Force of nature: M.I.A on music, mentoring and her podcast plans

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Helen Bownass
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She might have retired from music but M.I.A is still a massive cultural influencer. Stylist tries to discover what makes her tick

Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Jérôme Bonnet

Here are some things you might already know about the artist M.I.A: Her name is Mathangi Arulpragasam; she’s known as Maya. When civil war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983 she, along with her two siblings and mother, moved to India, then to London when she was 10. Tamil is her first language. Maya attended renowned art school Central Saint Martins where she became friends with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann who encouraged her to move into music – she released the seminal album Arular in 2005. Now 41, she has a son called Ikhyd (with former partner Benjamin Bronfman). She is utterly unafraid of controversy, evidence includes being sued by the American NFL for sticking her finger up, literally, while performing with Madonna in 2012; publicly asking if Beyoncé – after she gave a Black Power salute to the Black Lives Matter campaign – would ever say Muslim Lives Matter or Syrian Lives Matter; and accusing MTV of “racism, sexism, classism and elitism” after her politically charged video Borders failed to get nominated in the 2016 VMAs. Her fifth album, AIM was her last – after its release in September last year she announced her retirement. In June, she will be curating Meltdown, the Southbank Centre’s annual performance festival, following in the footsteps of David Bowie and Patti Smith.

As practically every journalist in perpetuity has reported, M.I.A is not always the easiest to interview – the time I spent with her got off to an unexpected start when I walked into the room at London’s One Aldwych hotel to discover four other people would be watching our interview. To put that in perspective, imagine going to a restaurant and trying to have an intimate discussion with your date, knowing that the people on the tables next to you were listening intently to what you were saying. It’s obvious M.I.A has her guard up. But delve a little differently, push her on podcasts and travel and it turns out that she is thoughtful and not always as serious as you might think. And so, here are some things you might not know about M.I.A…

Fostering new talent is a key message for the #mbcollective, the new project from Mercedes Benz that you’re involved in where you’re mentoring Canadian rapper Tommy Genesis. Why is that so important to you personally?
Without [my mentors] I wouldn’t be where I am. But I was someone who experienced life when music was really good, when it was real. Nearly everyone who’s successful now in whatever industry, whether music, fashion, art, film, performance, anything, it’s almost like you have to be born into it. You have to have the silver spoon to make it. I was the last wave of somebody who came from nothing and made it. Once you’ve built the circle then no-one can get in. It just makes it really boring. You’ve got one artist who is super human who’s the super brand and they basically suck like 100 other artists’ identities. They produce at the rate that McDonald’s does, churning out burgers, but it’s not healthy. You have to live the pain. And so, for me it’s important to say, “OK, I’m going to go and find people who are like me and wouldn’t get a chance otherwise.”

How do you discover new talent?
Most of the time I’ve found people on YouTube.

But how do you find them on there? The noise is so huge, how do you filter it down?
That’s the talent, isn’t it? [Laughs] It’s the secret. It’s an instinctive thing. I like listening to random people in a village singing. I could spend a day just discovering things in Chinese and not know what the hell it says. My friends always say I have a nose for it and that’s a blessing and a curse.

Why is it a curse?
They tell me that the second mouse gets the cheese. People [in the industry] follow me until I find something and then they make millions. I need to be the second mouse! I tried that because everyone kept saying that my albums were too ahead of their time, so I tried to write one that was like, two years too late… [Laughs]

Do you feel a responsibility to encourage young women in the music industry?
On one album I made the effort for it to be completely female. When I put out Matangi in 2013, the philosophy of that album was based on an Indian goddess. When we went on tour we built that philosophy into the way we did it; everyone was female. But then I felt like I was being prejudiced towards men. [Laughs] I don’t support that either.

Who is making the music you want to listen to at the moment?
There was a time in the past when life was about who’s hot now, but I don’t talk about who’s hot now. If you take a generation who has only had a funnelled idea of life, I don’t want listen to what they’ve got to tell me about how to live my life. I want to have a broader perspective. Meltdown is about artists who are engaging with what’s come before. I have [Brooklyn rapper] Young M.A coming. Her sound is classic because it respects what came before.

Are you a fan of podcasts?
Yes. I want to set my own one up because I’ve given up music so what am I going to do? My kid goes to school and I’m just sat there. I started writing my [life] story and thought, ‘This is a podcast. I can’t be bothered to write it down…’ [Laughs] Years have gone by so I feel like I’m going to start losing my memory soon; I’ve got to get it out.

You recently said on Twitter, “People will always drag you down or try to flip the truth. You have to be mentally strong to do this.” How do you ensure your mental strength doesn’t slip?
I stepped into [the industry] late. I got a record deal when I was 27 or 28. These days that’s when you retire but I came into it knowing what it was and I’d already gone through so much. That’s what I mean, [my life] is a f*cking podcast of many seasons [laughs]. When I stepped into music I’d already done, like, 10 lives, this just seemed like the normality I found in my life. You have to check yourself all the time.

You once said that you don’t often get approached by brands for collaborations – why do you think Mercedes were different?
They’re different because they’re a German brand. I don’t think German brands are scared of me because they’re used to the idea of multicultural situations. They don’t have a wall up.

You’ve travelled a lot – where have you visited that you’d most like to return to?
Blackpool! My son is obsessed with Blackpool. I’ve taken him to so many nice places in the world but he’s always like, “Oh my God, I went to Blackpool and it was amazing”. It’s like being in a Ken Loach movie where you see one bumper car going round a ride and it’s really slow and everyone’s in another world. But he’s in his element when he’s there…

And what country is left on your bucket list?
I just went to the Maldives for the first time. I was a bit depressed on the plane because that’s where honeymooners go… I was like, “This is going to be torture.” [Laughs] But when I was there, there were more interesting things to think about. I was moved by it because the Maldives is sinking due to the water levels. They might have to evacuate and move to Sri Lanka. It was really weird for me as a refugee [from Sri Lanka] to go to this paradise and they’re going to go to the country where I was a refugee from. It’s mind-bending.

M.I.A joins the Mercedes-Benz #mbcollective Fashion Story, Chapter One

Photography: Jérôme Bonnet/Moods/Camera Press, Rex Features