M.I.A goes to war

January 30, 2009

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Sri Lankan sensation M.I.A. has been nominated for both a Grammy and an Oscar this year, but she would rather talk about being labeled a terrorist in her own country. She sat down with The Daily Beast’s Toure to talk about her hit single, “Paper Planes,” why Kanye West might induce her into labor at the Grammy Awards, and how she “isn’t trying to be like Bono.”

M.I.A. needs you to know that right now in Sri Lanka there’s a genocide going on, and 350,000 people’s lives hang in the balance. These days, not much else matters to her. The musician has been nominated for a Grammy for her explosive single "Paper Planes," and an Oscar for the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, but she has bigger concerns than statues and sales.

“The situation is systematic genocide, ethnic cleansing,” she says by phone from L.A. “I want my fans to know I’m not tryin’ to be like Bono. Someone Irish talking about what’s going on in Africa. I actually come from there and the fact is that this is happening now. The war has been going on for a long time, but it stepped into the genocide bracket recently with the new President. I lived in Sri Lanka when the campaign for ethnic cleansing started and if I could stop it and see the end of it in my lifetime that would be amazing. I can’t justify my success otherwise. I can’t justify getting nominated for an Oscar or a Grammy, that to me wouldn’t mean anything if I don’t actually get to speak about this. It’s not like I’m trying to sell records, I’m trying to stop the death of 350,000 people this month.”

On the tiny island just south of India there’s been a 25-year struggle between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. The Tamils have fought for an independent state in Sri Lanka’s northeast, but the war is nearing an end as the Government’s army is close to finally snuffing out the tiny guerilla force called the Tamil Tigers, or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But 350,000 Tamil civilians are trapped behind the front lines and M.I.A., whose family is Tamil, says they’re in a virtual concentration camp. “They’re treated like animals. They don’t have food or shelter and they’ve just been hit by a cyclone and the government hasn’t sent them any aid. It’s just out and out Nazi Germany.”

The world has heard little of this story, because Sri Lanka is tiny and the war is old and also because the government regulates the news flowing out of the country. “Tamil people are banned from the press,” M.I.A. says, “and there’s no international media allowed into the country. They get shot. The government’s banned any independent observers, media, aid, humanitarian agencies, NGOs—nobody’s allowed in to see what’s going on.” And government dissenters are silenced. In early January a prominent Sri Lankan journalist who was a staunch government critic was driving to work when he was shot and killed by gunmen on motorcycles. M.I.A. says the government has also erased people from existence. “Tamil people were banned from doing the Census report,” she says. “Which means that you could wipe them out and no one would know. You can’t account for how many there are.”

The Tamil Tigers have not helped their cause by using terrorist tactics—over 200 suicide bombings and political assassinations, including, in the early '90s, a Prime Minister of India and a President of Sri Lanka. That’s allowed the Sri Lanka government to portray themselves as a state battling rogue terrorists willing to use methods not allowed by the Geneva Conventions and thus sanctioning the government to use any means necessary. Sound familiar? M.I.A. says it’s the Bush administration’s strategy in its war on terror (or war of terror) that has dictated how other countries have approached their conflicts. She told me, “If America is gonna be the leader in fighting terrorism they hold a responsibility to do it well. ‘Cuz they set the world’s precedents on how you fight terrorism. And they have to be careful about what they give a ticket to. That’s the problem—America went in and said we’re fighting terrorism and then blitzed Iraq and that basically gave all these governments around the world the green light to just go and say you’re fighting terrorism and you get paid by America and you could do what the fuck you want. But you can’t say we’re fighting terrorism, we’re fighting Al Qaeda, and then wipe out the whole of Iraq. Or, we’re lookin’ for bin Laden so we just kill a million people. But that’s what’s happening in Sri Lanka.”

“Look, I’ve been shot at so I’m quite comfortable with gunshot sounds. If you have a problem with it, go and talk to the people who were shooting at me.”

The war had a direct impact on M.I.A. becoming a recording artist, though in a bit of a roundabout way. “My thing isn’t about fame or money,” she says, “it’s about, I wanted to bring attention to a situation that you weren’t allowed to talk about. I tried to do it by making a documentary in Sri Lanka and I got banned because you’re not allowed to make documentaries about anything unless it’s pro-government. I would’ve gone to jail for being a terrorist for making a film. And that made me think about art and being an artist. I was like, that’s really fucked up that it’s life or death to make a movie in Sri Lanka in the new millennium. And when I started dealing with it I decided to became a musician because music is powerful and it’s instant and you can get a message out.”

It makes sense that M.I.A.’s career launched from a desire to spread a political message about the downtrodden in her home country because her musical persona has been subversive truth-teller and stark realist, as if she were Joni Mitchell minus an acoustic guitar, plus a big sound system. Her identity politics-laden lyrics expose Westerners to new thoughts, to the perspective of the outsider, the immigrant, just as her sounds also broaden your palette. She’s lived in Sri Lanka, London, Brooklyn, and LA, and spent lots of time traveling, so she brings the sound of the world into the studio, making her the most interesting rapper to emerge in years. No wait, singer. No, rapper. Well, she’s an amalgam, somewhere in between rapper and singer, rhyming with more melody than most rappers but singing with more percussiveness than most singers, ultimately demanding her own space, as with everything she does.

M.I.A. also has a history as a visual artist—her first show was in Portobello, London, and Jude Law was among the early buyers of her work—so it fits that her work has messages and they’re often difficult to uncover. Her monster hit “Paper Planes,” which was featured in Pineapple Express and Slumdog Millionaire, propelling it up the charts, is one of my favorite songs in recent memory even though I don’t completely understand what it’s really about. “It’s about immigration and immigrants,” M.I.A. says, “and how we are seen to be really scary because we can take people’s jobs. People think it’s about robbin’ banks or something or it’s about terrorism, but it’s not. It’s about immigrants coming over and us being really scary to people.”

Okay, but why the sound of gunshots in the chorus? “If you’re an immigrant you left somewhere and most of the time you fled a war. Gun sounds are a part of our culture as an everyday thing. If you’ve been exposed to gunfights and violence and bombs and war then I can use those sounds backing my thoughts, ya know? Look, I’ve been shot at so I’m quite comfortable with gunshot sounds. If you have a problem with it, go and talk to the people who were shooting at me.”

But what does that have to do with paper planes? The chorus goes—“I fly like paper, get high like planes/ if you catch me at the border I got visas in my name/ if you come around here I make ‘em all day”. So what do the paper planes represent? “We make our own visas,” she says. “A paper plane is the visa itself.”

The other big headline in M.I.A.’s life is that she’s about to have a baby. It’s due on the day of the Grammys, Sunday, February 8, but it could come any day now. She doesn’t know the gender. She and her fiancé, Ben Brewer, singer and guitarist for The Exit, resisted peeking during the sonograms. Except for the one time they cracked. “I was really itching to find out and we just went, fuck it and called the doctor. But, because every time we went in there we said we don’t wanna know, it was never written down so he couldn’t tell us. That’s a sign.”

And she doesn’t want to have the baby in a hospital. “I’m doin’ it at home,” she says proudly. “In the water. In a pool.” So, no epidural—the drug that helps ease the excruciating pain of birth? “That’s the plan,” she says proudly. “You gotta embrace the pain, embrace the struggle. And my giving birth struggle is nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp as we speak, with no food and shelter and blankets and medicine and clean anything. I think I’m in a bit of a luxury situation. I have a midwife and I have my man. That’s kind of enough to get through.”

She’s pained that her child may never see Sri Lanka—as a Tamil she’s barred from entering the country. “I’ve had this conversation with my baby and he—I think it’s a he—but either way my baby’s part Tamil and I wanna be able to take the baby back to Sri Lanka and be like this is where you come from child, but I can’t. I feel like, hopefully the baby will forgive me.” I’m sure he or she will—as the child of M.I.A. it’ll undoubtedly see almost every other country in the world as it follows a mom who intends on continuing her artistic endeavors—she also directs music videos, makes visual art, and designs clothing. “The baby’s just gonna be in my studio, which’ll just be at home now. Whether I’m making a video for someone or making my own artwork or making a song, ya know, the baby’s just gonna relax and hang out in my studio. That’s how it was when I was growing up. When we were in Sri Lanka, my mom made clothes for people for $5 an hour or something and she used to just be sewing all the time and we used to play under the table while she sewed. I used to wait for the bits of cloth that she was cutting to drop off the table, ‘cuz whatever falls on the floor is mine. It made me creative.”

The notion of M.I.A. concentrating deeply on her art while the baby quietly hangs out in the studio is funny, but like every parent/artist she’ll get used to making compromises. She’s already starting—they’ve asked her to perform at the Grammys, to do her lines from "Paper Planes" that were sampled for the chorus for “Swagger Like Us,” featuring Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil Wayne, and T.I.—probably the hottest hip-hop song of the summer. But if the baby doesn’t come before the Grammys it’ll be a tenuous moment. “I may have to do it in my hospital gown in case the water breaks,” she says. “I said I’ll do it if they have a helicopter ready to airlift me back home. I been reading books where if you eat something hot or arm wrestle someone you can have labor come on and I feel like being on the stage with Jay-Z, Kanye, T.I., and Lil Wayne, singing ‘no one on the corner’s got swagger like me’ might bring on my labor.”