She Might Get Loud

Or rather, louder. Bigger. Richer. Because for all of M.I.A.’s twenty-first-century sound and global-nomad street cred, she’s still not quite as famous as she wants to be. But now, with her long-awaited and wildly buzzed-about third album due out any minute, Earth may be about to go truly gaga for Maya

Photographs by Miguel Reveriego
July 2010

In Los Angeles visiting with M.I.A., the London-born, Sri Lanka-reared, art-school-educated hip-pop supernova. Google’s satellite imagery reveals a house of sturdy proportions up in the city’s privileged canyons, a nice change from her grungy former digs in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn.

I want to see the house, maybe write some smack about how M.I.A. is risking her street cred now that she’s traded the leaks and mice for a touch of posh. But the singer, better known to the eagle-eyed guys at the immigration counter as Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, has another idea. Why don’t we pick up her fiancé, Ben, and head for Las Vegas, where she’ll get married on the spot? Yeah, why not! I’m game, but Ben talks her down on the phone, telling her they should at least wait for his mom, who’s visiting in a few days. Instead we do two hours of vintage shopping at a massive L.A. thrift emporium with her friend, the British fashion designer Cassette Playa, whose hair sports many pretty colors, her large purple-framed glasses reflecting the world.

This is life on the M.I.A. Express: improvised to the point of being slightly insane. In a $150,000 appearance for H&M and Jimmy Choo in November, Maya stopped after a few songs to lecture Paris Hilton and the rest of the select audience on corporate America’s involvement in war-ravaged Sri Lanka. She’d been planning to wear a costume made “out of loads of blown-up body parts and go as an explosion. But they told me I couldn’t, because I had to wear something from H&M or Jimmy Choo.” Um, yes. That’s H&M for you. A few months later, in March, she’ll tweet her fans to meet her at a London club and hear her latest tracks in exactly thirty minutes. Impromptu Las Vegas wedding with me and Cassette Playa as witnesses? Bring it on.

M.I.A. is perhaps the preeminent global musical artist of the 2000s, a truly kick-ass singer and New York-Londony fashion icon, not to mention a vocal supporter of Sri Lanka’s embattled Tamil minority, of which she’s a member. Her father was a key player in the Tamil separatist movement, and his links to the Tamil Tigers would later contribute to Maya’s rep as a terrorist sympathizer. She also has a 1-year-old son and a third album on the way. When asked about the new rec­ord, Cassette Playa (real name: Carri Munden) says simply, “It’s sick.”

Shopping with Maya is fun. “I like this Sade hat…. That doesn’t suit me…. My head’s too small.” She’s wearing a vintage Louis Vuitton sweatshirt, black tights, and ankle boots, looking disarmingly hipster-suburban. Her moods vary from slightly pissed off to go-fuck-yourself-already, but today she’s bubbly and engaged, doing a sexy-tired southern-ingénue walk. From her song “Hombre”: My hips do the flicks as I walk, yeah. We work our way through reams of ’70s and ’80s shit that reminds me of my own immigrant past. (My parents and I emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1979.) Taupe-colored “refugee coats.” EZ Spirit. Focus 2000. A Gitano denim coat. We get on the trendy subject of avoiding meat, and Maya says, “What are you gonna do, you know? We don’t have the luxury to even think about being vegetarians or meat eaters. We’re refugees. We’ve been dealing with normal shit, like how to stay alive.”

I think to myself, The refugee is strong in this one.

She buys a king’s ransom of thrift for $178.72 but still hasn’t found her perfect wedding dress. “I’ve always wanted to get married in a white suit,” she says. “I used to work at a Kodak lab in England, cutting photos after they’d come out of the wash, and in one I saw this couple getting married on a beach in white suits, and their kid was there.”

Like many people in their midthirties, rock stars included, a part of her wants to grow up, soften up. She misses Brooklyn but chose L.A. for her son. “I wanted an environment where I could have a lot of friends and family come and stay. That was the important part for me. And in New York I wouldn’t have been able to afford someplace where I could have, like, all my friends come and crash out and where I could still have a baby.”

Over lunch at India Sweets and Spices in Silver Lake, a Bollywood wedding streams on the giant TV next to a statue of Ganesha. She shows me a video of her son, Ikhyd, a cute curly-haired bruiser of a boy, dancing with his jovial papa, Benjamin Brewer (a.k.a. Benjamin Bronfman), a musician and an heir to the Bronfman beverage fortune. She picks up my digital recorder and starts to rap: I don’t want to live for tomorrow. I push my life today. / I throw this in your face when I see you, because I got something to say. I don’t realize it then, but she’s giving me a preview of “Born Free,” a new song that will generate controversy a few months later, when YouTube restricts access to the hyperviolent nine-minute video, a dystopian parable in which redheaded men and boys are rounded up and executed by government thugs. With the recorder’s tiny mike next to her face, her body in motion and the words just pouring out, she seems as happy and natural as I’ve seen her yet.

When GQ asks me for a 7,000-word piece on M.I.A., I agree quickly. (M.I.A.—what fun!) The next day, I wake up with buyer’s remorse. Did they say 7,000 words?

The problem with writing about Maya is that it’s like writing about the air. I’ve heard her drop-what-you’re-buying-and-listen-to-me-fucking-, now voice in every hipster boutique on both sides of the Atlantic (and the Pacific and, I’m sure, the Arctic Ocean by now), and then, after she’d blasted past the urban cognoscenti, in the cheesy bars of second-rate airports, in the cheesy bars outside Columbia University, in the cheesy bars of my native Russia (the kind of bars where someone with Maya’s skin color might get more than a passing look). Wherever you go—there she is. Björk also managed to pull off this omni­presence in the 1990s, but it’s hard to sing along to a Björk tune unless you happened to be born on her faraway planet. By contrast, M.I.A.’s hooks and jingles sort of wend their way into what’s left of your half-electronic subconscious (Pull up the people, pull up the poor!), so that by the time “Paper Planes” hitched a ride on the global jet stream, it pretty much became Earth’s anthem of 2008.

Maya’s music has been described as a combination (it’s always a combination) of world beat, hip-hop, punk rock, baile funk, techno beat, Jamaican dancehall, whirring sonics (whatever the fuck those are), Indian bhangra, blah blah blah… In other words, she sounds like absolutely nothing you’ve ever heard before. And like everything you thought you’d heard before, too. She also drops finer lyrics than just about anyone with a gold chain knocking against his chest. Indeed, she can craft a story better than scores of novelists out there, her tunes somehow conveying the pain of losing one’s family and homeland in the most joyous way possible. And with this third album, she’s attempting to get huge without sacrificing any of the drooling critical adoration that put her here.

Seven thousand words, though. Holy shit.

One thing you should know before we proceed together is that my taste in music isn’t very good. For me, listening to contemporary hip-hop is just a way to summon an attitude, to blend in with a more powerful person’s sense of himself and to pretend that I also possess some of that ineffable power. M.I.A.’s music certainly fits the bill, not to mention that she also confers easy cred upon her listeners. If I were single, I’d be pumping her new album on every date, all the while talking up a trip I took to Brazil a few years ago, the time I met these kids who might have come from a favela or something. Anyway, they were poor.

I stopped seriously listening to music when Ice Cube began appearing in the Friday movies. When I was a kid at Oberlin ­College, somewhere in Ohio, one of the whitest and crunchiest institutions in America, our obsessions focused on Ice Cube and Kurt Cobain, who managed to die my junior year abroad as I was flying Olympic Airways from Athens to Zurich. The pilots found out midflight, and the young stewardesses began to cry in unison as they tried to pour us our glasses of cloudy retsina. Back then, you see, musicians were still gods who walked among us. But it was the beefy gentleman emerging straight outta Compton, a self-described crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, who provided our daily soundtrack as we jacked up my roomie’s Saab and aimed it at Oberlin’s sole ­McDonald’s, located in the most ­”urban” part of this sad village of 8,000 crushed souls. Ice Cube’s music—racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic (full disclosure: my roommate Mike “the Zap” Zapler and I were both nominally Hebrews)—rocked our little black Swedish convertible all the way down College Street as we dreamed of a Big Mac as hot and rancid as Cube’s funky lyrics. The Zap and I were both political-science majors with a lot to lose, but Ice Cube seemed like he came from a world where the apocalypse had already wiped clean any vestige of hope—an exciting, existentialist posture for a 20-year-old cracker still unsure of how to play the opposite sex. Since its East Coast inception and up to its recent blinged-out downfall, hip-hop has always been an exhilarating form of tourism for privileged young Americans, a journey into that shit-stained part of the country that always seems so near and yet so far. Bitch, you shoulda put a sock on the pickle, Ice Cube rapped firmly as he educated two guys in a Saab about the correct uses of birth control in a tone no Oberlin woman would ever tolerate. And your pussy wouldn’t be blowing smoke signals. Uh, yes, I’ll take that with fries.

After Cube had completely sold out, it was pretty much downhill for me. I fell under the influence of the Detroit ghetto-tech rapper DJ Assault, whose lyrics I actually paid to use in my last novel (Aw, shit, heah I come / Shut yo mouf and bite yo tongue = $500). And then, like many men and women stumbling headlong into middle age, I just stopped giving a shit about music.

My first meeting with Maya takes place one day last fall in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel in New York’s East Village, a dark, moody depot for transatlantic wankers of a certain caste. She’s rock-star late to the interview, and Maya’s publicist has been trying to call up to her room. “Maya Arulpra—” she begins telling the desk clerk. “Who?” “M.I.A.” No response. Despite her ubiquity on every iPhone in Williamsburg, there’s clearly still some brand-building ahead for Maya and her label.

Six hours later, she approaches my table with a just-got-out-of-bed look, resembling one of the sloe-eyed Israeli girls who sleepily haunted my Hebrew school. She tells me she doesn’t want to do the usual kind of interview, where she enlightens the reader about what it’s like to be Maya and I ask her questions about her past. No, she wants to come up with something creative. Maybe we should look at artwork together and discuss. Or maybe we can challenge the jerk who made her sound like a terrorist-loving Tamil Tiger groupie in The New York Times by holding a panel with the guy from The Village Voice who defended her. Or maybe this whole piece could be about the cell-phone videos of innocent Tamils, Guineans, and others being killed and raped—a truly ghastly video of Sri Lankan soldiers laughing while shooting bound, naked Tamil men has been making the rounds on YouTube. Or maybe “It shouldn’t be about Sri Lanka; it should be about truth. It should be why, when things are changing so fast, journalism’s not changing as fast as the world is changing, and no one seems to be independent enough to just be like, ‘I’m going to go look into this.’ Every little thing just needs to be so whitewashed on the bigger scale. I think it’s really interesting to focus in and say, ‘Right, we’re just going to take ten fucking cell-phone footages from around the world that didn’t become an outrageous piece of proof that stands up in the U.N.,’ which makes the U.N. really redundant, you know what I mean?” She pauses. “But all that footage crushes so many things that we stand for. It crushes art. Like, I can’t look at any art right now, ’cause I just think it’s all bullshit.” A few beats later: “In the future, I want to move more into art.” A little later: “I think [art is] good for my ADD, my music.”

Her attention deficit disorder is endearing. She’s razor smart while somehow managing to be warm, stando?sh, and suspicious. She wants to be in charge, controlling the interview, challenging her critics, crushing the United Nations once and for all. I get the sense she’s not completely aware of her own psychology, which may be an aid to her artistic work, where it all just comes pouring out like an uncapped volcano in the Philippines. Itching to get away from the interview and back to her music, she tells me the studio is where she talks her shit out. “It’s like therapy, seeing journalists for me,” she says.

“I’ll send you a bill,” I tell her.

The inevitable Robert Christgau, self-proclaimed dean of American rock critics, has called M.I.A. “the brown-skinned Other now obsessing Euro-America,” and Maya’s biography could be summed up in one of her own lyrics: I got brown skin but I’m a West Londoner / Educated but a refugee still. When she talks about her past, one thinks partly that she’s making it up as she goes along, not just because the stuff is so fantastical but because she’s such an effortless storyteller, explaining complicated events with small details, like the time her mom locked her in a room in her grandmother’s house in Sri Lanka to keep her from filming a potentially dangerous protest, or the gruesomeness of life on a Liberian rubber plantation she recently visited. “I’m sad I come from a country like this,” she says of Sri Lanka, “full of racism and hatred.” Although maybe L.A. and New York aren’t quite the ticket, either. “I’m ready to go to Ohio,” she says, sort of kidding. “I would love to move next door to Dave Chappelle. That’s my dream. If I stick around America, that’s what I’m doing.”