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'I Built The Platform Myself': M.I.A. On Being Heard

M.I.A.'s fourth album, <em>Matangi</em>, is out now.
Daniel Sannwald
Courtesy of the artist
M.I.A.'s fourth album, Matangi, is out now.

It's been three years since M.I.A.'s last album, but the singer-rapper has kept the pop world on its toes since then. She followed 2010's divisive Maya with a mixtape, Vicki Leekx, dropped on the resolutely unorthodox release date of New Year's Eve. A little over a year later, she turned a walk-on role in Madonna's Super Bowl halftime show into a major one by flipping off cameras in front of the year's biggest TV viewing audience. In the media and in the studio, she has continued to wrap her words and actions in the language of protest. It's a trait she may have inherited from her father, a one-time revolutionary in her home country of Sri Lanka, where Tamils — the ethnic minority to which her family belongs — clashed with the government for decades.

M.I.A.'s fourth album, Matangi, is out today. The title, she explains, derives from her birth name, Mathangi Arulpragasam.

"It's what's on the passport but I haven't used it since I was very young," she says. "When I came to England, people had a hard time pronouncing it at school. So my auntie told me to call myself Maya, after her Yugoslavian skiing instructor."

What M.I.A. didn't know about her real name until recently is that she shares it with a Hindu goddess — and, as she tells NPR's David Greene, it's one with whom she's grown to feel a particular kinship. Greene recently spoke with M.I.A. about talking her way into art school, collaborating on Matangi with Julian Assange and why a raised middle finger isn't necessarily obscene to her. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Matangi is, as you've come to learn, the name of a Hindu goddess of music. Did you feel a deeper connection with this goddess when you learned more about her?

She's basically a goddess of inner thoughts — the outward expression or the outward articulation of inner thoughts. She was really interesting because she lived in the slums; she lived with the untouchables and represented them. So it was really cool to find a goddess that was not considered clean and pure, and was not on a pedestal.

Remind us who the untouchables were.

The untouchables were basically the lowest caste in India. They were considered so dirty, they even weren't allowed to go inside the temples to pray. The Brahmans were the highest class and they controlled knowledge, spirituality, the temples. They were sort of considered the sacred, clean people. And the untouchables were the opposite of that. They were considered the dirty people that did the dirty jobs: They cleaned the streets, hunted, did things that were considered unclean.

Matangi's dad was called Matanga, and he was the first person to gain enlightenment as an untouchable, without being reincarnated as a Brahman. So he was given the gift of the goddess of music — who then had this part-time job of representing the untouchables, because her father was one.

Your father, whom you named your first album after, was a Tamil revolutionary in Sri Lanka, a separatist in a very violent place. You were raised by your mom and weren't around your father much at that point. But you have told stories about some awful scenes — soldiers shooting at your school. These are memories that I'm sure still live with you.

Yes. I mean, we attempted to leave about four or five times, and every time we'd get stopped. They would stop the bus and take all the men off the bus and, you know, we never saw them again. It took us a while to leave. I still have all those memories.

You and your mom eventually got out of Sri Lanka and landed as refugees in England, living in the British equivalent of what we would call a public housing project in this country. And you made your way to St. Martin's, a very prestigious art school in London. How did you get there?

I didn't really apply — I just called them every single day and eventually, they gave me an interview. I don't know how. I didn't have any work, I didn't have any grades. But I believed that it was a massive responsibility to say yes or no to a student. So I said, "If you say no, I will literally get on the first bus and go where it takes me." And it just so happens the only bus you could take outside St. Martin's went to King's Cross, which was the biggest prostitution area.

And you're telling them, "You say no to me and I'm gonna end up on that bus?"

Yes! I said, "It doesn't matter. I'll go to King's Cross and I'll go through the motions of being a hooker or going to jail or being a drug addict or becoming a smart criminal. But I will have the best film in three years' time from going through that. And I bet you the film would be better than any other film that anyone is going to make in this class." And then they let me in.

Your music is known for being eclectic. I wonder if that comes from your time in London, which is quite a melting pot of a city, culturally and ethnically.

Music was definitely pivotal in my time in England. It was there when I was in Sri Lanka, but we didn't have a music industry. We only had film music; there were songs from movies that my mom watched. We also lived next to a temple, so I would hear the temple drums every day and the music from the temple. And then, now and again, someone would go abroad and bring back a cassette tape of Western music, so we had, like, Michael Jackson or Boney M. I think someone had Wham! at some point.

There's a song on the new album that feels like it has a real mix of influences: "AtTENTion." I read that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange helped you with this song — what was the deal there?

I was writing this song around the same time he asked me to work on a TV series he was doing. He came by the studio, and I explained to him that I was making this conceptual song, which is written with all the words that have word "tent" in them. It's sort of to describe the refugee philosophy — people who live in tents — because I feel like they are the modern-day untouchables. We generate millions of refugees every year, and they are the true untouchables of our society because they're faceless and placeless. So he took my computer and sort of typed a few things, and right in front of me he downloaded, like, 4,000 words from the pool of the Internet ...

As Julian Assange can do, probably.

... and it was all the words that have "T-E-N-T" in them. And then I finished the song.

You said once, "I was a refugee because of war, and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet." And at one point, you got some reactions for seeming to suggest that war might be a good thing — that it's not always necessary to fight for peace. How do you feel about war today?

I didn't say that. Where that concept comes from was a New York Times articlethat said that I said, "Give war a chance." But I didn't say that. The concept of "give war a chance" comes from a journalist.

We don't have to worry about that. Tell me, you and I now, how you feel about war versus peace in today's world.

Well, I'm still learning. I don't know the answers in terms of what to say about it, apart from being a civilian who is affected by it. But one of the main stories that defines Hinduism is a book called Bhagavad Gita. It is about the concept of war, and how sometimes war is necessary ... but if you break it down to the essence of what the war is over, it's actually romance. It's about somebody abducting someone's wife and keeping her in the jungle, and the other guy has to go and fight for his wife and get her back. So it's written into the concept of love. But now we have wars just for money and power, and it's a different concept.

In my head, I had sort of justified it all by saying human beings break down to three categories: You've got circles, squares and triangles. Squares are people that are neutral. They live life by knowledge and logic and scientific approach to finding information and truth, and they build people very practical things. So if you go to a square and say, "I'm homeless," he'll build you a building. He won't think anything past that. Squares give us the tools and shelter and grids and roads and blah, blah, blah. And then you have the triangles, who are people that are led by power and money and ego. These things all work on a pyramid structure: You have one person at the top and billions at the bottom. And then you have the circles, who are just led by love. The concept of the universe is built on circles. I think evolution is built on a circular sort of shape, and any natural organisms have circular things in common: If you cut a tree you get circles, natural disasters happen in circular forms, and the planets are circles, our eyes are circles.

This is, like, M.I.A. the philosopher here. I like this.

So that was my thing; I'd sort of worked it out. I'd said the reason why there's so much imbalance in the world is because human beings can lose touch and become overly developed in one area. When you have that, it's dangerous, and they become led by something that is not in balance.

The reason I asked about that quote is because it's so interesting. Your reputation among many is that you are, you know, an "angry rapper." And yet listening to you now, you have this gentle voice. It's fascinating to chat with you. But I wanted to bring up another track from the new album, "Boom Skit," which it's about you not feeling welcomed in the United States.

Well, it was like this. When that whole Kony 2012 thing happened, millions of people got behind it, every artist. Oprah got behind it. This whole story about Jacob happened — he was a child soldier — and how everyone needed to go and catch Kony and bring him to justice, right?

You're talking about Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord who abducted kids to fight in his militia. There was an American Internet video made about a child soldier there, which ended up bringing a lot of attention to Uganda's civil war.

Yes, and here I was. I had left Sri Lanka, which is still a very unsafe place. For me to get here, I had to learn to speak English, I had to go to art school, become a rapper — because it's what America understood the most, in terms of communication — get to America, stand in front of respected TV channels like CNN and Fox. And I was like, "Hi, my name is M.I.A. I'm a Tamil and I come from Sri Lanka. Oh, by the way: There's a war coming to an end, but it's not as easy as the government killing terrorists. It's a lot of civilians getting killed, and they're using chemical weapons. Footage is being uploaded to YouTube, which is disgusting." And everybody told me to F off. They were just like, "We don't understand you; you're a liar," and discredited the work that I had done for 10 years.

Who told you to "F off," as you say? Where was that message coming from?

Well, that's kind of what The New York Times article was about: It was a government official and my ex-boyfriend discrediting what I was saying, and everyone got behind them. So it was really confusing to me because I was like, "Well, what's the difference?" One is a story where an American person goes to Uganda and picks out the story, puts it into context and then uploads it to YouTube, and then a lot of Americans can understand it. And me, I can be in the same category as Jacob, but I did the journey myself — nobody had to come to my village and save me and articulate my story. I'd learned the language myself, I built the platform myself, got to a microphone myself, got nominated for a Grammy and an Oscar the same month, to make the biggest platform possible in America. Then I told the story — and it didn't translate. A lot of people were like, "Just make music; don't talk about politics." But I was in a very difficult position: I was the only Tamil rapper [on the international stage], so when a whole bunch of Tamil people were dying, I had to tell you about it.

I want to ask you about the Super Bowl halftime show in 2012. This was a huge audience, an American audience, a world audience. And on camera, you gave us all the middle finger. Why did you do that?

It's the Matangi mudra.

What is that? Why does that explain it?

Well, you know gang signs — in America you have gang signs, and people throw up initials and stuff like that. Well, 5,000 years ago, there was thing called a mudra, which is your sitting position when you do yoga or you're meditating or praying or whatever. And you have different ones based on what you're meditating over. There's not a lot of them that are named after gods and goddesses, but the middle finger is specifically named Matangi — the Matangi mudra.

So you were not giving America the middle finger? This was the Matangi symbol?

Yes. Do you like that? (Laughing) It's good, isn't it?

Something tells me that there might have been another meaning in that.

It's cultural! In my country, it's godly. OK?

Is the NFL believing that? I know they're suing you.

Of course the NFL is not believing that, because the NFL does not believe in any other culture outside of the NFL. But it's true; you can Wikipedia it. You can just say "Matangi" and "mudra," and you'll see it's the middle finger.

But there are different ways to interpret the decision to raise the middle finger at the camera on a big stage like that.

Well, I do it in the video.

But was there some anger there? Is it that courting controversy is part of your success? What's the thinking, and what does it say about you?

Well, I named Madonna's record, MDNA, and that courted controversy, didn't it? And people didn't even know it was me. So it's just something I do. I don't know what it is. I have no idea what it is. But I don't do it deliberately or, like, thinking about it. It just happens. I don't know why. Maybe I should get hypnotized.

When you come out with an album, you often say afterward that you're going to take some time away from music.

I say that every time.

What happens after this one?

Well, you have to do that, don't you? You have to do that for the next thing to come. This Matangi thing, if you'd asked me three years ago, I wouldn't have known what you were talking about; I didn't know what my name meant or who Matangi the goddess was or what the concept was about. All I knew at that time was, instinctively, I knew I was doing the right thing. And that's kind of all I believed in.

A last question strikes me: A lot of people describe you as provocative. Is that a fair label?

Well, I don't know. The thing is, is that a thing about them or is it a thing about me? I don't intentionally go, "What is provocative?" and try to do that. I just do stuff and people go, "That's provocative." Maybe because sometimes I'm super-ignorant — and sometimes they're super-ignorant.

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