Maya Arulpragasam is an anomaly in many ways. As M.I.A., she has had a lightning-fast rise. From her early singles “Galang” and “Sunshowers,” which spread virally through the Web in 2004, to her 2005 debut album, Arular (named after her father), and 2007’s Kala (named after her mom), she has garnered nothing but critical acclaim.
Major fame struck in 2008 with the song “Paper Planes,” after its use in the trailer for the Seth Rogen stoner flick Pineapple Express and in the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. For the latter, M.I.A. received an Oscar nomination along with the film’s composer, A.R. Rahman—Best Original Song for the track “O...Saya.” In February, on the actual due date of her baby, she performed at the Grammys.
Politically, she’s a tireless advocate of the Tamil people, who’ve suffered in the recent civil war in Sri Lanka between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the LTTE). Life has certainly changed from her early days living in London public housing to her recent engagement to fellow musician and Seagram heir Ben Brewer (né Bronfman, son of former Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman).
Nic Harcourt: You’re from Sri Lanka—let’s talk about what’s going on there now. As you know, the majority Sinhalese in the Sri Lankan government recently defeated the Tamil Tigers. You’re an ethnic Tamil yourself. How do you feel about what happened?
M.I.A.: It’s really difficult for me to talk about Sri Lanka. One hundred thousand people have died, and there are, like, hundreds of children who’ve been killed by intense shelling in a no-war-zone area, you know? And it’s done by the Sri Lankan government, yet it doesn’t seep into people’s brains, because everyone’s fighting under the blanket of terrorism, and that kind of makes it okay for the government to kill 100 babies in a day and for us not to say, “That s--t is wrong.”
NH: Has the world turned a blind eye to
innocent civilians being killed in the name
of the war on terror?
M.I.A.: All over world, that is what’s happening. As soon as you say you’re fighting a terrorist, you can kill anyone you want without anyone asking any questions.
NH: Will it change anytime soon?
M.I.A.: Eventually, it’s going to break. I think we’re getting to the end of it. They can say they’ve wiped out the Tamil Tigers, but I think if you’ve killed a certain number of civilians and you’ve called the United Nations and every humanitarian agency liars, it’s going to catch up with you.
NH: Did you defend the Tamil Tigers in any way?
M.I.A.: I don’t give a s--t what they’ve done to the Tigers—they just shouldn’t kill little kids.
NH: Your father, Arul Pragasam, was a founding member of EROS [Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students], which supported the Tamil independence movement. Do you often feel persecuted because of your dad’s association?
M.I.A.: No, if I didn’t have my music, I wouldn’t be heard, just like the other millions of Tamils who aren’t heard. It’s just weird that I happen to have that association to my dad, who I didn’t grow up with— and that’s been a s--t thing for me.
NH: In January, you went on Tavis Smiley and called what happened in Sri Lanka “systematic genocide.” That sparked an uproar in L.A.’s Sri Lankan community. Then they protested outside the Staples Center during the Grammys and—in a twist of irony—called you a terrorist. What happened?
M.I.A.: Hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese live here in California. And everyone is just blanket pro government. Look, I think it’s easy to accuse someone of being a terrorist and you can have people call your show and say, “How can you have a terrorist on there?” I did an hour-long interview with CNN, and they cut it down to one minute and made it about my single “Paper Planes.” When I went to the Grammys, I saw the same reporter from CNN, and I was like, “Why did you do that?” And she said, “Because you used the G-word.”
NH: The G-word?
M.I.A.: Genocide. I guess you’re not allowed to say that on CNN.
NH: Then what is the solution to this crisis?
M.I.A.: I really don’t know. All I know is it takes nine months to carry a baby in your belly, and you pop it out, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And for a baby to get killed over something that doesn’t even affect the baby—that’s messed up. I don’t have all the answers, but I just hate the mentality that says somebody has to die for this—and really, Sri Lanka doesn’t have to be a totalitarian space.
NH: Moving on to your music...In 2007, you had solid indie success with Kala, toured the States, did Coachella and developed a career for yourself. Then “Paper Planes” gets used in a trailer for Pineapple Express, and all of a sudden, you go from cool indie artist to mainstream. What do you think it was about that single that resonated?
M.I.A.: I think it’s a few things moving together. America was going through an economic crisis, and I made a song that actually has to do with how immigrants are portrayed. I was thinking about how an immigrant comes over here, builds a life from scratch and makes it—I mean, here I am. That was more what “Paper Planes” was representing—not a war-protest song like some people thought.
NH: But then later, the same song is used in Slumdog Millionaire. How did that come about?
M.I.A.: Danny Boyle had a meeting with A.R. Rahman, who suggested to Danny he should use me. When Danny got back to England the next day, his daughter happened to be listening to my CD. So he emailed me to ask if I was interested and said, “This is so crazy...I’ve heard about you from two different people in the last 24 hours in two different countries.” Then I was like, “That’s weird—there’s a film, Pineapple Express, that’s out that’s already tied to the track.” But because they only used “Paper Planes” for a trailer, Danny didn’t mind. So I agreed to do it.
NH: Slumdog came out of nowhere as far as the mainstream was concerned. How did you feel about
that kind of attention?
M.I.A.: Me personally, I don’t like it. I don’t like the publicity. There’s nothing I can do with it, especially considering I said I was going to retire back in June.
NH: Why did you decide to play the Grammys on your due date?
M.I.A.: Because I couldn’t say no to Kanye West and Jay-Z and T.I. and Lil Wayne. T.I. and Lil Wayne are real sweet. I’ve known Kanye for a bit. We talked on the phone, and initially I wasn’t going to do it, and he said, “Come down to the rehearsals, and see how you feel.”
NH: Weren’t you worried you were going to pop right there onstage?
M.I.A.: No, it’s really funny. And Lil Wayne was like, “So, when are you due?” And I was like, “Today!” He was like, “Oh my God!” and he was saying prayers for me every day, which was really cool.
NH: Can you see how becoming a mom might change things for you in your music and your writing?
M.I.A.: Yeah, I’m just not going to travel. I made my first album at home, but in a really broke home, where I hadn’t paid rent for a long time. And I ate canned corn out of the tin and had a tab at the local falafel place. Now I can’t hang around with people and drink a beer and discuss s--t. I kind of have to know what I’m doing because the baby needs feeding in three hours.
NH: So you have to be focused when you think about work?
M.I.A.: Exactly. It sharpens your focus— when you’re doing that thing, you have to do it 100 percent.
NH: I guess you don’t have to eat corn out of the can anymore. You know the bills are paid.
M.I.A.: I don’t live lavishly and stuff like that. That’s not my thing. My fiancé has a Benz, but it’s an old Benz, and it runs on vegetable oil. I don’t even drive. The point is, I don’t think it affects me, because the hunger is there and because music has given me a lot of opportunities to discuss things, you know? Even if I was 60, I’m still going to have that fuel.
NH: What’s next for you musically?
M.I.A.: I want to produce more. I produced a few songs for Arular, and I kind of enjoyed it. It’s funny...back in 2005, I’d get people asking, “Where should we put your CD in the shop? Is it indie rock, or is it hip-hop?” And now it’s an irrelevant question, since there’s more music that sounds like me that is not defined anywhere, like Santigold and stuff.
NH: There are no record stores to put the records in anyway.
M.I.A.: Exactly! See? I told you so! I know I’m ahead of the game. So, yeah, it’s just about staying ahead of the game. I have to do it musically, I have to do it in life, and I have to do it all around—as a mom now.
NH: You’re going to spend a little bit of time focusing on that, obviously.
M.I.A.: Yeah, by three, their personalities are formed, and they’re already fully developed, so I have to get in there now and really start programming.