Interview with M.I.A.

"As an artist I’m still dealing with being a refugee"

Photograph MIA Universe

by Tamil Guardian, London, December 21, 2015

Tamil Guardian exclusive interview with rapper and musician M.I.A. following the release of her latest track and video on the 27th November 2015.

Sometimes friends of M.I.A. (aka Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam) tell her, just make what you want to make. “But every time I make something, this is what comes out,” she says. “I can’t help it.” She’s talking about her latest video and track of course, ‘Borders’. It’s controversial, political and topical, but to Maya, the British Tamil once-refugee, the subject matter is not novel.

The self-directed video features the 40-year-old musician and multimedia artist accompanying scores of young, brown men in iconic scenes of migration and fleeing – packed on to fishing boats, climbing razor wire fences.

So, your video, what’s up with that, we ask her.

Borders/What’s up with that? She asks in the track.

“I think the video is just to humanise the people and just show them,” she muses. “Not to really have any opinions on them but to show them for the people they are.”

The people she’s referring to are those we’ve been seeing for most of the latter half of this year, the rolling footage of migrants and refugees in what has been repeatedly dubbed Europe’s ‘migrant crisis’.

Maya has been paying attention to the positive and negative reactions to her video, which she says represent an extreme divide and the “misrepresentation of migrants and refugees”. It’s interesting, she says, that in some extreme cases, “the sort of ideas being planted, are that just letting refugees in is somehow going to end up in white genocide.”

“It seems every day these stories are going out: where somebody is stuck, there are people dying, boats crashing on the rocks, people drowning. It’s women and children too, but the way we’re approaching the subject…”

To Maya, “humanity” and “kindness” are “getting a bit lost.”

She’s mentioned women and children, but their absence in the Borders video is conspicuous.

The singer admits that she wanted to visualise what is to some, a nightmare scenario. “They say it’s a lot of men coming over – it’s like that’s the scariest image you can possibly create.” She does that a lot, apparently. “I do that a lot when I actually take somebody’s comments and make it into a visual to say this is what that looks like.”

 “The reality of the situation is that there are families, children, old people, young people, men and women – it’s all across the board. They’re genuinely running away. They’re fleeing bombs. It’s not as simple as ‘yeah it’s actually swarms of men coming over, like armies’ – is it?”

Subversive imagery aside, Maya jokingly admits to the practicalities of an all-male cast for this particular shoot. “It just made things easier when we were actually shooting on a boat that boys can pee over the side of the boat.”

On a serious note, “I wasn’t taking on the gender issue at all,” she confesses, “even though that’s like the biggest issue this year.”

To Maya, the gritty existential battle of reconciling her experiences as a refugee has taken precedence over gender issues.

“I don’t have the privilege of backing the female empowerment issue that everyone backs,” she says. “As an artist I’m still dealing with being a refugee, to speak about the things that I speak about as somebody that fled war. Let’s not even get on to the fact that I’m a woman, I haven’t even got past the first hurdle.”

She can’t help making what she makes because her political experiences are so deeply rooted in her artistic consciousness.

Still from Borders video by M.I.A.

“I’ve always been vocal from day one about the fact that I was a refugee and not a migrant. There was no secret. I actually left [Sri Lanka] because we were bombed and shot at. If I had a choice I would’ve stayed. I didn’t follow a dream saying I’m going to go to England and become a pop-star. I was actually genuinely fleeing from a war and I’ve not shied from that.”

As someone who seems to be so fearless in politicising her work, Maya does not appear to have much patience for those who expect her to shy away from it.

“I had a lot of Tamil kids come up on stage and they were all medics. At the last minute I decided to put t-shirts on them saying #StopTamilDeportations. I was having a massive fight with the BBC backstage just before I was going on stage because they said I can’t be political. Then they gave me a choice and said either you’re filmed or not filmed. If you use the t-shirts we’re not going to film you. I had to go through that decision right there and then, a minute before I’m about to go on stage to perform at Glastonbury.”
Speaking about her controversial experience performing at Glastonbury, she explains:

“I should’ve been doing something like breathing exercises or whatever, but instead I’m there thinking actually it’s super important for me to make sure I represent the 200 something Tamil asylum seekers that are about to be deported back to their death tomorrow, rather than be popular like Beyonce and have the same chance to be broadcast live on television whilst I’m doing the Glastonbury. And you had to make a decision really quickly with either the head of an aspirational musician that wants to be as famous as possible, or you do it as a human thing and say this is the most important thing. Saving one person from being deported is worth the sacrifice.”

“When you go home after that you have to deal with people that don’t get it and don’t know the intricacies, and ask ‘why aren’t you more famous?’. And they don’t realise the politics behind every single step you make as a musician, of toeing the line for what you’re trying to stand up for, or protect, or speak for. Those hurdles come up every day, because if you speak up for this person, you lose that opportunity. Or if you cover this demographic then you lose that other demographic.”

“I made this Borders video showing a bunch of so called migrants, and I’ve probably lost the rest of my deal because I haven’t made a sexy video. You have to take those risks and suffer the consequences. And they’ve been there from day one because I haven’t wanted to let go of the fact that I was coming from where I was coming from and my experiences are what I make. And being a Tamil is part of it.”

“All those kids I took up on stage at Glastonbury had a fight with me afterwards because they didn’t want to be political Tamils, because they were afraid to be opinionated about deportation. They’ve been taught not to go so hard on that subject, because they don’t want to be restricted and have their chance to work in Sri Lanka and be accepted by the new government to be revoked. They just didn’t want to be put in a political light.”
But it isn’t just establishment media and corporate giants that Maya has gripes with. “I feel that some migrants and refugees sometimes forget their roots and completely deny what they come from and turn a blind eye,” she says. She’s discerned this from her experience with the Tamil students on stage with her at Glastonbury, an apparently unexpected thorn in her political side.

“Twenty future Tamil doctors kicking off about not wanting to be political and discuss the deportation of their brothers and sisters – that was kind of interesting.”

Maya demonstrates some sympathy for the fears of Tamils, especially Tamil youths that are reluctant to be involved in politics. Her understanding of the context draws attention to the fact that any diaspora Tamil that has publicly dissented against the Sri Lankan state’s treatment of Tamils generally does not plan a casual holiday back to the island, for fear of their safety.

While Maya is unhesitant in using her music and art to relay the turmoil of her origins or to confront the power structures that led to her experiences as a child in a war-zone and as a refugee in a big city, she is deeply perceptive of the tranquilising effects of denial.

“When we first arrived, we wanted to disconnect from Sri Lanka because it was so painful. Not because we were embarrassed but we didn’t want to tell anyone we were from Sri Lanka because you had to explain where it was, what was happening. So it was really easy at the time because you didn’t have to relive all your memories.”

“It was a psychological denial, so you could embrace the new culture. What displacement and war and violence do to children is massive. It was like a self-defence mechanism but as I got older and you saw it happen to lots of different people in lots of different countries, you couldn’t really deny the truth just in order to aspire to be a popstar or super-rich.”

Photo MIA Universe

The fact that Maya’s ideas are so immersed in the collective experiences of her community and others with similar experiences may go some way to explaining not only the confrontational content of her work, but also why it speaks to so many different people in so many different ways.

“For me it was very difficult to just follow success. I can’t just be like ‘hey, I made it!’ because I have the chance to say this is what freedom looks like and aspire to be the best I could be. But it was difficult for me to do that as I don’t need to be another person that highlights the individual’s ability to fulfil aspirations.”

“That’s the issue, you either represent the individual and power to the individual in which case being successful by any means necessary is a valid thing. It shows the power of the individual. My thing has always been that the power of the individual is reliant on the power of the people. It’s very difficult to sacrifice the experiences of a whole bunch of people just for yourself. And the higher you go up on the ladder the more blood on the tracks, and I guess I just can’t do that.”

When releasing the Borders video Maya tweeted that she wanted to dedicate it to her Uncle Bala, thanking him for “helping [her] family come to England and taking [them] out of Sri Lanka and saving [them].” She talks about the contrasting influences her uncle and her father, a founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), have proven to be.

“My uncle was a migrant not a refugee and was proud. He was actually all those things I said about representing power to the individual and representing individual freedom. He lived the life. He drove around in a Rolls Royce within fifteen years of getting to the west. He ticked all the boxes of what “success” was, went out and got it and impressed all the people that were impressed by it. Along the way he helped people and he brought loads of people over [from Sri Lanka]. What my dad did was the opposite. He didn’t make a penny out of it. He did the whole political thing and couldn’t cut it. He started off in the West and then went back to Sri Lanka. They had a very opposite existence. They were actually like the polar opposites and it’s really interesting because they both represent the two things of what Tamils might aspire to be. And I guess I’m a mixture of both.”

Maya has very little doubt about exactly what her uncle Bala saved her from by bringing her to England, or about what she would be doing had she stayed.

“If my uncle hadn’t taken me out when I was 10, I would definitely be dead. There was no way I would have survived, especially having the personality I have. I would have very well been on the vocal forefront and have been the first one to go. There would have been nothing for me to do, I couldn’t have been an artist or a musician or a painter or a rapper in that situation in Sri Lanka. Demographically and ethnically given who I am and geographically where I came from in Sri Lanka and my association with people, it would have been a hard one to make it as anything whilst being vocal about the Tamils.”

When it comes to labels, M.I.A. the artist is forever frustrating music critics by remaining somewhat unclassifiable in the mainstream. But Maya has never shied away from the markers of her identity: a Tamil, a refugee, a Tamil refugee. But even she is quick to admit that the term ‘Sri Lankan’ throws a spanner in the works.

“This is the whole reason why I make the work. It is fucking confusing. I am a Tamil refugee who is British. I work in America and the place I came from you would generally be called a Sri Lankan. And that itself is a problem because Tamils don’t feel included in being Sri Lankan right now. We don’t like the concept of Sri Lanka as a whole because it’s made with the exclusion of us, not inclusion. So if I say I’m a Sri Lankan what am I saying?”

“When I think of Sri Lanka as a whole, I see the level of racism and how it’s really difficult to confront it. And how it’s incredible that even when I did a Channel 4 piece about the elections and there was a guy who wrote an article in the Independent saying I didn’t know what I was talking about; saying that Sri Lanka is amazing because he hangs out in the bars and clubs in the new hotels. And he completely didn’t talk about what was going on in the places where the war happened.

When it comes to progress for Tamils on the island, Maya is less than convinced by the promises of development and economic growth.

“It’s not going to fix itself by denying what happened in the past. It comes from addressing what happened.”

“I just don’t view progress as, you know, we’ve killed a whole bunch of people, but now that we’ve got hotels we can forget about that because we can be on the same level as say Singapore.”

Maya has much to say on the things she’s passionate about. Calling her smart would be an insulting understatement. Her ability to view politics and international issues through her artistic lens is refreshing and eye-opening. But we are the Tamil Guardian so of course we have to ask – why release the video on the 27th of November?

It was a struggle she says. Despite the significance of the date for Tamils, it also happened to be Thanksgiving in the States which had the biggest bearing when releasing the video via Apple.

“It was a bit of everything,” she says. “It was thanksgiving, memorial day in Paris and the Tamil remembrance day.”

“My uncle was also every sick that day and it was very intense for me. But I just couldn’t not put it out on that day.”

 “Across the board it was a very important day for me. I put out that video and made the dedication to my uncle and then he died.”

With the resonance of the release date, we couldn’t help but notice a snap of Karthigai poo – the gloriosa lily – on the star’s Instagram.

Photograph MIA Universe

“It was a very pleasant surprise to find it here in Jamaica. It’s a reminder. When I think of it and when I look at the flower, it makes me want to remember people. And even a symbol like that in Sri Lanka is seen to be threatening and is destroyed by the Sri Lankan government. Just goes to show that it’s not all peaceful in Sri Lanka. It’s just not.”

The loss of her uncle has made Maya pensive, pensive about inspiration and the cyclical nature of it.

“I’m happy that my uncle was that migrant that came and worked hard as many other Tamils and refugees do. Lived on the street, drove a Rolls Royce ten years later. He lived in style, helped people, inspired people and contributed to culture. I didn’t forget him and I didn’t forget my dad.”

Maya knows exactly where she is taking that inspiration next.

“I also want to inspire Tamil kids. I know the next person that does something from the Tamil or refugee community may just be inspired from one sentence you write or one song I made and it will go on.”

“There’s a million of us abroad. We’re strong enough to get together and make shit happen in any way possible. We don’t need to pick up guns. We can do it through lots of different ways.”

“In a random way, the war that happened in Sri Lanka and all the hardship and all the sacrifices and all the deaths and all the martyrdom liberated a million Tamils to live abroad. And we shouldn’t forget. And what it has done, it’s made us become part of the future, whether we like it or not.”


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