Looking Back on M.I.A., the Populist and the Pop Star

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“History is just a competition,” M.I.A. coolly states on “Freedun,” the slow-burning part-protest-part-love song off her latest album, AIM. It’s a line that calls to mind another, from the musical Hamilton: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” The question of story—of M.I.A.’s legacy—has never been more relevant: The singer, born in London as Mathangi (she would later rename herself “Maya”) Arulpragasam, told BBC 1 Radio in July that this album would be her last.

There’s research to suggest that humans don’t always remember experiences holistically—instead, we tend to judge an experience based on its peak and its end. On the whole, AIM is a decent album, but if it really is M.I.A.’s last, it would be wrong to let it stand in for her entire career as a pop star.


AIM is different—less freaky, less fun—from the kaleidoscopic albums that came before it. There are certainly moments where it shines. “Freedun,” which M.I.A. co-wrote with Zayn Malik, is brooding and stirring, and “Borders” is hilarious in its critique of #firstworldproblems. (“Visas / What’s up with that?”) Of course, Diplo’s remix of “Bird Song” turns Blaqstarr’s sleepier version into a turbo-charged, dance floor-friendly number. But these songs, good as they are, are not the touchstones of a provocateur’s career.

What about M.I.A.’s peak, then? First, you’d have to decide what it is—and to say the moment “Paper Planes” became a runaway hit also feels like a cheat. As wildly popular as “Paper Planes” became, it was the third single from Kala, M.I.A.’s second studio album. Before it, M.I.A. was known for the tongue-twister “Sunshowers,” and the seriously infectious “Galang” and “Boyz.” These early songs showed off her ability to put together musical styles that normally wouldn’t talk to each other and create a fresh, globetrotting sound. But for many in 2007, “Paper Planes” was their introduction to the rising Sri Lankan star, who seemed poised, if briefly, to take on the world.

I first heard “Paper Planes” when I was 16. Because I downloaded the song as a lone .mp3, it lived on my iPod completely separated from its original context, instead nestled among singles from bands like Bloc Party and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I didn’t know Kala, to say nothing of M.I.A.’s earlier album or mixtape. But I did know, even after the first listen, that “Paper Planes” was perfect. It was a premise that would renew itself every time the song played. That summer, “Paper Planes” was everywhere, and I assumed that there would be many more songs like it—meaning, viral hits—from M.I.A. in the years to come.


Instead, the next song I would come to know by M.I.A. was “Come Around,” a catchy but boring single off Kalawith a guest verse from Timbaland. The track is far from her best or most interesting—but at the time, it was exactly the kind of easy, shimmery pop song that fell into my orbit as a teenager. M.I.A has said that her label Interscope wanted her to meet with Timbaland and Missy Elliott as soon as she began her career in the US, in order to “cross [her] over” into mainstream R&B and hip-hop. She did work with them—but this would be a transition that M.I.A. would resist until present day.

She understands this tensions, too. “With me, it was always, Yo, I’m an anti-hero, I’m never gonna play the game,” she told the Fader in a recent interview. Later, she added, “But that’s also why I’m not a huge selling artist, or I’ll never have the same platform as a pop star, or be given that much power—because they know that I say crazy shit.”


The fact that M.I.A. doesn’t describe herself as a pop star is telling, although she has enjoyed—and made use of—the platform afforded to her by her successes in the pop music industry. And M.I.A., whose father held ties to the Tamil insurgency during the Sri Lankan civil war, seems most satisfied when she can raise her voice to spread awareness of her war-torn country’s struggle, or refugees around the world. Like in “Sunshowers,” when she raps, “You wanna go? / You wanna win a war? / Like P.L.O., I don’t surrender.”


But some have wondered whether she raises her voice just because she likes the sound of it. In 2012, the rapper got into a Twitter fight with Anderson Cooper, accusing the CNN news anchor of calling her “terrorist” associated with the Tamil Tigers (the militant group that her activist father was reportedly folded into). The tussle made headlines, even though Cooper assured M.I.A. that he did not label her a terrorist, and conceded that the Sri Lankan conflict deserved more media attention in the US.

That same year, M.I.A. also pissed off a lot of people at the Super Bowl. An estimated 114 million people tuned in at halftime and watched MIA perform during Madonna’s “Give Me All Your Luvin.’” At the end of her guest verse, she delivers the line, “I don’t give a shit,” and slyly flips off the cameras. The gesture was a blip—look away for a half-second and you’d miss it—but the NFL received a couple hundred complaints over it. The sports organization charged the singer $1.5 million, and then hiked up the fine to $16.6 million two years later. (In the summer of 2014, the Hollywood Reporter announced that the two parties had settled, although the exact terms were not disclosed.)


M.I.A. always knew how to make a statement—the question from the public, as we grew more familiar with her, was whether it was a statement of substance. By speaking out about her political beliefs, whether they were on the Sri Lankan civil war or US immigration policies, she sometimes came across as completely misinformed in interviews. The ultimate example of this has to be Lynn Hirschberg’s New York Times profile of M.I.A. from 2010. In one particularly unflattering scene, Hirschberg and M.I.A. meet up for drinks in Beverly Hills, and M.I.A. explains to the writer, “I kind of what to be an outsider… I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.” Hirschberg makes sure to mention in the profile that M.I.A. says this while “eating a truffle-flavored French fry.”

That isn’t even the most damning part of the profile. M.I.A.’s support of the Tamil cause during the conflict has been treated by the media as childish and naïve at best, and at worst, as dangerous to the real-life peace-building efforts in Sri Lanka. Diplo, her longtime collaborator and ex-boyfriend, was quoted as saying that when the two met, “Maya was into the whole terrorism gimmick at the time… In the beginning, she was trying to be different.” Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum called M.I.A. “talented,” but said she “only made the situation worse… When Maya does a polarizing interview, it doesn’t help the cause of justice.”


Looking back on M.I.A.’s time in the spotlight, it becomes obvious that the central question leveled against the artist has been whether she could both a pop star and an authentic political figure. This is perhaps unfair. We don’t expect that of every celebrity who has ever expressed an unpopular political opinion or embarrassed himself or herself in front of a reporter. (Consider Kanye.) If we do hold blunders against them, depending on the gravitas of the situation, it is not necessarily something they can’t come back from.


But under this specific magnifying glass, many of Maya’s comments don’t add up. Perhaps that’s because it was a mistake to ever believe they should. In a 2013 interview with Pitchfork, then-staff writer Carrie Battan asks M.I.A. why she thinks some of her remarks like are perceived as crazy, even the ones that hold some truth, like her accusations about “Google [being] connected to the government.”

M.I.A. answers, “Well, I’m still working out my opinions—it’s always a question mark… My statements aren’t incomplete, they’re in-progress.” The media is not so forgiving about this. But to this day, M.I.A. has remained faithful to this spirit. Even as an outsider, she is so comfortable in the public eye, so confident figuring things out in real time—and doesn’t apologize for any gaffes or subsequent retractions. Look at AIM’s release: Earlier this summer, M.I.A. threatened to leak it herself, and then later squabbled with Interscope over whether Diplo’s “Bird Song” remix would make it on the album. She tweeted that she was toying with the idea of leaking it again. In the end, the label and the artist were able to come to an agreement, and M.I.A. released a video to her fans saying all was well. AIM dropped on September 9 without any major hiccups. But M.I.A. held on for total artistic control of the project for long as possible. If history is a competition, she is determined to get the last word—in addition to all of the other stuff she said in the beginning and middle, and towards the end there. Just don’t hold it against her if her opinion changes.

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