The definition of a refugee according to a United Nations Convention is “a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.”
Born in war-torn poverty stricken Sri Lanka, an island situated off the coast of India, Maya Arulpragasam moved to London when she was only ten. Her dad had had joined a militant guerrilla group in Sri Lanka, and her mother was seeking refugee status after most of her siblings and friends were killed in crossfire. In Britain they were safe, but the racism of the suburbs caught her off guard, and people began to call her Paki – a derogatory word for Pakistani.
She quickly became an outcast – much like the rest of the poor minority folks in her area – but Maya was always in a world of her own. If she was going to be different, it was going to be on her own terms, and to her school mates she became even more peculiar. She soon became the Paki girl who listened to Hip-Hop.
Changing the spelling of her name to MIA, the acronym for Missing In Action, as a tribute to her cousins in Sri Lanka who are actually missing in action, MIAs path to music was an obvious one, although recognition for UK artists remains a slow process. Here in the States, MIA has become some what of a phenomenon, particularly on the East coast, and its rather difficult to point out why.
Much like the labels of her early days, MIAs music admittedly takes some time getting used to. Her sound is an eclectic funk mixed with Hip-Hop, Ragga, dancehall and Pop – her lingo a mish mash of political slogans, violent images from her past and jumbled nonsense that is sometimes even lost on her: Semi 9 and snipered him / on that wall they posted him / they cornered him / and then just murdered him. As Nas says her sound is the future.
It is, however, undoubtedly good timing. In this climate of political uncertainty MIA represents an obvious public need for artists who are not scared to make music with opinions and, more importantly, use their voice to serve a greater purpose. In this respect, the 28-year-old British sensation has been compared to early Hip-Hop acts like Public Enemy and NWA. At one time, their music was also an outlet for their opinions, groundbreaking in a world of Pop and Rock & Roll.
MIAs debut album Arular is currently out on Interscope, and its still uncertain whether the mainstream audience will embrace it. She kindly took some time out of her heavy tour schedule, which included the recent Whos Next? Hot 97 showcase in NYC, to talk to Allhiphop.com Alternatives about her music, her appearance on Missys The Cookbook album and saying no to Kanye West!
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: Hip-Hop seems to be a big influence for you. Why did you drift so much towards it rather than the other genres?
MIA: I dont know. I think Ive always been really beat driven. Tamil people are [beat driven], because culturally the dance that we have is like dancing to beats. You make create the rhythm with your feet, and I think thats it. With a combination of feeling really hard too – by that point in my life I had already experienced stuff that made me really hard. I wasnt a tough kid, but just the way I felt and how far my emotions had been pushed. I was an outsider because I was supposed to be Pakistani to society. Then I became an outsider because I started listening to Hip-Hop. I was like, Oh my God, if people are going to have prejudice with me because of music as opposed to my skin color, then thats a piece of piss to deal with!
AHHA: You said in an interview that terrorists are being dehumanized. If they are using terror and violence why should they deserve anything less?
MIA: Well the thing is, I dont condone violence or terrorism, but at the same time I really want to be a fair human being, and I want to listen to both sides of the story. Every time there is a war on terror there are civilians caught in the middle who are used as bait, and that is who I want to represent and talk about, because thats the closest thing to my experience. Hip-Hop thrived on the thinking that if you start feeling like an outsider, then turn your back to the world and start your own sh*t. If you apply that to whats going on politically, thats quite dangerous. I think its more dangerous to let that happen then to actually confront it and talk about it.
AHHA: Youve been compared to Public Enemy and NWA, in terms of how you are using your music. Have you heard of those comparisons?
MIA: No. People talk about Pubic Enemy in relevance to me because it was one the first Hip-Hop groups I had ever heard. Im not as organized as Public Enemy, but Im doing it to open up peoples minds and to bring different opinions into the world. I just feel like why are we so desperate to gentrify the whole planet and make it all safe and sterile and sweep all the troubles under the carpet? I mean like whats the point? If you got some issues, lets talk about it and lets work it out.
AHHA: How did the Missy Elliott appearance come together?
MIA: She just called me up.
AHHA: What was that conversation like?
MIA: It was mad! I couldnt really say anything for about two minutes. I was like, Missy? Is this really you? She was talking so fast and then she starting singing Sunshowers down the phone to me – you know [imitating Missy] I salt and pepper my mango – Yeah girl Ive been listening to your sh*t. Ive been bored of the music industry for a little bit. Then I started listening to your sh*t. You sounded like youre from another planet! She was really cool. I told her that she really inspires me and she said, Youre doing a really good job. Congratulations. And I said, If I have done anything, a lot of it came from you, and she was like, Ohh if thats the case soldier, youve done a darn good job!
AHHA: What about the Kanye West album? Rumors are going around that you were apparently supposed to be on it but you turned him down! That must have been a good blow to his ego.
MIA: Oh my God! Its turned into this big thing? Well the same day Missy called me up, Kanye West called me up too. So I was stuck. I had three hours to decide. And he said, Let me come and pick you up from the airport. I was coming back to do a show in L.A. from San Francisco. I did have a go at writing to it on the plane, and I was prepared. If I had to do it, I was going to get off the plane and do it, but it was just all too overwhelming for me. You have to understand, I left England still queuing at the bus stop, getting screamed at by people in the queue, and really not noticing what the hell was going on. Then I came and landed in America, and all of a sudden life was so rapid and I didnt realize what was going on.
AHHA: So you did say no to Kanye?
MIA: Ahh, I hope you dont make a big thing about it! I was just busy. I phoned him and told him not to come to the airport. Im sure our paths will cross again, but right now were just talking about each other in the press. Im sure hes going to hate me now! Kanye West, do not start beef with me please! I heard Kanyes album yesterday. I heard the song I was meant to be on. Paul Walls on there.
AHHA: Are you cool with it?
MIA: Oh yeah! Man getting replaced by Paul Wall, thats aight! Thats enough for me. Nah seriously, Im chillin.
AHHA: What about your lyrics. Where does it come from? Is it elements of different foreign languages or do you just make it up?
MIA: Its a bit of both. I dont really know. I think its a combination of being dyslexic and learning English by just the sound of syllables. When I speak or when I write lyrics, I really see it visually. I think that kind of helps a lot.
AHHA: What does your new single Bucky Done Gun mean?
MIA: I really dont know. At the time, the concept that I was thinking of was how far we are going to go with gangster culture in Rap music. Thats really what I was thinking about. I was thinking about 50 Cent. It started off as Public Enemy, and ended with 50 Cent. What was that journey [for rap music] and how did that happen? In London, bucky is a slang word for gun. Its a real British, grime word. So I was thinking, what is the aftermath of gangster Rap? Were they going to get into therapy?
AHHA: How do you describe your sound?
MIA: I think my sound is basically I dont know. I want to say useful. Musically, in an album, I wanted to give the people something that you dont think you need, yet, but you will. I really felt like at the time there were certain answers I wanted in the world. How much of me is so odd, that nobody else understands it? Thats the question. You make art and you stick it out, and if people get it, you realize that youre not that different. Then the next step is to make something where your opinions are all over the music and see if they get that. And if I can make a kid in America get it and a kid in Palestine get it, a kid in Sri Lanka and Pakistan get it, then I think thats kind of cool.
AHHA: Do you think they get it, the message behind the music? Or they just like the music?
MIA: Well when I went to Japan, and the people read about me, they really got it conceptually. Then when they listen to the music, thats not what theyre looking out for. They just want to come and dance and have a good time. If you make an album that fulfils everything then that is cool, which then answers my point about what the album is. Its like a mixtape but with one artist. Rather than a mixtape having twenty different sounds and twenty different artists, its one person going on that journey. The only opinions that are not on my album are ideas that are already in the mainstream, shoved down our throats anyway. So I felt like I dont need to discuss them. Its nice to take music and make is useful again like Public Enemy used it.