The musician Maya Arulpragasam calls Muammar Qaddafi her style icon. Certainly no more than five feet tall, she could be 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 (“I’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 “oppression 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.
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, “Oh, 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.
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?
NA: Nail polish?
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…
NA: And your biggest fear?
M.I.A.: My biggest fear. I don’t know, I guess? I’m not really sure.
NA: 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 “Morning 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. “Oh, what’s it like being a terrorist,” and “You’re just doing it for shock value so people will buy your records.” And then he said, “When I was young…” and I was like, “What?” and he said, “Oh, when I was young, before I formed my political opinion, I used to think John Lennon was cool.” And I was like, “So 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 “terrorist”?
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, You 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, “Duh.” 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. “She’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: Wait, was he stalking you?
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, “Oh, 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 “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, “You 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, “MTV? 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 “Bucky” 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, “We 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, “Fuck it, I’m going to have better shit than this.” And I did “Boyz” and “Bird Flu” and stuff like that by myself. But MTV played “Bucky,” this wishy-washy nondescript piece of bullshit. Before that I made “Sunshowers” 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 “Galang” 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, “Oh, 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 “Paper 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, “Hey, 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. “Brown Girl in the Ring.” It goes [sings] “Brown girl in the ring tra la la la la.” [Laughs]
M.I.A.: So that’s how that started. And then I had, like, a Michael Jackson tape, and that’s really it. I had two tapes for ten years and I listened to them every day. When I got to Colombo, as we tried to make it out during the war — we were there for three months, waiting for our visas or documents or whatever. That was the first time I’d heard any other music. We used to play tag and run through everyone’s houses in the neighborhood. And I saw all the different TV sets with people watching, like, WHAM! and Tina Turner and Madonna and stuff like that. All these Eighties people. And I was like, “Whoooah.” Because I came from a village where the TV had, like, two channels.
NA: Did you get to watch movies?
M.I.A.: We had one television for the whole street. So when a movie came on, everybody in the street came round to the one house. Three hundred people would pack into this one little house.
We’d rent the video deck for one day a month, and then we had screenings so everyone would come around and we’d play, like, three movies back to back. Usually I’d bunk school and come home when that happened, I’d fake a stomachache and stuff, because I just loved movies. In the village they used to call me an old woman because at the age of five or six I knew who was in what film and what song was in what film and everything to do with Tamil films.
NA: Tamil films?
M.I.A.: Yeah. From India. Like Tamil Bollywood. We used to get those. And we had a refrigerator — we had the fridge for the whole street. My uncle who was abroad bought the fridge, and everyone used to call it “cridge.” Tamils couldn’t say “fr.” They used to go, “Can you put this in the cridge?” [Laughs] And we’d go, “Okay.”
This was all before the war. When the war happened, things changed… All the hierarchies disappeared. There was a doctor family, and they were always too good to play with us. And then there was the milkmaid family — the person who had the cows, who used to sell the milk to everyone — they weren’t good enough to play with us. And then everyone became equal.
As a child I remember the people that lived across from us were just the most perfect family, and they had the most amazing driveway and a car and stuff like that. And then one day the dad got caught in a crossfire, just randomly coming home, and he was paralyzed from the neck down. It really changed my understanding of life. Because up to that point, I never really thought about family situations and stuff like that, and automatically assumed that’s the perfect model to live by, and I was just glad to have seen it. And then when that got broken, it was pretty devastating. Even more than the war affecting my life, the fact that it affected theirs was really difficult for me…
NA: What games did you play as a child during the civil war?
M.I.A.: I dug tunnels.
NA: You dug tunnels?
M.I.A.: Yeah. A lot of tunnels.
NA: Just outside, in the yard?
M.I.A.: Yeah, I could make it to the next-door neighbor’s house through the tunnels. I was really good at it. I mean, I used to dig tons of tunnels. [Laughs] They nicknamed me ostrich. I used to jump off buildings a lot, too.
I was quite boisterous. I used to always hang out with the boys. And sometimes I’d cook — that was what we played, cooking — so I used to pick loads of flowers and stuff and make curry out of them. [Laughs]
NA: I know your song “Jimmy,” the one that repeats, “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja,” is a remake from the film Disco Dancer, from 1982. Do you remember the song from when you were a kid?
M.I.A.: Yeah, I used to do a dance to it. “Jimmy” was a Bollywood song during the war. When it was really expensive and stuff… people used to just hire my sister out. She was really pretty, so they’d say, “Can she be in the wedding and stuff?” And my mum was like, “Yeah, cool.” [Laughs] So my sister would go off and they’d make a dress for her, stick it on her, and she’d be at some wedding and pretend to be related to everyone, and then we’d come home. [Laughs] And then I used to be the dancer at these parties, so I had this cloak and a cardboard guitar and stuff, and “Jimmy” was like my theme song, and I had a little radio thing, with a tape, and I used to go put it on and do this routine. I used to start out at one end of the room and shuffle all the way to the other end. Then I’d jump on a few tables, swing on a few curtains, and do some twists, and then when the song finished I used to come home. And, you know, we used to get paid, and it sounds like it was child labor, but I liked doing it.
NA: Sounds excellent.
M.I.A.: I used to get paid in cakes and food and stuff. It was really hard. Like one egg, during the war, cost something like 200 rupees. For one penny I could get like ten sweets, and one egg cost 200 rupees. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. So we used to go and bargain with people. If you grew vegetables, then they gave you that and you gave them something that you had, and that’s how people got on.
NA: What about when you eventually moved to London? What music did you listen to? Did you connect to black culture at all?
M.I.A.: I automatically thought I was black. Straight away. For some reason, I felt the beats more, and it also felt like no one knew this world because it was just starting to creep into England, you know, and I caught the first leg of it. Hip-hop came out and everything else just looked really silly and stupid and pathetic. It was so much harder, and more fun, and it had its own culture, you know what I mean? The way people dressed and the way hip-hop magazines looked and, you know, it was just the whole way of life. It was amazing. And it was amazing that you had to go and find these people that you connected with. You had to travel to all the nooks and crannies of London to say, “I met this one guy who has the most wicked haircut and he’s got the baddest pair of sneakers,” that you’re supposed to have met, but he lived all the way across town, you know? So when you’re on the train and you meet someone else who’s into hip-hop or whatever, and you do the secret nod, it was just really cool.
NA: How much was developing your own personal style part of that cultural scene?
M.I.A.: It was really important. My uncle — my mum’s oldest brother — he was one of the first brown people in England to have a market stall in East London. Like in a flea market. He had a clothing stall, and he used to sell clothes out of the boot of his car, and he made it. He became, like, a millionaire, from getting into clothes and stuff in the Sixties. So then he went to Germany and he was doing fashion. For my mum’s generation, he was light years ahead of anyone I knew in Sri Lanka or any brown people I knew in England. He was really inspiring. He was the uncle that helped bring us over to England, actually. And he used to send us bags of clothes that didn’t sell. So at ten years old, me and my sister had these crazy body-con dresses with lace on one sleeve, and you know these denim jackets with crazy studs on them and stuff, so we had a mish-mash of refugee clothing and this sort of weird, high-end fashion. Yeah. [Laughs] And we used to cut it up because we didn’t know the value of it, either. We’d get my uncle’s clothes and cut those and then jam it with these and make our own hip-hop clothes. So we had really weird style.
And my sister, she wanted to look like Neneh Cherry, and my sister kind of looks mixed race, so she had a long corkscrew perm, she got her hair permed and stuff. All the boys used to chase her, all the, you know, hip-hop boys. and she got me into clubs when I was young, fourteen, fifteen, and I grew up as the tomboy sister who is really into dancing, and she was the one with the tits. But I had more of an individual fashion sense because of that. I used to go to the clubs and compete with the guys, so I’d be on top of my sneakers and my clothes.
NA: It sounds like you were sampling with your clothes in the same way you do with your music. Like when you riff on the Sex Pistols or the Clash or New Order or Jimmy.
M.I.A.: I think England is just really great for music. Americans will never understand that. America produced hip-hop, but we have way-better radio stations and culture to get that out. So when I got to England, I could lie in bed and just twiddle my radio, and you go through so many more genres than here in America. The pirate radio stations — like, every area had a pirate radio station, you know. It was amazing. So you had sixteen-year-olds that ran your radio station — imagine how cool that was. America has such corporate wanky bullshit radio stations nowadays, you know? You never hear that sort of freshness. Dialing through those stations was like sampling, or like listening to a mix tape. And you felt like you owned all of it. So you could go from Paula Abdul on the pop station and then get right into the nooks and crannies of someone who’d just made a record that evening and put it on the radio, straight from Brixton or Jamaica or from wherever.
NA: Was is hard to adjust to life in the UK?
M.I.A.: When we first got to England, I didn’t speak English. For three months we had to live out in my cousin’s house, and the council would drop off beanbags, black bags full of clothes, and they were, like, ten years behind. But to me, they were like the freshest shit ever. I had these mad Seventies clothes on in the Eighties. Then they gave us these fluorescent socks, and I remember wearing—
NA: Like the clothes you’re wearing now?
M.I.A.: Probably… no, it was like Seventies mad clothes with, like, fluorescent socks. And I remember we always slept in the same bed, and my cousin was just laughing and laughing at us because he just saw three pairs of feet sticking out — fluorescent yellow and fluorescent pink and green. And it was me and my sister and my brother.
NA: You eventually studied film and painting.
M.I.A.: Yeah. I did film. I used to do artwork, and then I did clothes for people, like in the beginning when I made print hoodies before anyone else had them. So I was making shit like that at a friend’s shop. Me and Kerry Cassette Player, we both worked at a shop in London with this lady called Annette Olivieri, and she was kind of like our mentor. I had a yellow jumper on and she liked it, and she was like, “Hey, do you want to do some artwork?” She just gave me a chance, and I ended up doing her shop, me and Kerry used to do window displays and stuff. And then I did a collection of clothes for her, and then I did all this album artwork for that band Elastica. Whatever I came up, really. I’d earn something like fifty dollars a week. But it was enough. And then the music thing came, and I knew for me to sustain my motivation and interest, I had to change the process every time, so that was my thing. Like on the first album, there were things that were important that weren’t important to me on the second one, and the second one was more about turning over rocks in other parts of the world and working on production and being able to produce myself and making beats, whereas the first one was more about vocals and writing songs and lyrics and things. You know, it was an art form that I’d just discovered.
NA: I’m curious, what were your paintings like?
M.I.A.: I did this one, the one that got nominated for the Alternative Turner Prize, with an Iraqi woman getting executed.
NA: And that was 2002?
M.I.A.: It’s weird because when I got nominated for that piece, I hadn’t actually done it yet. I’d only done it in, like, a little version, but when they saw the picture of it, they nominated me, so that I had to make the piece that same day.
NA: Oh, that’s awful. And amazing.
M.I.A.: So I woke up in the morning and was like, fuck, I’ve got to make this thing by six o’clock. I made the whole piece in the morning — I have a picture of me doing it. I managed to make it… and pretend that I’d made it a year earlier, you know? [Laughs] That’s kind of how it works with me. Everything gets made on the same day.
NA: Where do you travel to next?
M.I.A.: I got asked to go to Angola next week. But I don’t think I’m going to go anywhere with the baby just yet. I think I’m going to wait until he’s six months, so I can get vaccinations and stuff.
NA: Tell me about the Grammys. You performed while super-pregnant. You went into labor that evening!
M.I.A.: I was okay. I was in the studio still working with Rye Rye and stuff. My thing with pregnancy was just that people kept wanting to film interviews with me talking about Rye Rye, and I was super-bloated and big and I was just like, I don’t want be doing press, I just want to eat popcorn all the time, you know? I felt weird because also America is not used to big pregnant women going, “Buy this club song, it’s coming out next week!”
But Kanye was really cool with the Grammys. For some reason, rappers are really comfortable with pregnancy. they can deal with it. Way more than indie rocker guys.
NA: How so?
M.I.A.: Rappers are used to getting girls pregnant. [Laughs] I didn’t feel so bad, and then Kanye said I should be there because “Paper Planes” had been nominated, and it’s a way bigger song than “Swagger” and blah blah blah… I just went because Jay-Z, TI, Kanye, and Lil Wayne were sweet. And Lil Wayne and TI especially were extra-sweet towards the baby and stuff, and they just made me feel really comfortable. That whole Grammy drama is just, whatever.
NA: Will you stay in LA, where you’re living now?
M.I.A.: I think I’ll stay in LA for a bit before he starts talking, but as soon as he starts talking, I’m out of there. They say that your kid’s fully formed by the age of three, so I think I can just spend, like, a year there, and then get him out of there and spend the rest of the two somewhere else.
NA: Does LA feel like a different planet?
M.I.A.: Yeah. People just talk at you, and then you tell them something, and it just doesn’t compute. It doesn’t go in their brain. They just know what they know and then talk at you, and then they say, “Great!” and you’re like, “No, I’m feeling really pissed off today, I’m having one of those days. Did you even hear me?” People don’t have pissed-off days in LA, like you never hear people just say, “Oh, fuck it.” They just don’t. Everything is always great.
NA: People want consensus. They don’t want confrontation.
M.I.A.: I’m from England, where it rains all the time, and we’re really pissed off and depressed all the time, and we just go “Shut up” to people’s faces. It’s worse than New York. In New York you’ve got neurotic people, but they go to therapy and they eat organic. So, to go from England to LA is weird…
NA: What do you like about it?
M.I.A.: It really is about the weather. It really is. There’s nothing else, because we’re so anti-celebrity-ness and fame — you know, in England we grow up without the need for that shit. And the way the British press is… I mean, we’ve got the tabloids and stuff, but we don’t uphold celebrities and idolize them. We rip them to shreds.
NA: That’s interesting. That’s the first time I’ve thought about it that way.
M.I.A.: Yeah. So for me, when I say, “I just came here because of the sun,” they say, “Yeah right. You love Hollywood. Now you want to be a star, don’t you.” It is weird living there. It’s like living in a bee’s nest and complaining about getting stung. And it’s especially weird with the Sri Lanka issue.
NA: How so?
M.I.A.: The largest Sinhalese population outside of Sri Lanka is in California, in LA. They’re the people that want to kill me. They’re racist. They have zero tolerance toward Tamils; they’re the ones perpetuating this myth that all Tamils are terrorists. And they have a weird relationship to fame, because they live in California. So they want their kids to be celebrities and singers and the next big thing, but then this weird Tamil comes along and fucks up the whole game for everyone else, and she doesn’t even do it well. She isn’t doing the fucking dance routine, which they’re all trained for — everyone’s a cheerleader — so everyone’s pissed off at me. They’re really confused about my success.
NA: Like one instinct is, let’s claim her because she’s Sri Lankan. But then —
M.I.A.: Yeah. And the other one is like, yeah, she’s a Tamil. They even had a rally outside the Grammys, one hundred people with placards saying “M.I.A. M.I.A., TERRORIST TERRORIST” kind of thing. And sometimes I’ll get emails that say, “I hope you die” and “I hope your baby dies” and stuff like that. It’s just really difficult.
NA: What do you say to people who say you’re romanticizing violence, romanticizing revolution?
M.I.A.: I’m not romanticizing it. I wish I had the luxury not to even think or talk about it. It’s a luxury not to address it. A lot of people are really lucky because they don’t. They choose not to, and they can sleep at night. I just think it’s ironic that one of the first famous brown people is a Tamil, and those are the people that really have the least say on the planet at the moment, you know. They really do. And it’s a fucked-up situation because, on the one hand, the only representative for the Tamils are the Tigers, and they’re such a fucked-up group. It’s a shame for those people — a shame for us, I should say — but the Tigers killed off all the other Tamil groups, including my dad’s. So we only take note of the Tigers, which is the Tigers’ doing.
NA: What’s your first memory of your father?
M.I.A.: You know, I don’t remember much about him. And for a long time I thought he was my uncle.
NA: What was your first vision of him?
M.I.A.: My first vision is my dad with glasses on, when someone said, “That’s your dad.” But I didn’t know what having a dad meant. Because I didn’t really miss having a dad. So it was just another person I’ve got to get to know in my life. And it wasn’t even like people were like, “Oh, you should get to know him” — it wasn’t like that. He was literally there for twenty minutes. My dad used to climb in through the window at three in the morning and wake us up, so we were always half asleep. Later people used to tell us stories, like, “Oh, your dad came and showed us how to do this,” or “Oh, your dad’s great, and did this and did that,” and we were like, “Cool.” And toward the end, when we left, I remember riding out on the bus, and there were posters of my dad in the street because he was the most wanted guy. They found out my dad was really good at making weapons and stuff, back in the day, as a teacher and stuff. And he went to Beirut…
NA: Do you know what year?
NA: Like when the PLO was around, maybe?
M.I.A.: Yeah, I’m not really sure. But you know, I think it’s interesting. He told me about getting arrested at the airport in Beirut. And he was tried in a military court. And when you go to Beirut to train, each person is given a different identity. So if you go there, you’d be, like, a Pakistani instead of, like, whatever. And they’d tell me that I’m from Mauritius or Trinidad or whatever. You get given a fake identity.
My dad was really smart. He had lived in a mud hut, on a huge farm with nothing and no one around. Right in the middle was this mud hut. You had to get the water from the well to drink, and you had to swim in the lake for a bath, and when I went to stay there years later, the lake was blocked and it was really stinky, because the water wasn’t running. It had been a river, but it was a lake by the time that I went. And I just remember having to bathe in the stinky lake, and I felt like I was getting more dirty than clean. They used to take me around and we would watch people plow the rice paddy fields, and there were elephants there and all these wild animals, and my dad was putting up all these refugees that were living there in tents and stuff. My dad wasn’t even on the farm when we went to live there, but all these people were telling us that because of him they lived there, and he’s so great.
NA: What have you learned from him?
M.I.A.: He’s taught me a couple of things, and one of the things that he told me a lot was that when he went away to college in Russia, every cafe in Moscow had typewriters under the table because that’s how important thinking was, and writing and liberation and revolution…
NA: So anyone could just pull out a typewriter.
M.I.A.: If anyone at the cafe had any interesting ideas, they’d pull it out and write straight away. So you could organize a demonstration within an hour. You just had the idea after a chat with someone, write it up, go to the printer’s next door, print it up, stand on the end of the street and hand it out to, like, eight hundred people, and in an hour — you have a rally. And I was like, wow, that’s crazy. Imagine being able to live like that.
Photography by Marcelo Krasilcic. Styling: Jason Farrer at DeFacto. Styling Assistant: Richard Munson. Hair/Color: Aura Friedman at Bumble and Bumble. Style: Amy Farid at See Management. Make-up: Devra Kinery at Art Department.