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2007 Rewind – M.I.A.: Sri Lanka Globetrotter

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Despite what your instincts might tell you, M.I.A. is not odd. As technology changes the way in which we communicate and globalization brings increased interaction between nations, more and more people are redefining the meaning of nationality and truly becoming citizens of the world. A self-proclaimed “walking mixtape,” M.I.A. not only combines musical influences from all over the planet, but represents a view that goes beyond London and Sri Lanka, the places that raised her. It’s not that M.I.A. isn’t like anyone you’ve ever seen; it’s that she’s like a little bit of everyone you’ve ever seen, and her post-nationalist lifestyle may eventually become a reality for us all. Of course, those kinds of changes don’t happen all at once, so while many individuals are redefining the idea of borders, many governments haven’t been so quick to adapt.In the Spring of last year, despite having already spent quite a bit of time in the United States working on and promoting her first album, Arular - with an apartment in New York City – M.I.A. suddenly had her visa revoked and was denied entrance back into this country. At the time, she was set to begin working with Timbaland on her second album, but after being shut out from The States, plans obviously changed. Instead, M.I.A. traveled the world to integrate the vibes of as many regions as possible to craft Kala, an album that expands on the ambition of Arular and, in many ways, is a musical symbol of what the world is becoming.Having mysteriously had her travel status restored just days before, we spoke with M.I.A. about the evolution of her image and what the experience of being denied entry into the U.S. has meant both for the album and her future plans.AllHipHop.com Alternatives: Your new album, Kala is less aggressive and political than Arular. Is that due to a change in your politics or just a change in your mood?M.I.A.: It’s a change because I realized that I am political and that I didn’t have to talk about it. I think… it’s not like I have a dead-set view on politics. My opinions are always those of a civilian saying, “I support change,” and I support being open-minded without judgment.AHHA: Did the larger number of producers and musicians contribute to that change as well?M.I.A.: Yeah, I think so. When we were in certain places traveling around trying to make this album, it was just about bringing another voice. I felt like that was something I was being sought out for, so it was about being strong about that.AHHA: Do you feel like the audience even caught on to the messages of the first album? When the Honda commercial came out, for instance, I thought it was a good look but kind of odd since big corporations usually go with someone who has a more safe, “lowest common denominator” message. It makes me wonder if they even knew what they were getting in to.M.I.A.: I think there are degrees of it, because the album works on so many different levels. Different people would interpret or “unlock” the album differently, y’know? We have to keep our well of information as rich and as deep and as vast as possible. Everybody’s experiences count.  I think that sort of philosophy is modern; what I think and what I am is futuristic as opposed to a belief that comes from an identity as a “political figure from Sri Lanka” and this and that. My experience and my story is just a modern day one, that’s all. A lot of people can relate to coming from a war, a lot of people can relate to being confused about identity. People definitely understand that part and it’s okay to symbolize something like that.AHHA: So many of the articles and interviews about the second album have been comparing you to Lily Allen even though the music isn’t at all the same. Do you worry that this gives the audience the wrong idea of what to expect from you?M.I.A.: Yeah, definitely. Me and Lily come from very different places. I mean, we both come from England, but I think as people, we come from two very different places.AHHA: Does it ever feel like the press is trying to bait you two into some kind of feud since you’ve both known for being outspoken?M.I.A.: I think so, yeah. Lily’s made a career out of being outspoken, but I haven’t even figured out what my thing is yet. I’m just going with it and telling you things as I go along. My issues are just different than any other person’s doing music right now and I‘m going “look, today his happened to me” and “I’ve been deported” and “now I’m in Africa and there’s a dude next to me with no arm.” I wanna be able to share all those things. AHHA: Because of your unique sound and the fact that you’re signed to a label like Interscope, you seem like the kind of artist who would constantly be at odds with the label about your direction not being commercial enough or difficult to understand, but obviously you’ve been given a lot of freedom. How is it that you avoid those issues that so many other musicians complain about constantly?M.I.A.: I have no idea! I have to thank God every day because I have so much support from XL and Interscope and they let me go off and do whatever. For the first six months, no one even heard anything out of me, so when I turned up and played them some stuff, I was nervous. The worst thing you can do is play your stuff for people at the label and they look at you like, really confused. I hate that moment, but people still get the album and support it. I went in there and I told them, “You know what I am? I’m post-Interscope,” and they say, “That’s why we like you!” I’m like “Oh…not much of a fight then, is there?” I’m really about to find out how they’re going to deal with it now because I’ve only been in the country five days…AHHA: Speaking of which, how did you end up getting your visa back?M.I.A.: Um… I’m not sure.  I got an email and then a letter saying that they’ve cleared me off some weird list, but then two weeks later, they were like, “That still doesn’t mean you’re gonna get the visa, you’ve just been cleared.” Basically, on my birthday I got a call that said, ”Your visa’s ready, come pick it up.” It was a really good birthday present. I got on a plane within ten hours or something.AHHA: Did they ever give you any kind of explanation as to what the problem was to begin with? M.I.A.: [laughs] No, but that’s the thing…immigration’s pretty much the end of the line.AHHA: Does it worry you that while you’re trying to tour and promote this album that all of a sudden there could be another problem? M.I.A.: Of course, but we just have to have the understanding between me, the press, and my fans that things are gonna happen to me that are out of my hands. Some of the things will get done and some things won’t, but it’s about how we get around those things. I know that’s just a part of who I am and what I do. It’s nice to know that there’s some support and people can see that this happens; maybe it can help people see the world better. AHHA: Before you were denied entrance into the country, you were supposed to work with Timbaland, which many people assumed was a perfect match. By American pop standards, he’s really out of control and “left-field,” but compared to what you ended up doing with Kala, he’s actually relatively straight forward. Would going the original route have taken some of the edge off? M.I.A.: Yeah, I think it’s difficult; we’re getting producers that are becoming more and more experimental, especially Hip-Hop producers, and I want to really find someone that’s like… I don’t know. I might have to go into space next time. I need someone who’s really adventurous. It was really difficult to get around the art of using my sexuality to make club hits. I felt like that was just such an obvious way to do things that I didn’t really want to do it. Maybe in another year we’ll be away from that thinking that a classic club hit has to be about sex and be sung by a girl with lots of lip-gloss on…though I like that “Lip Gloss” song a lot.AHHA: Still, there are enough songs out with a girl rapping about her makeup without you making one too.M.I.A.: Exactly! If I have a feeling, I like to be able to go and explore it.AHHA: You didn’t make the crossover pop album that was originally planned. Now that your travel status has been restored, do you want to try to make that album next time around?M.I.A.: Not really… I think I’ve kinda gone passed it and maybe Timbaland has too. I think that by the time I get down to making another album, that music is gonna have changed so much again. By the end of it, I was exhausted but, at the same time, just really satisfied from having my blood and guts and sweat all over this album. I don’t think I would’ve gotten that making a really well produced studio album.AHHA: You’ve said that the sound of Kala was built on your traveling around the world to record. Do you feel like you missed out on something by now being able to come to the States? M.I.A.: Yeah, definitely, but I kinda find comfort from having the experiences of making this album. I find comfort in making an artistically driven album. I take comfort in the chaos, and I wouldn’t want to give that up.

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