Hip-hop renegade M.I.A. has an explosive new album. Also, a few choice words for George W. Bush, the Department of Homeland Security, the British press, and the dumb suits at her record label.
After making her name on the UK electronica scene with the dazzling, critically acclaimed Arular in 2005, M.I.A. (a.k.a. Maya Arulpragasam) made plans to record her new album in the U.S. with Timbaland. Then the 29-year-old Sri Lankan found her visa application inexplicably tangled in 10 months of red tape. In the end, she was granted just enough time to record one song with the hip-hop superproducer, by which point she’d spent most of her advance on a global vision quest—touring Liberia on a humanitarian mission and recording in India, Trinidad, Australia, Africa, and London. This summer, just weeks after she was finally allowed to return to America for good, she had to leave again to go on tour.
“Why do you hate me so much? All I did was come out of art school and make a couple of songs, and now I’m a threat to democracy!”Her new album, Kala, which drops nationwide this week, is a diabolically percussive blend of East and West, stitched together by M.I.A.’s distinctively thick schoolgirl accent. Whether or not her blistering musical output accounts for her complicated relationship with authority, the girl can’t seem to catch a break. She had to convince three London traffic wardens not to ticket the car she was sitting in before this interview even got going. “They’re just sitting on a wall looking at me now,” she said. “Hold on. Now they’re arguing about who will get to write the ticket because they get commission on that; you know, you can’t do anything in London. Ugh, alright, I’m going to have to call you back.” Radar hoped the next call wouldn’t be collect from Scotland Yard. Luckily, it wasn’t.
That song caused some problems because it features a gun being cocked and shots being fired. Interscope was like, “This is a real harsh thing, you can’t have gunshots in your song.” But their whole ethos as a company is built on gunshots! Have they listened to their back catalog lately? In the end, I left the sounds in—fuck it. Especially because of my immigration problem, which is the subject of the song. It was clear to me that I wasn’t getting anywhere whether I followed the rules or not, so I thought I might as well release the song I wanted to release.
A few years ago, you were warmly welcomed in the States.
But now I’m officially a threat. I’m on your Homeland Security list. Why am I so dangerous? Why do you hate me so much? All I did was come out of art school and make a couple of songs, and now I’m a threat to democracy! I don’t get it. I don’t even say anything drastic in my records. The only other reason I can think of is that I once said “PLO” in a song. [The lyric is, “Like PLO, I don’t surrender,” from “Sunshowers.”] That can’t truly be it.
He was involved in a Sri Lankan revolutionary group, but if the FBI actually sat down and researched it, they’d discover that my dad wasn’t a Tamil Tiger—he was part of one of the military groups that got destroyed by the Tamil Tigers. I’m a Sri Lankan kid who came over to England when I was 10 years old. I really grew up without a father and came out of it; I made something of myself other than stacking beans on a supermarket shelf or pumping gas. And this visa business feels like I’m getting the same punishment as if I’d had my dad. It’s like paying the price twice. That’s not cool, that’s not fair, that’s not justice, that’s not democracy … that’s fucking fuck-all.
It’s not like you’re singing, “Nuke Bush.”
My single “Boyz” goes “N-n-n-n-n-n-n-na-na-na, boyz there, how many? Boyz there, how many?” Repeat 20 times. That’s exactly why I made that fucking song. When the first letter came through about the visa being held up, I was like, “Okay. If this is about me singing one line that says ‘PLO,’ I’m gonna make a song with no lyrics whatsoever.” That week I wrote “Boyz.” You still gonna lock me out of the country if I sing about boys? I’m not allowed to say anything meaningful, and I’m not allowed to sing about nothing. But it’s so ignorant. Do I have to wait until Bush goes out of power to come and play a show?
After initially being denied entry into the U.S., you wound up
traveling all over the world—which seems to have turned out in your favor artistically.
The worldly vibe of the album came out of me not getting my visa. When I couldn’t get in to work with Timbaland, I thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll take this bag of cash and go and distribute it according to whatever, and get some people to work on this record who usually wouldn’t be chosen to work on records.” On most records, you’re not going to hear a band from India—it’s not what the average American girl singer can bring. Most of them would rather stay in their own environment where they have every privilege available.