The education of Maya Arulpragasam
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?
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.
What’s relevant is that M.I.A. didn’t grow up like most other pop stars. Kala, the 2007 record she named after her mother, flipped her peripatetic, anxiety-laden upbringing into a globetrotting survey of Western culture as it played out around the world. “I’m knocking on the doors of your Hummer,” she sang, inviting along for the ride everyone from the Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy to the five didgeridoo-obsessed aboriginal kids in Australia’s Wilcannia Mob to the Brixton street kids who did the hook on “Paper Planes.”
But Kala was hardest on American hip-hop culture. In addition to her ex-boyfriend-cum-producer Diplo’s cheeky take on the gunshot as percussive tool on the ubiquitous “Paper Planes,” sated millionaire rappers Rick Ross and Jay-Z both got dissed on Kala. M.I.A. saved particular venom for the superproducer Timbaland, whom she clowned on the one song she let him produce on the record. Need an example of what otherwise savvy American pop instincts make of someone like M.I.A.? Look no further than Tim’s verse on “Come Around,” on which he mistakes Arulpragasm for Nicole Scherzinger, or Pocahontas—“Baby girl/You and me, need to go to your teepee”—only to have M.I.A. chew up the same beat and spit it out somewhere dusty, where the phone reception ain’t great: “In a faraway land we got shit made/Ray-Ban shades, warheads laid/Babies born in air raids.” Around this time, M.I.A. tried to work with OG Memphis rappers Three 6 Mafia; they took one look and told her she was “too gangsta.”
And though conflating M.I.A. with the violent insurgent tactics she evoked as a posh art school student and later, as a burgeoning MC, is ridiculous—if nothing else, Hirschberg proved that—she has always been adept at using a larger force against itself. Rap A-listers Kanye West, Jay-Z, T.I., and Lil Wayne didn’t know exactly what they were hearing when they heard “Paper Planes,” but they were hearing it nonetheless, going so far as the sample it for “Swagger Like Us,” the song that ultimately put a pregnant M.I.A. onstage at the Grammys. Two short months later, Jay-Z found himself on a remix of M.I.A.’s “Boyz,” chanting anti-Bush slogans alongside the diminutive singer as if he weren’t himself a card-carrying member of GWB’s target tax bracket.
"Being the only Tamil in the Western media," she told Smiley then, "I have a really great opportunity to bring forward what's going on in Sri Lanka. And there's a genocide going on."
There was a context here: the slow, 25-year grind of the Sri Lankan government against LTTE insurgents was coming to a bitter end; even as M.I.A. spoke, most of the Tamil civilian population in Sri Lanka had been pinned in a dismayingly small area in the north of the country, where they took grim turns being indiscriminately shelled by the government and serving as involuntary human shields for the Tigers. In February, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona had himself beamed onto Smiley’s show to respond to M.I.A.’s allegations: "M.I.A. is a great artist, and we wish her well. But sorry—I think she is misinformed, and it's best that she stay with what she's good at, which is music, not politics.”
This, creepy and authoritarian as it sounded, was true, in a sense. The common left-liberal take on the war in Sri Lanka read what was happening at the end of the conflict as a humanitarian crisis, not a “genocide” (a word that basically served, then and now, as a dog whistle for the pro-Tiger Tamil diaspora, just as the description of the Tigers as “terrorists” does for government partisans). If M.I.A. was misinformed, though, it was partially Kohona and his government’s fault: independent journalists had long since been banned from the war zone. Arulpragasam’s Twitter dispatches, like the famous "THE WAR IN SRI LANKA IS NOT AGAINST THE TIGERS, ITS AGAINST THE TAMIL PEOPLE!" weren’t strictly true, but as agitprop in a time of great need, they did their job. As well as someone whose position in society was to enliven stoner comedies and Williamsburg bars via song could manage, anyway.
And here’s where Hirschberg’s wry separation between M.I.A.’s role as an artist and as a provocateur gets real disingenuous; as Arulpragasam shot back in the possibly ill-advised dis track she crafted in the aftermath of the Times profile: “I’m a singer/Never said anything else.” Which wasn’t so much a disavowal of the other role as it was putting the thing in its proper context; it was Hilary Clinton’s job to bring nuance to the debate, not hers. In terms of M.I.A.’s politics, getting a high ranking member of the Sri Lankan government to make creepy, veiled threats about a sometime Marc Jacobs model on American national television was like getting Jay-Z on a song—important, but also about the limit of what M.I.A. was capable of as a political actor. Had she been more moderate, or less vocal, she couldn’t have even managed that.
/\/\/\Y/\, HER NEW RECORD, SUGGESTS M.I.A. KNOWS IT, too. “I know I made it just by counting up my haters,” she says on “Tell Me Why,” the album’s Diplo-produced, Alabama Sacred Harp Singers-sampling, psychedelic mushroom-fueled sole stab at a pop hit. For all that M.I.A. has served as a conduit to global pop for Americans who couldn’t tell the difference between B-more club and Bollywood, she’s always been at her best when unpacking her own strange autobiography. Thus where on Kala’s “Bird Flu” she copped to not being able to drop enough weight to model for Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Wear, “Tell Me Why” is basically “Mo Money Mo Problems” for the internationally displaced set. “You can make a killing,” she says, pun probably intentional, “but don’t forget the feeling.” And then later: “When I get to where I’m going, you should come with me.”
One thing people may turn out to find dismaying about /\/\/\Y/\ is that it’s pretty clear M.I.A. really doesn’t know where she’s going. Though her newfound Bronfman/“Paper Planes” gains are addressed in passing—“I don’t want to talk about money, ‘cause I got it,” she mutters on “Born Free” (compare to Kala’s “I hate money ‘cause it makes me numb,” if you doubt this is a seismic shift)—it mostly seems like technology, love, and yes, haters are what keep her up at night, circa 2010. As befits a record she named after herself. “All I ever wanted was my story to be told,” she says.
That’s probably a bit dishonest—the kind of sentiment rockstars start phasing into their lyrics after reading enough of their own error-riddled press. And indeed, to the extent she confronts the freedom-fighting, party-wrecking enfant terrible of Hirschberg et al’s imagination, Arulpragasam is no more smart about M.I.A. than the rest of us. Hence the bound-to-be-inflammatory Russo-Islamic terrorist homage “Lovalot,” on which she compares herself to the Taliban, says “Hu Jintao” in a funny accent, and vows to “fight the ones that fight me.” Even the “rub-a-dub-dub”-chanting, power drill-assisted “Steppin Up,” where she walks onto the dancefloor and tells the club she owns it, is a let down. Tell us something we didn’t know.
But that still leaves most of /\/\/\Y/\ clear for the workaday-mom concerns of love, life, and Twitter, where on “XXXO,” people keep blowing her up, even when they won’t say it to her face. On the pumped-up, Sleigh Bells-produced “Meds & Feds,” she and guitarist Derek Miller ride scooters over mega-amplified cheerleader claps and try to sort out what it is to grow in “the middle of a digital ruckus.” “The Message” indulges her now well-broadcasted paranoia about Google’s ties the government; on the wavy, intergalactic “Space,” she says “my lines are down so you can’t call me,” and that’s where things get really good.
BECAUSE BELIEVE IT OR NOT, M.I.A. SEEMS PRETTY HAPPY these days—at least, when her phone’s not ringing. Let’s invade her privacy one last time to guess why. On Kala, the closest Arulpragasam came to a love song was “Jimmy,” a weirdo ode to an international war correspondent whose peculiar come-on was to invite her on a “genocide tour” of Rwanda. She couldn’t make it, so she pillaged the Bollywood tune she used to dance to at parties as a child and wrote him a song instead. Three years later, M.I.A. has a home studio in Brentwood, a domestic partner in Benjamin Bronfman, and a fancy stroller given to her by Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine. On “It Takes a Muscle,” perhaps the most unexpected song on /\/\/\Y/\, she and Diplo flip some keyboard preset reggae into a compact romantic ode. It takes a muscle to fall in love, see? “You're gonna live tomorrow if you don't die today,” M.I.A. sings. It’s a platitude with teeth: no more visa problems, no more absent father, no more gallivanting off to Liberia when the American government won’t let her return to her one-bedroom in Bedford-Stuyvesant.*
/\/\/\Y/\ is, if nothing else, the sound of M.I.A. becoming accustomed to that (agreeable) reality. To the extent that Arulpragasam has ever been radical, it’s by virtue of how uncompromising she’s always been with her own audience. Early on, this meant forcing a nerdy American avant-pop cadre to confront what the culture they took for granted was doing in places they barely knew existed. M.I.A. photocopied American rap on bootleg machinery and sold it back to the people she stole it from in the first place, distortions—violent rhetoric shipped from the crack game all the way to arms markets in Africa; big money talk in Kingston slums—very much included. All the while, she was effective precisely because of how far into the Western tastemaking elite she could penetrate, based on her looks, talent, and life story. But ask Jay-Z what happens when you no longer have to hustle for rent. Real artists move on.
And since that’s what she is, get ready for this: /\/\/\Y/\’s best moments are domestic. That’s disorienting, from her in particular. But for M.I.A., as ever, the medium is the message. Home studio, home life? Home record. Where she once went from the Congo to Colombo, now we learn what happens when a refugee stops moving. On the gauzy Blaqstarr duet “It Iz What It Iz,” she talks about her feelings while riding around on motorcycles and playing Nintendo Wii, of all things. “These are the days to find better ways to say what nobody says,” she sings, articulating maybe the one constant in her brief career as a pop star. Who could doubt her?
* An earlier edition of this article mislocated M.I.A.'s New York apartment in Williamsburg.