M.I.A. spent the early-Aughts as a creative hybrid — a graphic designer, photographer, videographer and hipster fashionista living in London. When her friend Justine Frischmann, the onetime singer of Elastica, loaned her a Roland MC-505, she began writing clever tracks that mashed globally-aware lyrics with gyrating, inimitable dance beats.
In 2004, these unpolished demos landed the budding artist born Mathangi Arulpragasam a deal with XL Records, and while recording her debut LP, she met Wesley “Diplo” Pentz, an aspiring DJ-producer with whom she’d go on to have a rocky romantic and professional relationship. Together, they released mashup mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, and a year later, she followed it with the groundbreaking Arular. Seemingly overnight, M.I.A. became both an icon of cool and a target for those who didn’t approve of her outspoken positions on topics like Sri Lanka’s civil war.
On the 10th anniversary of Arular‘s release, M.I.A. opened up about the making of the record, the optimism of the moment, the painful backlash, her squabbles with Diplo and a severe encounter with Oprah Winfrey.
What do you remember about your life leading up to going into making Arular?
It was like, a lot of things coming together really fast. Because I didn’t really try to be a musician all my life. I was just putting one foot in front of the other; just meeting people and finding out things about myself. Half of it was learning about the music and the music industry, because I had no idea about the actual industry.
You were just starting out, basically.
Like, turning demos into real songs. And then, between 2003 and 2005, I sort of met the industry, met Diplo, went to America because of the mixtape. By then I already made an art show, which then went into the music and then made all the artwork, and was making my own website. A lot of it was handmade and self-made.
Were there any moments where you were like, “Oh, things are getting crazy!”
XL took notice and gave me a record deal, and that was like the most liberating thing on the planet — to have somebody care that your work is any good, that they would give you a check. And for the first time I was able to like, pay rent — move in to somewhere and pay rent, put a deposit down to buy a computer — because up to that point I used Justine’s Roland MC 505. She took the 505 back and I had to buy my own one. That to me was like a massive life-changing thing to be able to afford your own equipment, and you don’t owe anything or anything you do to anyone. And to have that independence and freedom was amazing.
But by the time I hit America and actually found out the press aspect of it and the success aspect of it and the fact that there’s gonna be, you know, tons of people at the shows. . . and I had an encore at Coachella. That had never happened except for like, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, and it only happened like four times in the history of Coachella. By the time that was happening to me, I was with Diplo and he basically just like shat on every good thing that was happening to me, and I just didn’t enjoy it because if I was on a cover of a magazine he’ll be like, “What do you want to do, like be on the dentist waiting room table? Like, is that what a magazine is for? It’s corny. Like, don’t do magazines.”
So your success started to become a problem?
When I got signed by Interscope, he literally smashed my hotel room and broke all the furniture because he was so angry I got picked up by a major label and it was the corniest thing in the world that could possibly happen. And then Missy Elliott called me for the first time in 2005 to work with me on her record, and I’m sure we had a massive fight about that — the fact that I was talking to anyone who was, like, popular. I wish I enjoyed it because I had this person on my shoulder the whole time saying, “It’s shit, it’s shit, it’s shit. You shouldn’t be on the charts. You shouldn’t be in the magazines and you should not be going to interviews. You should not be doing collaborations with famous people. You should be an underground artist.”
So the whole two years I was with him, I just let him dictate. I basically had this man dictate to me how everything in America that I experienced was completely, like, irrelevant and it was nothing. So it was kind of a weird time for me. It was only afterwards, when I went into the second record and I went into it without him, I got to enjoy that by myself. But on the end of that I ran into another man, so the window of me actually being alone, single and a female and being empowered and enjoying what I created was very, very small.
Was Diplo’s mentality like, “You’re selling out”?
Oh, 100 percent. It’s only now when I look back at it in 2015, I can see that he was just jealous and he couldn’t wait to be Taylor Swift’s best friend and date Katy Perry. But at that time I believed him. I just felt like he was right, and he was something of a political, righteous person with some values. I didn’t realize it was just jealousy. That actually, the life that I had and the story that I told through my music and the connections I had with people in the music industry and the connections that I made in the streets of London or around the planet and me being the way I am and my personality — that is what made me make that record. It was really stupid for me to put all that hard work in and evolve as a human being for 25 years and then on the 27th year meet this guy and just give him the batch of controlling it. I think that’s what happens to women, you know: You fall in love, and shit happens.
When ‘Arular’ happened the world was so much more cultured. We had way better fucking music.
I get it. But let’s not harp on Diplo too much.
Yeah, let’s not do that. The thing Arular achieved was something so fucking important for the world because look at the world with all this social media, with all the people claiming they’re fitter, stronger, better, more intelligent, can cook their eggs better because they got their iPhone, all these apps. You look how all of this shit apparently statistically makes the world better, faster, stronger — and it’s made the world more racist. We have way more hatred, the murder rates have gone up. There’s a black-and-white divide in America, which is fucking regression. All of this stuff, it’s not progression. In 2005, it’s actually a really amazingly progressive time. You had Bush in power, but the people were super fucking progressive. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have happened.
So things were better then, you think?
“Would I happen right now?” is the question. And at that time when Arular happened the world was so much more cultured. We had way better fucking music. People were having way better sex. People were eating way better food. It’s like we had progression, and now it’s like all we have is electronic music. People have to take drugs to pretend they’re having a great time, and the world has become way more aggressive and backwards and gentrified. Artistically, we’re not setting off enough fireworks in the art scene. There’s no fucking fireworks in the fashion scene. You know everything is sort of repetitive and, no, I don’t think any new art has brought anything new to the table, whether it’s visually, sonically or a lifestyle-based thing or a topical thing. What Arular did was something positive. It added color and tones and concepts into arenas where those things weren’t everyday things. Those things weren’t common.
Sonically, Arular certainly pushed things forward. How did you see people embracing that?
I think having a worldly cluster of sounds at that time brought way more people into the clubs. And it wasn’t a controlled, homogenized — like, a forced “industry,” monetized, money-making thing. It was actually organic. People actually were organizing themselves with going to clubs where they were connected to these types of music, and fashion was really why women connected to the music. People traveled and wanted to explore different parts of the world and it was just really — it was really amazing. When I landed in New York to do my first show for The Fader and I did it at the Knitting Factory, it was like, that many people in New York knew about it and came out and supported something that wasn’t them. And that was them in so many different ways, but it’s not the way they define [themselves] now. Now, if New York-ians go to a club to go and see an artist and a show, it’s not celebrating the multicultural-ness of New York City.
It’s racially split.
Yeah, it’s divided. It’s like you either get the black scene or you get the white scene. It’s all really divisional and even with economics that was division. The 1 percent and the 99 percent, all of that is really apparent. It’s like, “Yeah, you’re part of the 99 percent and you’re not fucking welcome.” To me it’s all really, really backwards. I just wish that there was another album like [Arular] right now that breaks away all of these boundaries people have put up. Because that’s what Arular was. It was to break boundaries and it connected with people who had the same sort of philosophy in life — that boundaries don’t exist.
That moment, Arular and you, specifically, seemed to represent a melting pot here in New York. Rich, poor, black, white, brown, whatever. It was a scene. Why do you think it worked so well?
It was still really appreciative of American culture, and it was positive in the interpretation of it. So look, you may have this, this, and this, through your history, and here’s how we interpreted it and here’s how we processed it. And you’re welcome to go to the Favela, and the Favela is welcome to go to New York. We liked making clothes. Like, I had tracksuits made out of African prints, but then I was in wherever. . . Maybe that’s how it worked, and it’s unsustainable because eventually the pendulum swings the other way. And the more you open up the world, the forces that close it, it’ll come up stronger. This is why talking about Diplo is kind of important in relationship to this album, because he’s associated to a concept which is global and then what he became is completely the opposite in 10 years. It’s been hard to stick to your ground on a concept which is actually: “The world’s better when it’s global. The world is better when everybody can fucking like get each other and understand each other and have dialogue. If you don’t like something, you need a fucking page and a platform to say you don’t like it.”
You have to give people opportunities to express themselves and make the fucking record — even for like, five pounds in your bedroom — and put it on a platform that sits next to Missy Elliott and Timbaland. And that’s what we had. And I feel like I might be the first one but also the last one that ever got their foot in the door to even have these opinions in America.
You had Bush in power in 2005, but the people were super fucking progressive. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have happened.
What is your relationship with him now, if any at all?
I haven’t spoke to him since he kind of threw me under the bus in the New York Times. I don’t mind if he said bad stuff about me, but to discredit and to devalue what happened in Sri Lanka and with Tamil people during the war is something that is a bit disgusting. Because there were real consequences to that article, where people died, real shit happened, and people are still going through it.
[Editor’s Note: the day after this interview occurred, M.I.A. and Diplo happily reconnected. Diplo shared the moment on Instagram — “Best friends forever @miamatangi,” he wrote; she posted an image of it on Twitter.]
Do you think that there was an inability to grasp that while the music was enjoyable, there was also a message to it?
Well, we had both. There were people that were only interested in my politics and my music, and there were people that were into [me] just because I had a hit called “Paper Planes.” Leaving politics out of music is a new concept. It’s not an old concept. Slaves sang when they fucking crossed the river. It’s a new thing for us to remove that in order to make monetization easy.
Conceptually, Arular seemed to be ahead of its time. Almost prophetic, in a way.
Arular, we’re talking about the Tamil situation saying, “Hi, here’s the shit that’s about to happen. That’s why you have to listen to me. I am not a terrorist, but everybody is getting called one. And if George Bush succeeds in calling everyone one, then I would technically be one because I am brown, therefore I am. And if we carry on like that, then this is where that goes. A whole bunch of innocent people are going to get massacred to death on a beach.” Fast-forward four years from Arular, that shit happened for real. We had YouTube invented at that time to see it. I made it to CNN. I made it to the Oscars and I told you about it and everybody laughed in my face. If I studied politics it would take me four years and then I will get an apprenticeship job at the House of Commons. I’m not gonna fucking lobby and shit and stand around. But I’ll make a record. Getting Jimmy Iovine, I got more of a shot [laughs]. You know, maybe I go to see Oprah. And I did.
What happened with Oprah? There was a picture of you two together, but then you kinda slammed her.
In 2009, Time nominated me for one of the most influential people of the 21st century or something and I met Oprah at that party. And I was like, “Hey, people are gonna fucking die in my country. Like, please pay attention.” And she was like, “You’re shit because you were rude to Lady Gaga and I’m not talking to you. And I’m gonna interview Tom Cruise jumping on my sofa, so fuck off.”
Did she really react like that? That’s crazy.
Yeah, she didn’t talk to me. She shut me down. She took that photo of me, but she was just like, “I can’t talk to you because you’re crazy and you’re a terrorist.” And I’m like, “I’m not. I’m a Tamil and there are people dying in my country and you have to like look at it because you’re fucking Oprah and every American told me you’re going to save the world.”
People don’t realize how powerful words are and how fast they get transmitted and how they get taken out of context and turned into other things. So you sort of bring up this word terrorist. . .
Everybody in the media was calling me a [terrorist]. It was horrible because even my friends and people in the music industry had to disown me. The pressure got so intense. The media turned against me, my ex-boyfriend turned against me and became a pawn to actually do that and, yeah, it’s like it was this really difficult time — to be like, no, this is real, this is real, this is real. It was a really difficult time because I felt that what I’d done up to that point is offered really positive things and had music and fashion and visual stuff that represented something that was positive and not negative. I don’t know, you could debate the gunshots [played over the music at her shows], but generally if you came to my show you did not go away feeling sad and you did not go away in a negative way. You went away having experienced a whole bunch of happy things and you felt empowered.
Do you think all this other stuff has overshadowed the second half of your career?
On my last record I did say that half of my motivation for being a musician is to stop the situation that was happening. Now, if I did music it wouldn’t necessarily to help that situation because that situation, it’s gonna need more than that. I think just generally existing as the other only brown person that actually put out fucking music — looking back on 10 years — is enough. Right now I feel like I could just sneeze on a song and put it out just for the sake of it existing, just so you could be like, ‘Yeah, man, it was this one person that made it from back in Sri Lanka and put music out.’
It certainly seemed like a more welcoming time in New York 10 years ago.
When I actually think about what New York looked like 10 years ago, it was just so cool. Everybody was so excited. Everywhere you went, every restaurant was part of bringing together some interesting food from around the world, every DJ, every club, every bar. When you went to museums and galleries, the people you met just knew more. So I moved there after that: I lived there from 2005 to 2008. I lived there for three years and I think I left there during the best years of the recent New York history of that sort of period, when it actually got really, really fun. And then it just died.
If you played Arular for a young kid today, one who doesn’t really know much about anything, what would you be hoping that they hear in it?
It’s basically a window onto a world where people wanted to put borders and close it and shut it down and were using old methods. We had Bush and Rupert Murdoch-ness that was dividing everybody and saying “good and evil” and “axis of evil” and “these people are like that” and “those people are like that.” Using very basic language to shut down boundaries.
Arular was a really good look at the other kind of part of the world, full of people working against that. We wanted more color, more culture, more liberalism and we wanted more celebrations. We wanted discussions. It was just more intelligent, and it was real connections opening. Arular has politics. It also has sex on it. It also has color and culture and debate. I think all of those things are healthy things. It’s an album that looks at that moment when the limitations hadn’t discovered the advancement of us. When the limitedness caught up with our tools, we lost and we went backwards. But Arular was a progressive moment: the ugliness, the beauty and the openness and the wideness of the world and really using the Internet to connect.
People really felt empowered. It was about poor people being able to make shit in their houses and have that exhibition pop up on the street, [or do things in their] rooms or at their local community center. It was really about people coming together and having a good time. I think that’s like, something to fight for. It’s weird. That itself has become a thing to fucking fight for, you know?