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M.I.A on the importance of fashion for self-expression

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Anna Fielding
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As she releases an intimate, unflinching documentary, M.I.A. reveals the art of self-definition through fashion

M.I.A. is many things. A proper pop star. An indie-scene darling. Artist. Activist. Daughter. Mother. A Tamil Sri Lankan from south-west London (she greets you with a proper “alrigh’’’, complete with glottal stops).

She’s described as a rapper on Wikipedia. “The new queen of hip-hop” in an early interview in The Guardian. She’s been “the very first hipster pop star”, “a 21st century icon” and “one of the greatest pop provocateurs”. Two words crop up again and again. There’s “stylish” – you can’t fail to admire her electric, eclectic eye and her ability to pile everything on and still pull it off. And then there’s “outspoken”.

Everyone talks about M.I.A. And M.I.A., unusual in this era of tight-tongued celebrities, talks back. She cared about refugee politics long before the headlines. She’s vocal about corporate invasions into art. At the 2012 Super Bowl, performing with Madonna and Nicki Minaj, M.I.A. was the one who caused a scandal, raising her middle finger to millions of Americans. She has talked loudly about the civil war in Sri Lanka, denying her father was a terrorist, and then splattering her work with guns and references to violent organisations. She’s been accused of being politically naive, her desire to provoke put down to a performer’s love of attention. 

But she isn’t a political butterfly, landing on the issue of the moment: she has remained vocal on the same topics. She doesn’t give premeditated media answers. She had no filter before the phrase became a hashtag.

Dressed in archive Versace prints at the brand’s a/w 2012 couture show

Culture clash

Mathangi Arulpragasam, usually called Maya, was born in London in 1975. When she was six months old, her parents returned to their native Sri Lanka and her father became involved in politics. In Sri Lanka, from the Seventies onwards, this was high-stakes stuff. Violence between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese majority intensified. Divisions on ethnic and religious lines. Shootings. Riots. Bombings. Rising numbers of dead. Many more displaced. Civil war. 

Maya’s mother moved the family, first to Tamil Nadu in India and then back to London, where the mother and children were designated refugees. On the rare occasions Maya saw her father, he was introduced as “uncle” so that she and her siblings couldn’t accidentally inform of his whereabouts.

She grew up in a council flat in Mitcham. Attended a normal comprehensive school and then convinced the interview panel at Central St Martins to let her study fine art and film. In 2003, Maya made her first single Galang, dancing in the video in a vintage T-shirt and denim, the style of many London club girls at the time Her first album Arular, named for her father, came out in 2005, followed by Kala, named for her mother, in 2007. Both received worldwide critical praise and charted globally. Three more albums followed. 

She’s been nominated for an Oscar, three Grammys and the Mercury Prize. She’s presented herself as a Bollywood goddess in her video for 2007 single Jimmy, made gun signs in sportswear for 2009’s Paper Planes, had contractions on stage, nine months pregnant, at the Grammys, wearing almost totally sheer Henry Holland, and – showing she’d truly joined the cultural elite, but still wasn’t precious – attended 2010’s Met Gala in a golden dress Alexander Wang designed for Gap.

Her current project is MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., a documentary directed by her friend Stephen Loveridge that uses footage Maya has shot throughout her life. It feels intimate.

Nine months pregnant and wearing Henry Holland to the 2009 Grammys

Identity politics

M.I.A. is authentic. Confusing, sometimes frustrating, but always herself. She’s down-to-earth and chatty. While making small talk with me about nail polish (“The best places to get your nails done are always the small ones down the road”), she flips off her metallic blue shoe.

“I just do it at the end,” she says, wiggling her silver-tipped toes. “I fade it from the top and blend, so when it grows out it doesn’t look weird. So I just keep it on for longer.”

As a music-loving teenager and art school kid, M.I.A. has long been aware that clothing and fashion form a huge part of an identity. For Stylist’s fashion issue, we spoke to her about the role her clothes have played.

Have you always cared about style?

I always thought I was pretty stylish. But from some of the shots Steve [Loveridge, the director] put into the film, well, he got me there. Steve is a friend from art school and we have a very weird, passive-aggressive relationship. I knew, doing this film, he’d get me somehow. And it was on the clothes. There’s a scene in the film where I’m wearing turquoise flares, dancing about with a weird Jheri curl hair do. He didn’t f*ck with the story though: he was kind to my family, got the message in about the Sri Lankan people, covered the music a bit. But I thought he was very kind to Diplo [M.I.A. dated the DJ and producer for five years].

Head-to-toe white and platform brogues at Stella McCartney’s s/s 2016 show

How do you feel about him being kind to your ex-boyfriend?

He kept saying he “couldn’t be bothered” to make a revenge film about my ex. So now I have to do that at some other point [Laughs].

So, how did you first start using fashion to define yourself?

The scene in the film where I’m about 12 or 13, wearing these weird turquoise flares that I made myself, that was two years after I came to England – I was on the sewing machine even then. I started selling them at school. I was always the kid who got into trouble for wearing my uniform differently. The official school jumper was too expensive so I tried to buy a similar looking one from somewhere else. I got a bit more creative in coming up with ways to wear it.

Where did the flares come in?

I started making them because I’d just learned how to make flares. That was the only reason! I’d go up to Tooting Market at the weekend and choose different fabrics. I loved it there. There was a shop at the back where I bought all my music – they had white label Jamaican dancehall records [test pressings and promos] imported straight to the shop.

Did loving dancehall influence your music? Or how you dress?

I think in London, we were way more influenced by Jamaican culture than by the American hip-hop scene. It seeped into every genre of British dance music. Jungle, that came out of Jamaican music. UK garage. Grime. It’s not really from hip-hop, it’s from dancehall. You’d walk down the street and everyone was so proud about playing it so loud. I loved the clubs, the dancing, the style. It was such a celebration of colour and really body confident. 

Dancehall Queen style is so extreme that it made anything else look very conservative. So I could say, “Look Mum, at least I’m not going out dressed like that”. It’s a look that’s about creativity, rather than money. It’s not about capitalism, which is the real difference between that and hip-hop. I was having fun with fashion.

Lots of people get to university and start to play with their identity. Did you do that?

Well, I mean, I went to the fashion school. Most of my stuff was from charity shops. And we took shopping at charity shops really seriously. It was about going to the weirdest parts of the country: a shop on the Isle of Skye so you could say, “I’ve been further than you, to uncharted territory”. And you don’t tell people your favourite charity shop, just in case…

A Roberto Cavalli menswear animal print jacket at the Berlinale International Film Festival in February 2018

There was a real scene around that in the late Nineties. Do you think it still exists today?

No, because Topshop makes it all for you. Before, you had to think outside of the box, invent a style no one else had.

What’s your best charity shop score?

It was recently actually. A La Perla corset top. Everyone thinks it was really expensive but I got it because it fitted me so well.

So, about the Henry Holland dress you wore at the Grammys in 2009…

It was the only outfit that was stretchy enough to go over my bump!

It was quite a statement.

It was, but it was also stretchy, airy and easy to whip off. I’ve never felt, as a woman in music, that I’ve had to get my body out but on that day I was like, “I’m going to do it!” Nine months pregnant… it’s when I’ve been proudest of my shape.

How much do you think your clothing reflects your beliefs?

I feel like who I am and my style is built up of so many different experiences… I’m a tomboy, that’s the base layer – I always opt for comfort. I like colours. I like how vibrant and insane saris can be. Indians are fearless in the way they put colours together. And I’m a Jamaican jungle dancehall person still, somewhere.

What influence has your activism had? You often wear flags and military symbols.

Well, it’s not like I’m solely driven by a cause. I prefer to treat fashion as a liberal, liberating space. When I was younger, I came across a documentary that showed women in the Tamil Tigers. They had very short hair. I thought, ‘My god, I’m the same age as these girls’. I was trying to figure out why my hair didn’t fall into an indie-rock hair cut and I realised it was because I had frizzy Tamil hair. And then there were these women, in the sun and holding a rifle 24/7, and it was the total flipside to what you’d see in a Tamil movie, or what I knew from my mum. It was really shocking.

What is style to you?

Taste. And it’s something you’re born with. The internet challenges that – there’s the idea that taste is something that can be studied and imitated. But I think originality comes from people who have taste naturally, and they will always have the skills to originate something. 

Photography: Jessica Craig Martin

Other images: Rex/Getty