M.I.A. – MIA culpa

Published: The Age, EG, August 24, 2008.

Don’t go suggesting Maya Arulpragasam’s work is not her own, writes Dan Rule.

The phone falls silent, but for the crowded, clinking chatter of a Brooklyn night. Down the receiver you can make out the sound of laughter, of tables being cleared, of drinks being ordered and downed.

The pause persists – one uncomfortable second after the other – until finally, an exhausted, self-admittedly drunk and suddenly despondent Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam expels a long, troubled sigh.

“I talk about my life,” she says finally, enunciating each word faintly but firmly in her distinctively art-schooled British parlance. “It’s fricking obvious and it’s fricking simple; nobody else could mastermind that shit.”

She has reason to be irritated. Speaking on the eve of her second record Kala, Arulpragasam – the outspoken Sri Lankan-British rapper and current Brooklyn resident, best known to the wider world as politico-pop queen M.I.A. – is responding to acerbic recent assertions propagated by the American hipster music press (namely the holier-than-thou Pitchfork Media); the gist of which suggests that M.I.A.’s explosively subversive 2005 debut Arular was having its political and creative strings tugged by her then boyfriend and collaborator Wes Pentz (aka Philadelphian DJ and production wiz Diplo).

And perhaps predictably enough, the otherwise jocular Arulpragasam bristles when the topic is raised. “I think Diplo’s really great and really amazing and really talented, and it’s no secret that we worked together; I mean it’s there on the credits. But when people say that he or somebody else masterminded me, that really f—ing pisses me off, because there’s no such thing.”

“My art and my music and my creativity and my existence and whatever, the whole thing revolves around my own life-experience,” she continues sternly. “It’s about me trying to make sense out of all the shit that happened to me without ending up in a psychiatric ward, you know.”

By now, the story behind Arulpragasam’s unique take on art and politics is a well-told one. The daughter of Arul Pragasam, a founding member of militant Tamil group EROS, she was born in Hounslow, London, before her family decided to move back to their war-torn Sri Lankan homeland when she was just six-months old.

Their father soon disappeared and the Aralpragasam children – Maya, elder sister Kali and younger brother Sugu – spent their early years with their mother in Jaffna, a Tamil city in northern Sri Lanka scarred by civil warfare. “We’d seen dead bodies hanging from trees, been shot at and all that kind of stuff,” she says sombrely. “It wasn’t nice.”

The family managed to flee to India when she was 11, before gaining refugee status in England. The rest – growing up Asian in a tough south London council estate, being accepted into Central St Martins art school, being taught how to on a Roland MC-505 sequencer by electro-clash doyenne Peaches – is just another chapter in the M.I.A. memoir.

“It’s just been my lifelong thing,” she says, still a little agitated. “Just chiselling and chiselling and chiselling away. So to me, it’s just out of this world that anyone could suggest that I was born and grew up and was a blank canvas until I hit 27, and suddenly Diplo came into my life he made me, like I’m a fricking puppet or whatever. It just blows my mind, you know.”

Indeed, Arulpragasam has suffered for her art and her politics. While Arular’s mix of frenetic baile funk, dance-hall and jungle became unlikely runaway success in indie and hip-hop circles, it’s political vernacular – shout-outs to the Tamil Tigers and PLO included – also caught the eye of the US Department of Homeland Security.

Booked to record her second album with uber-producer Timbaland in early 2006, she was denied entry into the States and had her work visa revoked for upwards of 10 months. But in retrospect she sees it as an important learning experience.

“That was always kind of the point with my music,” she says. “To see if maybe freedom of speech had a floor and a ceiling to it, you know. I’ve always wanted to raise questions and to have freedom of speech defined. Is there a difference between freedom of speech for a non-American citizen and an American citizen? Is there a different between freedom of speech for white people and black people?”

“I made myself a bit of a scapegoat, but after I couldn’t get into America for 10 months, you know, I think we can start to answer some of those questions.”

As Kala (which was named after her mother) attests – from the thunderous percussion and chicken squawks of Bird Flu, to the didge-riddled hip-hop beat of Mango Pickle Down River (which features Indigenous Australian youngsters Wilcannia Mob) – Arulpragasam’s US exile was something of a blessing in disguise.

Rather than blowing her album budget recording with hit-guarantor producers in America, she spent her cash travelling to India, Jamaica, Trinidad and Australia, collaborating with and embracing the underground wherever she set foot and making a decidedly raw and worldly record in the process.

“I really wanted to do what I could to try and put these place on the map in the best way possible,” she says. “Which is with their voices,” she says. “I mean, I was brought up in a mud hut too, you know, and that’s a source of pride, not embarrassment. There’s nothing embarrassing about having chickens running around.”

Unlike what some in the music press have tried to assert, Arulpragasam’s beliefs and provocations run in the blood. And not even the heavy hand of the Department of Homeland Security is going to quell them.

“From their perspective, now I’m like 10 times worse,” she says proudly.

“They locked me out and now I’ve been able to bring together and embrace all these voices that are truly from outside of the Western status-quo,” she pauses, the New York evening rambling on in the background. “And it was them who made me do it.”

Kala is out now through Remote Control/Inertia

M.I.A. plays the Parklife festival on Saturday, September 22

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