The education of Maya Arulpragasam

M.I.A. performing in 2008. (Louis Beche via Flickr.com)
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Though popstar M.I.A. has already survived beefs with everyone from Vogue’s Anna Wintour to Michelle Obama to Sri Lankan foreign secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona in the six years since 2004’s inaugural Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape, it’s a bit hard to tell how next month’s /\/\/\Y/\, her third album, will fare in the aftermath of her May squabble with The New York Times Magazine’s Lynn Hirschberg.

The outgoing celebrity-profile specialist for the Times famously leveraged a truffle-flavored French fry into an indictment of the Sri Lankan artist’s political naiveté; the whole thing was kind of a bummer.

The Times, for its part, had been gunning for this confrontation ever since the paper used the occasion of M.I.A.’s nine-months-pregnant 2009 Grammys performance to suggest she was an apologist for the killers in the Tamil Tigers. Hirschberg probably deserved the heat. But Mathangi Arulpragasam’s revenge—outing Hirschberg as the pusher of the truffle-fry via surreptitiously-recorded interview outtakes—satisfying as it was, was bad news for M.I.A., the artist, who over two previous albums had thrived on the contradictions of class and status that she tended to embody.

“I put people on the map that never seen a map,” she once bragged, claiming a power far beyond that of a New York Times expense account. Now she was sweating because the Times “caught” her dining at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel?

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In the course of reporting the piece, Hirschberg also managed to place Arulpragasm dripping with Givenchy gold at a low-rent photography shoot, rocking Alexander Wang to the Met’s Ball for the Costume Institute, and shacking up in Brentwood with Benjamin Bronfman, whose dad is a Warner Music Group big shot and an heir to the Seagrams fortune. Against this glittering backdrop, M.I.A. was induced to spew rhetoric familiar to anyone who’s followed the artist through her transition from brown-skinned spitfire London club kid to the soundtrack to damn near everything that happened in 2008, the year her “Paper Planes” went mega-global.

“My giving birth is nothing,” she tells Hirschberg, “when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp.” Cue Hirschberg’s wry description of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the fancy L.A. hospital in which M.I.A. actually gave birth to Bronfman’s child.

What Hirschberg didn’t bother with (besides declining to investigate whatever these “concentration camps” might actually be) was that M.I.A. has been fancy for some time now. By the time Arulpragasam sat down with her, M.I.A. had already modeled for Marc Jacobs, sold a painting to Jude Law, licensed “Paper Planes” to the smash buddy-comedy Pineapple Express, and appeared on a couple songs with Jay-Z, the most famous rapper on the planet. That she could do these things and still have made it this far with her radical reputation more or less intact is a tribute to her work, which has not changed much, even as her life has become more opulent.

The Times Magazine is not in the business of profiling amateur political philosophers. To the extent that Arulpragasm made for a suitable interview subject for Hirschberg in the first place, it was as a fashion plate and card-carrying member of the zeitgeist—a Madonna for the worldtown set. If M.I.A. can be said to have politics at all, they’re organic—byproducts of the music she makes. (In other words, like the politics of most hip-hop, the genre her music most closely resembles.) Want to know what she’s about? Just listen to the records.

IT’S NO COINCIDENCE THAT M.I.A.’S FORTHCOMING THIRD LP /\/\/\Y/\—pronounced “Maya,” after the artist’s given name—follows Arular and Kala, records named after her father and mother, respectively. The biographical trinity is more than an aesthetic conceit. On Arular, which began with the exhortation “Get yourself an education,” M.I.A. fleshed out a then-dimly-understood autobiography with ample revolutionary references (“I got the bombs to make you blow”; “Like P.L.O., I don’t surrender”) and images—tigers, helicopters, grenades, peace symbols—set to cheap, insistent beats washed in the various international colors of bhangra, Bollywood, and rap. Those who inquired further got a lesson in internecine Sri Lankan politics, which have been nasty during M.I.A.’s lifetime.

How nasty? In Sri Lanka’s post-colonial conflict-turned-full-blown civil war between a Buddhist Sinhalese majority and mostly Hindu Tamil minority, M.I.A. (who left Sri Lanka for London when she was eight) is firmly in the latter camp. Her father was one of the early and more visible leaders of a Tamil independence movement that later evolved into the ferociously violent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—Tamil Tigers. After attempting to broker peace between the LTTE and the brutal Sinhalese government they were waging an insurgency against, Arular Arulpragasam—who supposedly remained independent after his own Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students disintegrated—walked away from both sides, right around the time the daughter he’d had virtually no contact with in the ’80s and ’90s was heading off to art school. Today he works a regular job in Britain, and M.I.A. downplays whatever role and influence in her life he’s had. Maybe she’s tired of being called a terrorist.