied art in college, and is currently signed with Interscope Records. 

Her latest album reflects a combination of various genres, which is quite fitting for the current age – where “pop” and “world music” are two sides of the same coin. To the music industry, this is the epitome of “globalization”.

Maya Arulpragasam, a slender and talkative person, was very attentive as we spoke. She often referred to visuals and sounds from her personal computer.

A laptop which was ordered in M.I.A. colors, yellow gold with blue keys and a red trackpad, a gift from her fiancé Ben.

M.I.A. has a complicated relationship to her place in the world that can be seen through her music.

When giving this interview she was based in London and was unable to return to her home of Brooklyn due to visa problems, something that has been a reoccurring issue in her family as her mother had been denied travel for a while, likely due to her father’s involvement in the civil struggles in Sri Lanka.

M.I.A. is often full of contradictions. After she released the no-samples-cleared bootleg _Piracy Funds Terrorism–a title that not many other artists could claim–her single “Galang” was used in a Honda commercial, leading to questions about her political stances.

However, her second album, _Kala, _featured the powerful political anthem, “Paper Planes”. On that same album, she made sure to include the lyric “dogging on the bonnet of your red Honda”.

Whether they be a rioter, traveler, foreign or domestic, revolutionary or a conformist, the labels just don’t fit. This is what the music is all about; it is art in a time when not much makes sense, when everything is in disarray and there is no longer a sense of order.

It does not attempt to fix the issue, but rather to document it, to capture the sentiment and ponder if it could be the end of something, be it pop music, history, or the reign of the United States. We talked about these topics, her family, terrorism, and especially the internet.

Joshua Clover’s words express that…


M.I.A.: Being a musician these days is quite complicated, as you must be prepared to exploit yourself to take people’s attention away from real issues.

Lady Gaga does this effortlessly, and that’s why I’m a liability. However, I’m confident that in the long run, you have to condition your mind to not be taken in by the publicity.

THE BELIEVER: What do you need to prepare yourself for as an artist?

M.I.A. encourages the use of critical thinking.

How do you define critical thinking?

M.I.A. has expressed that being an artist or musician can cause one to become elevated into a separate realm, where they can go wild and eventually pass away. Although, this is not exclusive to these professions, as everyone is similar in this regard.

BLVR asked what the progress was like for the individual.

M.I.A. has managed to burst her bubble a few times, thus saving herself. She believes that the key is to teach oneself critical thinking–to analyse all the information from various sources and make decisions based on what one observes.

Currently, she is living in her mother’s council house with her baby and fiance, which is a good reminder of the everyday issues her mum has to face.

She has the opportunity to escape these issues, and states that what her mother is going through is not unique; it is what many people in London are dealing with. She mentions that it is expensive, and that there are increased amounts of guns and knife crimes in the area.

BLVR: The government won’t allow her to move around, and she’s now a grandmother. It must be difficult for her not to be able to go on trips.

Despite the immense intelligence and technology of both governments, the individual that they concluded was at the root of the matter was none other than M.I.A.’s mother. This situation is a testament to the power of intelligence, as it took millions of dollars to come to this conclusion.

BLVR: When your son is grown, where do you think he will find a sense of belonging?

M.I.A. is based in China.

BLVR: Would you be able to give me the correct pronunciation of his name?

M.I.A. revealed the origin of her name: “I-Kid. It’s a combination of an Israeli and Palestinian name. I was viewing a documentary on the History Channel, which had to do with the American obsession over the apocalypse and the end of the world.

Before that, I was completely optimistic, but now I have developed some issues due to being exposed to this content each day.”

BLVR: It’s understandable why films depicting apocalypse are produced when a country is coming to an end after reigning for eighty years; it’s a way for them to comprehend the conclusion of the era.

M.I.A. stated that it was rather intriguing to witness things from within. She then went on to mention a documentary about Isaac Newton, who unraveled the universe, and how it said that when the Israel-Palestine conflict was settled, it would be the end of the world.

I sincerely hope that the outcome is a positive one.

M.I.A. mentioned that people had predicted the Antichrist’s arrival.

BLVR: I’ll make sure I’m ready.

M.I.A. stated that the naming of Ikhyd was in the hope that the two main issues it symbolized–the Internet versus mankind and the conflict between Israel and Palestine–would continue into the future.

She added that the other issues were not as critical, and then referred to Ikhyd as a poster child for oppression due to his Tamil, black, and Jewish heritage.

Recently, the Moscow incident [the bombing of two subway trains in Moscow in March 2010, allegedly by Chechen rebels, including the teenage widow of a martyred leader] was a major news story.

The face of the seventeen-year-old girl who was involved in the bombing was all over the news, but there was little coverage on why she did it and what happened.

There was only one news report that mentioned the message from the leader of the group, saying that the bombing was done in retaliation for the bombings of their people. This is an example of the lack of coverage that goes to the root of the issue.

BLVR: It appears that when dealing with those on the margins of society, one element of that marginalization is that they’re not permitted to have faith in something.

Once you cross a certain point, it can’t be faith any longer; it has to be something else – whether it be a burning passion, affection, insanity, or whatever. It is inconceivable that the person in question embraced a notion and acted on it.

M.I.A.: I’m a fan of the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde story as a romantic symbol, but I would like to know the backstory of what caused the situation. What was the campaign by the government that pushed people to the point of revolt and how many people were killed in it? It seems like no one has ever delved that far into it.

I am filled with sympathy for the people on the train and the young girl who wanted to take her life. It seems that the press is either propagandist or unreliable and not held responsible to discuss what is really happening. This makes me distrust the press, especially in America.


BLVR: I’m pondering what the art of the future will be like. When I consider the art of past eras, the Renaissance was defined by painting, the Dutch Empire by literature, and the twentieth century by movies.

We may be reaching the end of this long century, and it could get worse before it gets better. China may be the next center of the world, and this encourages the question: what kind of art will be produced during that era?

M.I.A. has found interesting the art she has seen in the past decade. Specifically, she is referring to the execution video from Sri Lanka of Tamil guys being blindfolded and shot in the head, filmed with a mobile phone.

Additionally, the photo of the seventeen-year-old girl who blew up the Moscow subway, with the first name of Dzhanet resembling “Internet” and last name of Abdurakhmanova sounding like “burkaman”.

To me, online art is almost like that picture, with a name attached to it, and it’s been seen by everyone.

Do you want a billion views on YouTube for your video? Well, that girl had a purpose and she sacrificed her life for what she believed in, and got more than a billion hits in a day. I’m one of those people who vote for her.

The Internet was designed to give people power and it’s up to us to determine whether it’s art or not; we’re the people in the middle who give it context.

BLVR: This creates an interesting situation. You, as a deliberate creative, contemplate the messages you want to put forth and the music you want to produce, and then you make it happen.

On the other hand, the person who captured the image or the person who filmed the cellphone video, didn’t wake up that day with the intention of being an artist.

In the opinion of M.I.A., those people who do not get up every day claiming to be an artist are the ones who possess the Internet. All creative people are essentially product peddlers, and the more unbranded they are the better they can sell something like shoes.

BLVR: Is that not a fashion as well? One that is not really a fashion, where I don’t have someone styling me, I don’t don the shoes, and I don’t engage in the trends. Is that not a game too?

M.I.A. explains that her morning routine doesn’t leave her much time to think about her style. Taking care of her son and all the chaos that comes with it, as well as the frequent phone calls, leaves her with no time to deliberate her appearance.

She adds that it’s not necessarily a conscious choice not to have a style, but rather that she just doesn’t want to look like Lady Gaga.

Furthermore, she points out that she can’t dress in extravagant Alexander McQueen shoes or wear a telephone-head hat, as it’s not practical for her lifestyle as a parent.

What is the purpose of art, politically and/or otherwise? What is its function?

M.I.A. believes that art is constantly being reshaped and reinvented by whoever needs it the most. She also believes that it is essential to redefine one’s current surroundings.

In modern times, the Internet has become a major part of our lives and many of us spend a great deal of time gazing at a computer screen. M.I.A. argues that it is necessary to redefine this digital space with a fresh set of eyes.

When it comes to my place in the future, I feel that it is our responsibility to promote critical thinking. In terms of China and the forthcoming Internet, it is interesting to note that they are likely the most technically adept people, but their creativity and ideas are not yet as advanced.

On the other hand, the West can contribute innovative ideas, while the East has a superior technical ability. India is a great example of this, as they are able to produce films such as Star Wars for a fraction of the cost it would take in America.

However, the day they learn how to craft stories that are culturally appealing to the West without being too cheesy, we may be in trouble.


BLVR: In the early days of the Internet, it provided an opportunity for those with limited resources and access to get their voice heard. The Zapatista movement of the mid-1990s is an example of how people utilized the web and email to achieve political goals.

However, the influence of money has had an unavoidable impact on the Internet. Do you think this has changed the nature of the Internet, so that it is no longer the Wild West it once was?

M.I.A. remarks that it can be a depressing situation, but creatives have to figure out ways to work around it. Their goal is to keep their work free, well-made, accessible, inexpensive, and driven by values that are not financially motivated.

BLVR: I’d like to give you an opportunity to assess yourself. You’ve clearly been crafting an album that dives into the realm of the Internet and its associations with art.

Could you tell me whether this exploration is more of a result of your own insight into the future, or does it stem from the personal experience of being criticized online?

M.I.A. explains that knowledge is power; if you take a look at Forbes magazine, you’ll see that two companies own all the smaller blogs.

In England, the middle class is struggling as businesses have closed, and the same holds true in California, where the Internet is the primary industry.

Small blog owners can be purchased by larger companies and must then accept banner advertising for products they don’t necessarily believe in.

Where previously one could simply look up Depeche Mode videos on YouTube without interruption, now they are met with military advertisements.

I was watching this documentary on Google and they were saying it is the biggest corporation in the world and they have way more power than any governments due to their data collection. But they haven’t figured out how to use it yet.

However, when they eventually decide what to do with it or hand it over to the government, people will have to abandon Google.

This means someone must be creating the next Google right now in anticipation of this day to come. It’s all about having other options for people to go to.

BLVR: Will you continue to put out tracks freely via the web? You began this practice some time ago with “Sunshowers” and then the video you posted on Twitter. Do you plan to continue this sort of output?

M.I.A. expressed that she desires to be able to expand beyond music, and that it is necessary to do so. She stated that she wants to be able to release other items, not just musical pieces.

As an artist I find the future exciting. It’s amazing because I believe that the tools to achieve that future haven’t even been created yet. Necessity will be the catalyst for those inventions, rather than it being a pastime. After the corporations have figured out how to do something, the creative people will be off to something else.

BLVR states that there are two main sparks of invention: businesses inventing products to increase profits and individuals creating solutions to their own personal issues. It is preferable to support the latter.

People are driven to do what is essential. M.I.A.

BLVR: One book that I read was Planet of Slums by Mike Davis, which discusses the creation of slums in many cities, such as Dhaka and Sao Paolo.

These slums are populated by people who are unemployed, and they have found ways to build their own shelters and generate their own income through informal economies.

Kala served as a soundtrack to this book as it provided a way to speak of this issue of the dispossessed all over the world, particularly in the Third World and the Global South.

M.I.A. explains that she took on a “chilled approach” to production on her album Kala, due to the fact that she and Dave Taylor (Switch) traveled everywhere.

She adds that many of the sounds on the album were inspired by her upbringing in Sri Lanka, where she lived near a temple, and heard drums each morning.

She then points to the song “World Town,” and explains that the high pitched sound is a traditional Sri Lankan instrument called a nadhaswaram. She states that making sense of those sounds was her goal with Kala, and that this album is “different.”

BLVR inquired to understand the extent of the difference.

M.I.A. has stated that her work is largely influenced by the fact that she was essentially bound to the Internet due to being “locked up in America”. She has made her sounds to work within the parameters of the web.

She has also mentioned her concern about the invention of sound cannons, which can be used for exploitation by the government to disperse protests and people. She does not want her work to be associated with such a purpose.

BLVR: Could you explain the militant message within your lyrics, “Hands up, guns out”? It’s not just a peaceful message, it’s one that promotes action. The Molotov cocktail on your shirt, what does that symbolize for you and your music?

M.I.A. pointed out that since a large portion of the US budget is allocated to weapons, people should be prepared for the worst. She continued to explain that when she said “hands up, guns out” she meant for guns to be thrown out the window, not literally guns out. She then concluded by saying that she wanted to be let back in.

BLVR: Certainly not.

M.I.A. contends that governments around the world are becoming increasingly similar in the way they handle dissent.

She believes that people who dare to speak out against the government are regarded as terrorists and are subject to surveillance. In her opinion, this is the future that awaits us.

BLVR: In 1992 or 1993, Onyx released the tune “Throw Ya Gunz (in the Air),” which they could sing without any interference from the authorities.

However, your situation is different. It’s a matter of discovering the relationship between the government and “the other.” In this case, you yourself are the other. Do you see this as a chance or a burden?

M.I.A. believes that there is more of a pioneering spirit in Europe when it comes to culture and creativity.

She suggests that America is in a “coming-to-an-end phase” and is trying to slow down the process by containing information and keeping the American people feeling great and confident.

She believes that this is in contradiction to the Internet and what they are preaching. Europeans, she says, have a better understanding of the concept of “the other” and everyone contributes to the culture in different ways.

In London, for example, she has friends who embrace and accept people from all different backgrounds.

It’s disheartening to consider that, by being considered part of “the other,” I am classified as belonging to the evil side of the world alongside terrorists.

It is clear that BLVR is malicious.

M.I.A. explains: It is really interesting to be able to go to these places that I have with all the graphics and stuff. I’ve let Tamil people take my press photos, I’m surrounded by hijabs, and Internet Burkaman everywhere.

I had no control over this, I’m a product of what the West made me. It is true that I was saved by coming to England, they gave me school, art school, and I could have been another person who was killed in a shell attack in Sri Lanka.

I am here, it was supposed to be a good thing. It’s been affected by my upcoming album. Bill Gates gave Sri Lanka $700 million to upgrade their Internet service, and much of that is going to paying people to make anti-M.I.A. blogs.

This is an example of the power imbalance we will see in the future, which I’m going to be exploring with my album. I will be discussing propaganda on the Internet and who is in control of it: money or the masses?

It Could Be of Interest to You

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