For 20 years, MIA has existed at the intersection of vilification and vindication. The London-born, Sri Lanka-raised rapper and singer has spent her entire career fighting perceived injustices in the world, from the underreporting and whitewashing of the Tamil genocide to the incarceration of her friend, the WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange. She also has terminal foot-in-mouth disease, and is prone to flippant, occasionally outright offensive trolling in the press and on Twitter.
At the heart of it all has been the music itself – an electrifying body of work that is innovative, influential and, to this day, totally singular. Travis Scott, one of the most successful living rappers, has listed her as one of his favourite artists; in 2020, she was awarded an MBE for services to music.
Her sixth album, Mata, which is out today, is her most reflective record yet, looking over the ups and downs of her career with an attitude that suggests no love is lost for those who criticised her views. “I tried to make you see I was telling the truth,” she sings on her new single, Beep, and, given her warnings about the overreach of tech companies and her pioneering of abrasive noise-pop – years ahead of Yeezus and the likes of 100 Gecs – you’re inclined to believe her. Still, all that reflection doesn’t mean she has lost her confrontational spirit, nor deterred her from tweeting a statement on Wednesday night, about the rightwing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, that left many people aghast: “If Alex jones pays for lying shouldn’t every celebrity pushing vaccines pay too?”
Anyone who has been following MIA, born Mathangi Arulpragasam, at any point in her career knows that this kind of comment is par for the course. Speaking over Zoom from Los Angeles two days before Mata is released – and about an hour after the Jones tweet – the 47-year-old rapper is often erudite and, just as frequently, profoundly troubling and confusing, prone to going on tangents about “the blob” – what she calls the unruly, manipulative version of the internet we use today – and sharing ultra-detailed history lessons on Assange’s extradition and the history of the Sri Lankan civil war.
The album itself doesn’t take up much of our conversation – her answer to a question about one song ends up down a rabbit hole that leads to “we’re going to go to Mars and we’re going to evolve the human species”. Instead MIA gives full rein to her opinions on other topics, from her newfound Christianity and identity politics to, yes, Covid vaccines. Unlike many stars of her ilk, she doesn’t shy from answering any question, and the team who linger throughout the Zoom call – her publicist and a rep from Salxco, her new management firm, which also represents the Weeknd and Doja Cat – never attempts to intervene, even when the conversation turns to thornier topics.
Mata may be MIA’s most contemplative record, recalling lyrical themes from every part of her career – but it’s very clearly not an attempt to re-enter the mainstream pop world she was orbiting in the 2010s. It’s a rhythmic, sample-driven album that often eschews simple pop melody for anarchic schoolyard chants and beats that recall reggaeton and funk carioca, as well as lyrics that seem to reference the prescience of her past work. But she says that she hasn’t wasted time stewing over the fact that history has proved her right on some of the subjects she talked about years ago, such as the NSA spying on US citizens, or the plight of the Tamil people. “No matter who you are, the universe is moving so fast these days that it’s almost like your history is irrelevant,” she says. “I feel vindicated when I look at the craziness of the modern-day world, and I’m like: ‘Oh, 10 years ago, if they didn’t put that guy in jail [Assange], and kill that dude [it is unclear who she means], we wouldn’t really have this now.’”
During the process of making Mata, MIA’s sense of self was in a state of intense upheaval. In 2015, after shooting a video in India for the single Borders, she fell ill and experienced a vision of Jesus Christ that caused her to become “very confused creatively”. She thinks the vision was a result of someone doing “some sort of mantra” on her. “I didn’t think it was effective – and it turned out that it was effective.” As she slowly began to surrender to the idea that she might die, “I said: ‘OK, that’s fine, I’m happy that I lived and I’ve experienced and did my best.’ As I’d given in to dying, then I had the vision.”
After that, MIA felt a tension between the Hinduism she had embraced in recent years and her new Christianity. “It’s not like I was into the deity in Hinduism that was about wealth – I was specifically into Matangi, a deity about creativity and arts,” she says. “Faced with having to cut that off and embrace the concept of Jesus Christ, I was having an existential crisis.”
Mata, then, is partially about “surrendering into the idea that the conflict is within myself”, she says. Some songs, such as The One, seem to embrace the idea of existing on a righteous path; others, such as FIASOM (which stands for Freedom Is a State of Mind, and is pronounced “fearsome”) and Zoo Girl, channel what she calls the “vibrancy” of her Tamil heritage. Two years after her vision, she points out, came the pandemic. “That narrative is very Christian – it’s not a Hindu thing, it’s a Christian thing, and I think that’s why it happened,” she says. “It prepares you for something that’s about to come. You have to use a different rulebook to understand what is happening.”
It would have been easy for MIA to mount a comeback based on the idea that she was mistreated by the media and the general public in the early days of her career; in recent years, it has been acknowledged that the early treatment of confrontational female stars such as Sinéad O’Connor and the Chicks was awash with misogyny. “Everyone is more scared of me than any of those artists,” she says. “We’re living through a time where people are seeing the hyper-inflated nature of capitalism and the destruction it causes, and even though I don’t have that kind of monetary power, I do feel like people fear me for some reason.”
She has an idea about why the media has been so reluctant to rehabilitate her. Outrage over comments such as her Alex Jones tweet, she says emphatically, ignores the fact that “lying and truth” have been constant themes in her career. Although she has been vocal about specific issues, such as human rights in Bangladesh and the Tamil war, her ultimate goal, she says, has been to expose the fact that people in power are constantly operating through the use of deception. “I’m not here to discuss things with ignorant people who don’t know what I’ve done,” she says. “I took a hit for [talking about the Tamil genocide], because it wasn’t cool enough for 15 years before identity politics and this word ‘oppression’ became a buzzword. It wasn’t cool. So I was deleted all through that 15 years.”
Of Jones, she says, “today, you’ve got some white guy who apparently lied and made some families feel terrible, who now has to pay $1bn because he denied someone’s real experience, real loss and real emotional trauma”. Although she believes it’s “terrible” that the Sandy Hook families were subjected to Jones’s slander about the murder of their children, she invokes the 146,000 unaccounted-for Tamil civilians who don’t get the same kind of empathy. “If we’re going to have a scapegoat in society where somebody’s going to pay for [lying about atrocities], then I would like to bring the same sort of court case against every western publication that said only 40,000 Tamils were killed in the last days of the war.”
MIA is acutely aware of the blowback she will get for her tweets about Jones, but it’s clear that her resentment runs deeper than any outrage cycle or Twitter spat – the result, she says, of 15 years of media coverage saying that Tamils “don’t count, our feelings don’t count, we don’t care about our dead ones or the ones that are missing. I’m gonna have to deal with, like, a bunch of ignorant sheeples going” – she puts on an American accent – “‘Oh my God, girl, delete your Twitter.’ What are you talking about? You can’t say that to me after I have paid real prices throughout my career.”
So why is she a vaccine sceptic? Over the course of our conversation, she repeatedly links the subject to big pharma and the US medical system, the cost of living crisis and the general public’s access to information, areas of “vital basic human need” that are “exploited for monetary gain”.
“The language they use to attack anybody is to say: ‘Oh, she’s an anti-vaxxer’ or blah blah blah. And it’s like, no, not really,” she says. “I know three people who have died from taking the vaccine and I know three people who have died from Covid. This is in my life, in my experience. If anyone is going to deny that experience and gaslight me, saying: ‘No, that’s not your experience,’ then what is the point of anything?”
(In March 2022, a major study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no link between the number of deaths following vaccination and receiving two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine; in figures published in February 2022, 15 people in the UK died following receiving the vaccine. The WHO reports the Covid worldwide death toll to be in excess of 6.5m.)
MIA continues: “What is the existence that you are trying to protect by giving me a vaccine if I can’t even have an experience and process that information in my own brain and come to some sort of conclusion? And live within a society where I have to make choices every day?”
This idea of a freedom without any genuine choice comes up several times in our conversation. “There’s this weird idea that we’re all free, and that we fight for everything, and we can say what we want, but on the other hand, I feel like there’s even more of a crackdown on that.”
Along the same lines, she sees identity politics as ignoring fundamentals of human existence, which still aren’t being met. “I feel like there has to be priorities – the basic human need is food, water, shelter and clothing,” she says. “Identity politics and all this other stuff comes after you have the comfort of those things. Once you have healthy food and your brain’s working properly and your body’s working properly, then you can sit there and think about whether you want to have a drink and go out or be a certain thing or think a certain way.”
She cites the example of the movement to defund the police in the US, suggesting that this will cause poverty and hardship. “Even [with] the police force, who we’re supposed to not like, you had people losing their livelihoods and losing their jobs and can’t pay rent, families losing their houses because they’re threatened with this choice of following orders or not following orders,” she says. “That is actually really happening on our doorstep, like this is not happening in Sri Lanka, this is happening in the west, this is happening in your neighbourhood.”
This is the problem, she says, with cancel culture. “I think everyone should be having open conversations – we don’t all have to, like, build effigies of people and burn them in the street for saying something, going after them like Guy Fawkes, because of fear of being seen as the other.”
Our time is up. As has been the case throughout her career, this conversation with MIA sparks more questions than answers. If there’s a sympathetic angle on some of her more alarming views, it’s that after experiencing the displacement of her family in Sri Lanka and the discombobulating effects of fame, it is understandable that she would search widely to make sense of her experiences – not least in her embrace of Christianity. There may never be enough time for her to explain how she feels about the state of the world, but one truism holds, she says: “I’d like to be there when the shit goes down – revolution.”
• Mata is out now on Island
• This article was amended on 14 October 2022. MIA was born in London and spent her childhood in Sri Lanka, not the other way around as a previous version said.