MIA: ‘This is a white country, you don’t have to spell it out to me’

Maya Arulpragasam is bringing dancehall, hip-hop and grime to this year’s Meltdown. Is the outspoken British Sri Lankan the best argument for positive cultural appropriation?

“The Guardian said that you couldn’t shag to my record.” As conversational openers go, MIA’s beats the banal niceties of, say, “Hello, how are you doing?”. It’s no surprise that she charges straight into a chat about why her last album was considered “too confrontational for the bedroom” by this paper. It’s an icebreaker moulded to MIA’s very own design: abrasive, compelling, underpinned by sex. “Yeah,” she finally concedes with a grin when I suggest we move past it, “you can’t have it all, can you?”

It’s a theme she warms up to when we talk about her edition of Meltdown at the Southbank Centre, which we’re ostensibly here to discuss. “Usually, I wouldn’t do something like this,” she says, slouched under an oversized khaki coat dress. “[But the organisers] were like: ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want.’” Still, putting on the South Bank’s annual festival, curated in previous years by the likes of David Bowie, David Byrne and Patti Smith, has turned out to be a fairly arduous affair for MIA who says she “doesn’t do computers” at the moment.

“They didn’t tell me it was nine days long. I thought it was a weekend. And then all my lists were, like, ‘Well, this person won’t be in London and that person is doing Glastonbury. Organising festivals is actually really complicated,” she stresses. “It wasn’t just about dreaming something and then it appeared. Programming literally means, like, programming.”

For all that Maya Arulpragasam didn’t quite know what she was letting herself in for, one suspects the Southbank Centre didn’t either; logistics aside, the morning’s photoshoot has already been met with some flapping from the press officer made nervous by MIA climbing on the roof without safety clearance. Still, her lineup – dancehall, Brooklyn hip-hop, depressive Swedish rap and Nigerian grime – is perhaps the most underground the festival has seen in its 24 years. How much is she expecting to shake up its comfortable concert halls, cafe bars and conference-room spaces?

Click here to watch the video for last year’s Go Off.

“When I was a teenager in London, I would just get a Travelcard and go somewhere, explore the city and go to weird places,” she says. “I would never judge the place, like, ‘This is middle class and white.’ This is a white country, you don’t have to spell it out to me, but there wasn’t ever a limit on where I could go or what I could do.”

A long, elliptical digression on London then and now follows, which takes in the optimistic multiculturalism of the 90s, Tamil house parties, empire and British identity. It’s the bento box of an MIA interview: individually contained ideas that don’t obviously bleed into one another and yet, overall, make a collective sense if you’re prepared to go with it. That’s the key thing about MIA: you have to be willing to go with her to properly get her. Given that she still looks and sounds like a beautiful, bratty, art-school upstart and is prone to labyrinthine tangents, it’s easy to portray her as inarticulate or unhinged. But MIA’s intelligence is instinctive rather than intellectual, and fuelled by the political.

The Mehrabian maxim that reckons only 7% of communication is verbal is one that might best be proven by the transcript of a chat with MIA removed of all tone, attitude, context and body language. Take, for instance, her explanation of why only the future remains relevant:

“As humans, we don’t use our past and our history to work out the importance of what our role is in the present,” she says. “And if you can’t use the past to define your present, then it should not be an element that holds back the future. Greece is a perfect example. More than Britain, they were brought to their knees, and not a single white country thought about saving them. And it was part of their heritage. It’s where their mythology comes from or their concept of capitalism and democracy comes from. Nobody cared, everybody cared about the modern. Right?”

Kim Kardashian is actually more powerful than Greece. She has more money than the whole of Greece,” she continues. “Therefore, that’s where the power lies. If you then define it that way, then you kind of just have to live with that. And maybe what’s happening in modern society: that if you’re going to judge it by that, then other countries are gonna come in and define the future.”

In print, it’s a statement that seems lacking in logic and coherence. In the moment, I’m fairly sure I’m able to follow her and we go on to consider how and where this future is being defined (for the record: “You can’t ignore the fact that China is going to be doing their thing in the next 50 years”) and how Arulpragasam believes “the immigration issue” has become a red herring covering up a truth that can explain the American and British swing to conservative populism.

“With Brexit, the idea was to get away from Europe and reinvent our identity,” she says. “And really, that identity was going to be American, but then they gave us Trump! So, everyone now is like, ‘Oh shit, what is Britain?’ Are we going to rewind back to the 1800s? We can’t. It’s too late for that. So, going forward, we need a charismatic leader who then va va vooms the British identity. And we don’t have that either.”

‘People thinking that I’m a bitch is totally unwarranted’ ... MIA. Photograph: Stephanie Sian Smith/The Guide

The prime minister has called a snap election on the day we meet. Does MIA have any faith in our political system? Or in the left?

“Everyone keeps going, ‘Corbyn can’t do this,’ but it’s, like, well, who else is there?” she says. “If people just left him alone to actually do the job and actually gave him some support, maybe he’d be different. Treating him with so much contempt … fighting that takes all his energy. How the fuck do you expect him to do interesting things?” In any case insists the estranged daughter of a Tamil revolutionary, “politicians are people who couldn’t get jobs somewhere else.”

MIA’s politics, unwieldy and unslick though they may be, have often made her an easy target for tedious sneering in the press; the most insistent narrative is that, like Banksy, she’s big on arch, subversive statement but lacks substance. Or that she is a hypocrite for making herself the poster girl for the world’s most marginalised people. And yet, she’s one of the best pop stars Britain has ever produced. For all the ear-clanging experimentation of her five albums, MIA has always kept a sleeve full of pop bangers – Bucky Done Gun, Paper Planes, Bad Girls, Finally – that have sounded like little that came before or since her. Even if she didn’t have the tunes, here is an art-school refugee Sri Lankan single mother with a visual aesthetic co-opted by everyone from Vetements to Versace who was born into political rebellion and revels in controversy. Gleefully gauche and carefree, MIA is the best argument for when cultural appropriation works. Bland singer-songstress beloved of Radio 2 playlists she isn’t. So how much has the criticism bothered her?

“People thinking that I’m a bitch is totally unwarranted because I’m not,” she says. “I just had to fight for shit, and I still do. I just don’t care any more. I don’t know.” She stops and starts. “What I deal with as an artist, the media, the public persona, it’s a walk in the fucking park, compared to how confusing the universe really fucking is. There’s so much beauty in it and there’s so much mystery, there’s so much confusing shit in it. That is way more interesting to think about than why, like, Patricia hates me. You know what I mean?” I laugh. “It’s like, ’Who the fuck is Patricia?’ and ‘How can Patricia say this shit about me?’. It just does not matter to me at all.” As it is, she says she’s most preoccupied with how to be a functioning grown up, an adult and a mother to an eight-year-old son (whose father Benjamin Bronfman is son to the billionaire heir of the Seagram fortune) born into immense privilege.

“When the war came to an end in Sri Lanka in 2009, it actually did affect me,” she explains. “Everyone was, like, ‘What the fuck does she know? She’s, like, a pop star,’ but that was my life. It was 50% of who I was, it was my identity. I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I had a kid. It’s the year the cause died, but the year my personal cause – my son – was born. And then, OK, I have to figure out what to do in very small parameters: I have a son, how is he going to see his grandma, am I going to make it there on Saturday? Can I make sure that I don’t mess up his head by being depressed about certain things?”

She struggles to reconcile her upbringing – poor and living in Sri Lanka for her childhood to poor and living on a council estate in Mitcham, south London, in her adolescence – with her son’s. “I’m not very straightforward as an immigrant. That whole ‘My kids would never see the pain that I saw’; I’m not like that. I’m totally up for reintroducing him to the pain. I don’t have any qualms about that.” Her problems haven’t changed, she says, because of money or better circumstances. “Whether I’m in a mansion or a council flat, I would feel the same anxiety waking up going: ‘I need to write this thing in a scrapbook, where’s my notepad?’ I would still have all those problems. I might still overcook the fish fingers. Those things are not going to magically transform because your house has changed. At the beginning I thought that money could’ve saved my family. Very quickly I realised that money is not the thing.”

Her conflict in wanting to be huge and commercial versus credible and ahead of the curve has been a persistent tension threaded through MIA’s career. “When I got into the music game, it was never an option to shut up and make lots of money,” she says. “To be a huge pop star, I would have to be, like, ‘Yes, I think bombing Afghanistan was a great idea, I love our democracy and what it has achieved. I love the American flag and I’m going to make a jumpsuit out of it. I just think it was important to have all of those Arab Springs, and it’s great and let’s drink Coca-Cola.’ I had to do that, and do it all in a thong. Could I have done that if it meant that my mum had the nicest house in Chiswick by the river?”

Click here to se the video for MIA’s Bad Girls.

Does she worry about money now? “If you’re preaching living within your means, you have to, to some extent. But I also know that if you’re someone in society that speaks out about injustice or political issues, one of the things that happens is that you get economically punished, 100%. I take that hit all the time.”

The most recent, obvious example was MIA being forced to quit her headline slot at Afropunk last year, following a contentious quote in which she asked in an interview why Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar might not discuss why Muslim lives matter or Syrian lives matter. “I don’t regret [raising the issue],” she says, with triumphant chutzpah. “You saw how bad it was. And the Muslim ban didn’t happen just with Trump, it was already happening under Obama. But you couldn’t say that about him, you couldn’t say that he introduced the Muslim ban, or banned seven different countries, or was already monitoring people, or dropped more bombs than Trump has.” In truth, Obama’s administration did identify the seven countries on Trump’s list for additional screening measures, but it didn’t bar their nationals. She’s already skipped ahead. “The quantity of damage can’t be quantified right now,” she insists. “We’ll have to wait the four years. After eight years of Obama, we kind of knew [his failings], but we just weren’t allowed to say them because he was so great. He was better than any person in Hollywood that I would’ve watched. He was really likable and just had loads of swag. That doesn’t mean that you have to deny the truth, though.”

This (and much more) comes moments after she tells me she has “no time for opinions” these days. She claims she doesn’t read the news any more and that her primary sources for information are customers at the local kebab shop, taxi drivers and then “sort of figuring it out”. What about the state of the world? MIA’s moment as an agitprop pop activist has never seemed more potent. “Politics? I have no time for these things because I’m so stuck in the zone. I’ve become a hermit. [Meltdown] is actually giving me the chance to actually go out and meet people again. I’ve gone for weeks without talking to a person, I do that happily.” I tell her I don’t believe her, as I suspect it would be a recipe for her to go fully barmy.

“I’m actually quite an extreme person, so I don’t see that as madness. I see that as, like, solitude, doing a phase of solitude is not that bad.” After declaring her fifth album AIM to be her final one, she’s also trying to find new ways to channel her creativity. “I’m trying to write a film. I haven’t stepped into it yet because I want it to be good. Once you hit the start button you can’t really stop it.” She has, she tells me, the added complication of ADD to contend with. When was that diagnosed? “I just have it. Don’t even need diagnosis, it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of the NHS.” In truly blithe MIA style, she adds: “It’s just when you have too many ideas and not enough ways to get them out.”

MIA’s Meltdown is at the Southbank Centre, SE1, 9-18 June


Nosheen Iqbal

The GuardianTramp

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