“I find the new Justin Bieber video more violent and more of an assault to my eyes and senses than what I’ve made.”
—M.I.A. to NME.com on May 12, responding to the furor over the video for her new song “Born Free,” which was yanked from YouTube.
When the music video for M.I.A’s propulsive new song “Born Free,” off her new album, Maya (NEET/Interscope/XL), was surreptitiously leaked onto the Internet over the weekend of April 24, critics, fans, and pop-culture conspiracists were greeted with the latest salvo from the 32-year-old rapper: a nine-minute clip, directed by French filmmaker Romain Gavras (the son of controversial auteur Costa-Gavras), that shows what appears to be a U.S.-affiliated military unit rounding up and remanding a bunch of red-headed young men to the desert to be executed. One of the boys, in fact, is shot point-blank in the temple, as the others run off into a minefield, setting off a series of explosions. The track itself—with M.I.A.’s loose, ranting voice reciting lyrics such as “Yeah, I don’t wanna live for tomorrow / I push my life today / I throw this in your face when I see ya / I got something to say” over a sample of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”—sounds much more like straight-from-the-gut punk than pop exotica.
“FUCK NEW YORK TIMES! DO YOU THINK YOU NEED TO GO HERE ON VACATION?” (click here for tweet)
—M.I.A. via Twitter on January 11, next to a link to a photograph she’d posted of mangled bodies in Sri Lanka in response to a New York Times travel-section story touting the country’s “sugary white” sand and “pristine coastline” and tropical idyll where “elephants roam freely, water buffaloes idle in paddy fields, and monkeys swing from trees.”
While the “Born Free” video set off a firestorm, it’s a strong indication of the decidedly ungoverned places that M.I.A. is willing to go both in her music and as a very particular kind of pop star. In a moment when so many are only too willing to capitulate, M.I.A. almost obsessively refuses to toe the line. She’s overtly political; she pilfers, mixes, and merges from a complex palette of influences; and she’s never afraid to let the seams, rough edges, and crooked junctures of her collage-like music stick out. Her story is already mythic: Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam was born in London. But as an infant she moved with her parents to their native Sri Lanka, which was mired in a decades-long civil war, so that her father, a political dissident and a member of a Tamil separatist group, could join the fight for an independent Tamil homeland. She returned to London with her mother as a refugee in the 1980s (her father stayed behind), where she lived in the council estates in Mitcham, Surrey. It was there that M.I.A. began to consume a steady diet of world music—electro, dancehall, ’70s punk, bhangra—before attending art school and recording her critically lauded debut album, Arular (2005), a melting pot of rich riffs, samples, raps, and electronic flourishes that sounds as much as it feels like a mass of insurgent, multicultural energy harnessed, propelled, and diffused through blown-out speakers at underground London dance club. The follow-up, Kala (2007), was equally hyperkinetic, yielding the single “Paper Planes,” which features M.I.A.’s voice nursery-rhyme rapping over a sample of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” and brought M.I.A.’s brand of apocalyptic pop to an even larger audience when it was featured in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
“People say we’re similar, that we both mix all these things in the pot and spit them out differently, but she spits it out exactly the same! None of her music’s reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is. She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza music, you know? She’s not progressive, but she’s a good mimic.”
—M.I.A. to the NME on April 7, on Lady Gaga.
In February of last year, a very pregnant M.I.A. performed onstage alongside Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil’ Wayne at the Grammy Awards, clad in a sheer, clingy black ensemble. She’d recently also had her knuckles rapped by a representative of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government over her continued criticism of its treatment of the country’s Tamil ethnic minority. Three days after the Grammys, she gave birth to her son, Ikhyd, with fiancé Benjamin Bronfman (the son of Warner Music Group chairman and CEO Edgar Bronfman), and was about to settle into a newly tranquil period of motherhood and domesticity in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles. However, the record that emerged from that would-be interlude, Maya, due out in July, is anything but sedate. If anything, the album manages to be simultaneously more vitriolic and more joyful than its predecessors, venturing between the punkish atonality of “Born Free” and polished pop of tracks such as the album’s first “official” single, “XXXO,” with a kind of twisted ease. Featuring contributions and production work from an eclectic crew that includes British dubstep artists Switch and Rusko, Baltimore rapper Blaqstarr, Arular producer Diplo, and Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller, it’s also rife with sublimely brash, discontinuous, and paradoxical mélange that’s quickly becoming M.I.A.’s signature. In late April, while she was in London putting finishing touches on Maya, M.I.A. reconnected with her “Born Free” director Gavras. They spoke by cell phone on their way to meeting up at the Notting Hill Gate tube station.
My fashion icon is Colonel Gaddafi. . . .He’s rock ’n’roll.M.I.A.
ROMAIN GAVRAS: Where are you right now? I’m in a taxi.
M.I.A.: I am too. It’s the only thing to do when you’re in London—hang out in a taxi.
GAVRAS: So why are you back in London, Maya?
M.I.A.: I’m just here to finish off that video we did together and make sure you didn’t fuck it up. Why are you here?
GAVRAS: I’m just finishing that video and making sure your people don’t cut the shit out of it and fuck it up. [laughs] So let’s talk a little bit about being a fashion icon. Do you think, for example, that Saddam Hussein was a fashion icon?
M.I.A.: No. My fashion icon is Colonel [Muammar al-] Gaddafi, and he always has been. He’s rock ’n’ roll.
GAVRAS: Yeah, he’s the best-dressed man on the planet.
M.I.A.: If he were a pop star, he’d be, like, Prince or something.
GAVRAS: Well, he’s bigger than a pop star. I mean, when he came to Paris in 2007, he was supposed to stay at the Hôtel de Marigny, which is the best hotel. But Gaddafi came with a tent. It was this huge flagged tent—just him and his army guards, who were all girls. They were in these crazy leopard outfits. I mean, Gaddafi is way better dressed than any pop star in the world.
M.I.A.: I’d love to raid his wardrobe.
GAVRAS: I’d love to have his hair. He has very good curly, shiny hair.
M.I.A.: He looks like he always has gel in it. Hold on. [to taxi driver] Can you pull over, please? I’m at Notting Hill Gate station.
GAVRAS: [laughs] I will be there in a second. Isn’t this the park where the queen lives? How come you guys still have a queen, anyway?
M.I.A.: I can’t say why. I’d be very controversial if I said why, and I don’t do controversial anymore. That’s too passé. So last year. Being controversial is boring now. I’m going to do an experiment with this album and say yes to everything.
GAVRAS: It’s so 2007 to be controversial. I can see you, by the way. You are walking away from me. Let’s keep a safe distance.
M.I.A.: I think we should, because otherwise I’m going to hear what you’re saying and there’s going to be a mad echo.
GAVRAS: So walk, and I’ll follow you like a stalker.
M.I.A.: What’s it like being a stalker?
GAVRAS: It’s quite nice. I can see your every movement.
M.I.A.: I feel like this could be a scene from the video we did. Like being an FBI/CIA person.
GAVRAS: Shit. I lost track of you.
M.I.A.: I’m reading some tabloids at the newsstand. Can you see me? People are starting to think I’m crazy.
GAVRAS: Why did you call me to direct a video for you, anyway?
M.I.A.: Because Hype Williams dropped out. [laughs] He was my first choice, but he was busy doing the Nicki Minaj video.
GAVRAS: Lady Gaga was my first choice, but when that fell through, I had to go to a musician a step lower. . . .
M.I.A.: You were scheduled to do the “Telephone” video, right? Ah, you’re ashamed of me. You love Jonas Åkerlund.
Somebody told me that if you wake up every day and do stuff that’s easy, then you’re doing the wrong thing. M.I.A.
GAVRAS: I want to know what makes you do the things you do. What drives you?
M.I.A.: Being able to buy things. Not nice things—I just like buying things. But seriously, I feel like people are always asking me the reason why I do things. “What are you talking about?” “What are you trying to do?” Somebody told me that if you wake up every day and do stuff that’s easy, then you’re doing the wrong thing. If you wake up every day and do stuff that’s really hard and you manage to get through to people, then you’re doing the right thing. They might have just fooled me by telling me that, but it worked. I think that’s my philosophy. I feel that way about this video we did. It might be difficult for people to get their heads around, but it also might mean something. I don’t know. Hey, I can see your mouth moving, but there’s a delay. Because your cell phone goes to America or India or somewhere, and then it bounces off a satellite and beams itself to the other side of the street.
GAVRAS: What about the song that I made the video for? I can’t even understand the lyrics.
M.I.A.: You mean the one you’ve seen and heard about 800 times? You still don’t know the lyrics?
GAVRAS: It’s “Corn Free.” It’s about free corn for people. I have trouble with the rest of the lyrics.
M.I.A.: Well, that’s the state of the world right now. Everyone has got free corn in every food item they eat. It’s like in that movie Food, Inc. Corn is terrible for you. So that’s why I wanted to write a song called “Corn Free.” [laughs] It means demanding products with no corn in it.
GAVRAS: Oh, good. The video we made matches perfectly, then.
M.I.A.: Let me ask you, What’s your obsession with gingers [redheads]?
GAVRAS: I don’t know. Maybe it’s because when I was a kid at summer camp, there was a guy called Blaise. He was ginger, and his life was horrible because we used to beat him up and make fun of him. We’d make him get naked in front of the girls and everything. So in a way I wanted to apologize. Plus, like you once said, there is a crisis in America, so we needed to give jobs to American crews. That’s why we shot it in l.a.
M.I.A.: Now, can you tell me why the video cost what it did? Why is it that video directors charge so much for a video?
GAVRAS: Jesus Christ, I haven’t touched a penny of it. I am doing commercials just to live. You know I have a family to support. And in that video you have fucking explosions and an army of extras, and a crazy three-and-a-half-day shoot. Do you know that it cost, like, one-tenth of the Lady Gaga video—which is horrible—so I don’t understand what you’re complaining about.
M.I.A.: My god, how could you compare mine to Lady Gaga’s video? Of course mine’s going to cost one-tenth. That’s the whole philosophy—it’s supposed to. But it’s still more expensive than my usual videos, which cost about 10 pounds. And don’t give me that shit about your family. Everyone’s got a family.
GAVRAS: [laughs] Maybe there is a reason that your other videos cost 10 pounds, I don’t know.
M.I.A.: Oh, man . . .
GAVRAS: No, you have good videos. But there is one when you walk through a rainforest that’s weird.
M.I.A.: That’s my favorite video [“Sunshowers”]! That’s the one I love the most. I didn’t direct it, but I wrote it. And it was also my first video.
GAVRAS: Was the idea, like, “We’re gonna do a shampoo commercial”?
M.I.A.: Ha! No. The director was a rain specialist. Although I didn’t know that when I booked him on the Internet.
GAVRAS: And what am I a specialist of?
M.I.A.: Creating an environment full of chaotic things and then leaving the rest up to chance. Or maybe you’re more precise, but your videos look like that. They look more random.
GAVRAS: Because I don’t know what I’m doing.
M.I.A.: It’s more that you can’t tell if it’s real or fake. Your work signifies that dilemma in society between what is real and what is fake, what’s shocking and what’s not. You’re questioning those realities.
GAVRAS: You say I work on chaos and chance, but do you leave things up to chance in making your music?
M.I.A.: This is the only album I’ve done where I thought, I’m just going to put all the ingredients in one room and leave everything up to chance. Music tends to be like that anyway, but this time I didn’t have any ideas or preconceptions about how it would turn out. There was no concept or anything. [laughs] I can see you behind the lamppost. So do you think that music videos have become more of an art form now? Are people going to get into them again and want to make inspired, interesting videos?
GAVRAS: Unfortunately, I think music videos are a dying breed because there is no money in them.
M.I.A.: Except if you make a long one that’s like an infomercial and people pay you to advertise products. Then there would be money.
GAVRAS: But that’s a very different thing. It’s not art; it’s a commercial. If you have a cell phone in your video like that, then it’s a commercial. The other thing is that it’s hard for new directors to find good tracks because we don’t usually get to choose good music by good artists like yourself. I honestly think music videos will slowly die out. There will always be a few directors who do cool things. But look how many great videos there were in the ’90s, and then look at the 2000s. It’s depressing.
M.I.A.: What do you think about the transition of music video directors into movies? It’s an accepted transition, I guess because there really is no other way to have that kind of budget.
GAVRAS: But some directors are only visual. They don’t care about telling stories. It just depends on the director. I have a question for you. The sound on your album is very violent—everything about it is violent. Why are you doing it this way? Why don’t you just release a big, easy pop song?
M.I.A.: In my head I actually think my songs are pop songs. I think, Damn, that’s a pop song! I can practice in front of the mirror with my hairbrush for as long as I want to. But when it finally comes out, it sounds avant-garde to people. Right up until then, though, I think, “Of course everybody feels this way. This song’s the same as the Greek national anthem.”
GAVRAS: The Greek national anthem is actually quite good.
M.I.A.: Yeah, I know. That’s really what the song was inspired by in the beginning. The reason that I brought you to this particular place is that it’s a very multicultural part of
London. There’s an Arab shop, a Greek place. . . . I miss this about London.
GAVRAS: The Greek place looks nice. We should go. The Greeks invented everything.
M.I.A.: No. Before the Greeks were the Tamils. The Tamils are one of the oldest civilizations that’s still surviving. A lot of shit came from the Tamils, which is why it’s a shame that they’re getting killed off.
GAVRAS: Did the Tamils invent cabs?
M.I.A.: No. But leather jackets, maybe. I guess they invented leather.
GAVRAS: While the Tamils were inventing cabs and leather jackets, we Greeks were busy inventing philosophy. But I guess everybody needs cabs and leather jackets.
M.I.A.: Yeah, they do. Take your video for Justice [“Stress”]. Where would that video be without leather jackets?
GAVRAS: And without cabs! One last question: Why are you a rapper?
M.I.A.: I don’t know! I studied film in school. I was supposed to be doing what you’re doing. I guess someone has to give you the jobs, though, so that’s what I’m doing here.
Romain Gavras is a French filmmaker and co-founder of the Paris-based film collective Kourtrajmé.