Brown Girl In the Ring
M.I.A. interviewed by Negar Azimi
Photography By Marcelo Krasilcic

The musician Maya Arulpragasam calls Muammar Qaddafi her style icon. Certainly no more than five feet tall, she appears a bit like the lovechild of Lionel Richie and Wonder Woman. Or Benazir Bhutto and Michael Jackson? A mass of dangly, actress-y black hair covers most of her forehead, while two thick strands of henna-stained brown come careening down from either side. She speaks with a strangely Valley Girl�inflected South London accent. Her music, like her style, is the music of pastiche, of cut and paste, fax and Xerox�whether dancehall, hip hop, bhangra, or punk.
It is, let's say, twenty-first-century world music�angry, irreverent, unapologetic, and on occasion giddy. And unlike a bevy of other celebrities who fall into politics après le fait, Maya, who goes by the stage name M.I.A., lives and breathes it. Her songs are about prostitutes, druglords, diamond dealers, Palestine, and, especially, her beleaguered Tamil homeland. Refreshingly, and sometimes worryingly, there is little that's rehearsed about her politics�whether it finds its way into her music, as it often does, or an interview like this one.

I picked up Maya this past May at her hotel in New York's Lower East Side, with her new baby, the improbably named Ikhyd Edgar Arular Bronfman, in tow. She told me she had canceled an interview with the Los Angeles Times Magazine for Bidoun, as well as a chance to sing for Michelle Obama (�SI�"d rather just speak to her than sing to her from the stage�).

She hadn�"t managed to sleep the night before. Eight hours into her Bidoun photo shoot, though, she was going remarkably strong, dressing and undressing in all manner of costumery amid dangling red lights and mirrored walls in a gnatty subterranean Indian restaurant in the East Village�the kind with all-you-can-eat buffet, stale candied cardamom, and table-size curry stains on every surface. When we walked in, they were literally playing one of her songs, leaving her convinced that they knew who she was. It turns out that they were just playing the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire.

Baby Ikhyd, whom she calls the �Soppression baby� because he's part Sri Lankan Tamil and part African American Jewish, sat content the entire time with his dangling Indian charm necklace around his neck as his mother put on t-shirts emblazoned with peace symbols, a hoodie-cum-hijab, sparkly red tops, and even a yarmulke. The next day, we sat down and spoke of Boney M. mix cassettes, her first days in England, and what she hates about interviews.

Negar Azimi: Brooklyn or Manhattan?

Maya Arulpragasam: Brooklyn.

NA: Bill Cosby or Yasser Arafat?

M.I.A.: Yasser Arafat.

NA: Dodi or Princess Di?

M.I.A.: Princess Di. You know, I predicted her death.

NA: No!

M.I.A.: On the day she died, I went to this party and fell asleep at my friend's house. I woke up at four in the morning and I�"d dreamt that I was on a motorbike and I was getting chased by all these people and then I crashed, and it was, like, loads of people trying to take photos of me and stuff. The whole thing was the same except for�instead of Princess Diana, it was me. And I woke up and I said, �SOh, my God, I just had a dream that I died!� And we were, like, well that's crazy, and I told my sister, she was there, too, and then we all went back to sleep. Four or five hours later we woke up and the first thing we heard on the radio was about Princess Di.

NA: That's insane.

M.I.A.: I know, it was nuts. And then we ran to McDonald's because we didn�"t have a TV.

NA: Madonna's?

M.I.A.: No, McDonald's. The McDonald's down the road had a television and everyone was watching it. But yeah, it's crazy. And I was like, thank God I woke up and told people, because no one would have believed me.

NA: Benazir Bhutto or Indira Gandhi?

M.I.A.: That's a close one⬦
I remember Indira Gandhi, her dying�I was in school then�
so she's affected my life more than Benazir Bhutto. And she was the youngest, like, female president. Probably the youngest president. Right?

NA: Yes, maybe. Yemen or Yerevan?

M.I.A.: I�"d say Yemen.

NA: Short or long?

M.I.A.: Long.

NA: Nail polish?

M.I.A.: Yes.

NA: Velvet Underground or Modern Lovers?

M.I.A.: Uhhh⬦ well, Modern Lovers. But I like both.

NA: If you could meet someone who's dead and bring them back and have lunch with them⬦

M.I.A.: Aaliyah.

NA: And your biggest fear?

M.I.A.: My biggest fear. I don�"t know, I guess? I�"m not really sure.

NA: Maybe we�"ll come back to it.
Ben Bronfman: [Interjecting] Rattlesnakes.

M.I.A.: Yeah, snakes. Rattlesnakes. There's some in my backyard in LA.

NA: Do you have good or bad experiences with interviews?

M.I.A.: I haven�"t really been doing interviews recently, but when I started I was really enthusiastic. I wanted to tell everyone everything about my experiences, things that I thought counted, things you could learn from. But then people never write those things.
I did a Los Angeles Times interview last year, and we got into a bit of a situation. The guy who interviewed me used to be a radio show DJ, Nic Harcourt�he did this show called �SMorning Becomes Eclectic,� which I�"d been on, and it seemed pretty liberal and world music-y and all that. I always thought of him as a serious dude who's really worldly. And he came to interview me and suddenly I felt like he was trying to corner me. �SOh, what's it like being a terrorist,� and �SYou�"re just doing it for shock value so people will buy your records.� And then he said, �SWhen I was young⬦� and I was like, �SWhat?� and he said, �SOh, when I was young, before I formed my political opinion, I used to think John Lennon was cool.� And I was like, �SSo that means after you formed your political opinion, you didn�"t think he was cool, because you thought they were all, like, wanky left-wing liberals. And that means you�"re a right-wing conservative, so you�"re going write me up as a terrorist.�

NA: Did he actually use the word �Sterrorist�?

M.I.A.: Yeah. And I was just really disappointed that I could be labeled like that when something real is going on in Sri Lanka. It's a thirty-year war. And he just sat there thinking, well, you�"re a Tamil, therefore you must be a Tiger, and just because you have Tigers on your t-shirt you must be a Tiger⬦ and it's just so boring to be going over that same thing again and again. And I just thought, �SYou don�"t even have to listen to me anymore to know how difficult the situation is. Why don�"t you just fucking sit down and read. Or, Google.�

NA: He didn�"t want to listen.

M.I.A.: Yeah. People still want to talk about Sri Lanka and how the war is between this side and this side, but that issue's long gone. We know that. It's more complicated. Things evolve and situations change. That's like saying⬦ Israel and Palestine. Palestine has an issue with Israel, and you�"re like, �SDuh.� I mean, even my cat knows that.

NA: How do people most commonly describe you when they write about you?

M.I.A.: I mean, it's always the same. I�"m a rebel. �SShe's a rebel, blah blah blah.� They just want to make me into an acceptable American. Oh, this is what I wanted to tell you about, actually�on the plane to New York, this guy swapped seats to sit next to me to talk to me because he was writing his thesis on me for NYU.

NA: What?

M.I.A.: Yeah.

NA: Wait, was he stalking you?

M.I.A.: No.

NA: That's so weird.

M.I.A.: It is really weird. He thought about me for so long�you know when you focus on something for so long, and you conjure it into being?

NA: I�"d still be scared.

M.I.A.: I know, it's true.

NA: Especially if it's a dude.

M.I.A.: It's true, when he saw me, his eyes lit up and he was like, �SOh, my God!�

NA: Is he someone that you feel like you�"d be friends with?

M.I.A.: No. And his dad is Paris Hilton's lawyer. So if I wanted to sue Paris Hilton, that's who I�"m going to be dealing with. But yeah, he was writing his thesis and I thought he was joking, and then he showed me his computer and it was true. He had written this whole thesis, and the title was �S
M.I.A.: Globalization Affecting Pop Culture� or something. And then he talked about MTV the whole time, and I was really offended. He kept saying, �SYou know, Americans made you into this global icon, be grateful for that, MTV really did that for you.�

NA: That's a super-American way of thinking.

M.I.A.: I know. And I was like, �SMTV? They did jack shit for me!�

NA: You aren�"t even on MTV, right?

M.I.A.: None of my videos were on MTV. Only �SBucky� was on MTV, because I made a stupid video for it. That video should have been shot in the favelas in Brazil, but I was working with a bunch of people who were like, �SWe don�"t have time, we need to go shoot this now.� And, you know, maybe I wasn�"t strong enough and I compromised some of my shit.

NA: Where did you shoot the video?

M.I.A.: In the desert in Nevada. On my second album, I got more brave to say, �SFuck it, I�"m going to have better shit than this.� And I did �SBoyz� and �SBird Flu� and stuff like that by myself. But MTV played �SBucky,� this wishy-washy nondescript piece of bullshit. Before that I made �SSunshowers� in the jungle in India with Rajesh Touchriver.

NA: He's a film director, right?

M.I.A.: Yeah, he's really talented. No one wanted to talk about him. And then I made �SGalang� with Stephen Loveridge, and he was spray painting all the stencils in a carpark in the rain and stuff. And that video got turned into something else, like, even though that had more to do with my art background and using my own pictures and my own stencils and all that sort of stuff, people said, �SOh, this is where she's endorsing the Tamil Tigers,� because there's a tiger running in it.

NA: So the most boring, watered-down video made it onto MTV⬦

M.I.A.: Yeah, it's the one that's going to get paid. It's really weird. And then they also had �SPaper Planes,� but they only wanted to play it with the gunshots taken out.

NA: One thing I love about your videos is that they�"re super lo-tech. A lot of them seem purposely amateur, cut and paste, like a collage.

M.I.A.: It's not particularly amateur. I�"d love to make a slick video. I�"m just not technically equipped to do it. I don�"t get time to get things together enough so I do shit on the fly and then make the most of what I have. There's no point in doing flips half-assed, which is what happens to me when I go slick, like when Interscope says, �SHey, we�"ll give you, like, two hundred grand to make a video,� and you try doing that, and it looks awful because my hair is not going be like Lady Gaga's hair. You know what I mean? I�"m not going look like that in a pair of tights, so it's just wasted.

NA: Do you remember the first cassette tape you owned?

M.I.A.: My first cassette was Boney M. My uncle brought it with him from Italy, and he would get really drunk, come home at two in the morning and play the tape and wake me up and make me dance. He�"d throw stones at me if I didn�"t. So at two in the morning in my nightdress I had to do, like, disco dancing to Boney M., or him and his friends would throw stones at my feet. Tears would well up and⬦

NA: You were asleep!

M.I.A.: Yeah, and they used to make me do it for hours. And they laughed, it used to be entertaining for them, just the sheer length of time I�"d do it. [Laughs] I could do it for three or four hours. They used to do it for fun all the time, and after a while I was like, Okay, I�"m going do this, I�"m going to start getting into this. So that was my first tape. And Boney M. is forever ingrained in my mind. �SBrown Girl in the Ring.� It goes [sings] �SBrown girl in the ring tra la la la la.� [Laughs]