Wednesday, July 25, 2012

MIA Madness with Ashlene Nand! #Flashback

In my past life I used to be a music journalist. I think I've done about 100  music interviews but it could very well be more. Most of them were typical but there are a few that stand out. I interviewed M.I.A in 2006 and at the time, I was feeling her more than her music... but oh how have times changed! Right now, my favorite jam is Bad Girls... so I decided to dig up the old interview. It was interesting to me how the conversation between us just flowed, even though the topics were heavy. We chatted for well over an hour. I continue to respect her artistry and I realize from this interview I haven't changed. I'm still open-minded to art. In fact, we've both grown. And that makes me proud of myself and being an MIA fan. Here's the entire interview... warning: it's really long! But I hope you enjoy it!

Ashlene: My best friend is from Sri Lanka. We have a strong Sri Lankan community in Australia, probably more so than London. Have you been back to Sri Lanka recently?
MIA: Really? Cool, I didn't know that. Nah, I just feel like that until I'm good enough to go and do something, that I just can't really face it because I know how lawless it is and I know if I go there, I don't have a hope in hell. It's not like I can say anything to anybody or I can stop anything from happening. They'll just take me out.

Ash: You moved to England when you were ten. Tell us about the racism there and when did you start to take music more seriously?
MIA: As soon as I came to England, really, I must have about spent two or three months bouncing around the pop world trying to get an idea of what England was. I wasn't really motivated by anything else. And nothing really inspired me. I was really confused about who I was and where I stood in society, you know what I mean? You come there and you just don't know what the hell is going on. And then I remember the first house we stayed in and I watched 'Top of the Pops' and it was like- woah! It was the first music show that I saw on TV. I saw Madonna, Whitney Houston. It was amazing.
Ash: Were you into music in Sri lanka?
MIA: Yeah, yeah, I was like an old woman. So in the village, where I lived, anybody who wanted to know any songs that had happened in the Indian movies, they would come and ask me and I'd know it. I was like a living computer. And I knew every song. I was so on it.

Ash: You mean from Bollywood?
MIA: Yeah because that's all the music you could get. But I was really into it. I was never the one to write lyrics down or stuff like that but I knew what I liked. I was really into dancing and stuff. I kinda lived in my own bubble because I had that music thing and I was into it more than other children were. But I was quite normal and played all the games. But then I had moments in the mirror with music... (Laughs) "...It's not terrorism, it's being a civilian stuck in the middle of that sh*t. 

Ash: After being exposed to western music, how did you develop your own sound and get into writing?
MIA: I think the first thing was being introduced to some of my cousins in England, they were all born and raised in Britain, and they turned up to my house with an acoustic guitar and some Beatles records. That was the first time I had heard the Beatles. Then I started school and all the children there were all into Bananarama and Madonna, and I still felt like that still wasn't it. And then I remember when we got moved to the Council flats, that's really when I came across hip-hop through my next door neighbor.

Ash: Hip-hop seems to be a big influence. Why did you drift so much towards it rather than other genres?
MIA: I don't know, it's really weird. I think I've always been really beat driven. And Tamil people are because culturally the dance that we have, bharatnatyam, which is similar to the flamingo, is like dancing to beats. It's dancing with rhythm but you make the rhythm with your feet. And that's what I think it must be. With a combination of feeling really hard- by that point I had already experienced stuff that made me really hard. I wasn't a tough kid, but just the way I feel and how far my emotions have been pushed.

Ash: Do you think not being accepted by society had something do with it?
MIA: Yeah definitely. I think my problems came from being an outsider because I was supposed to be a Pakistani. (Society had labeled me as) 'Paki' and I became an outsider. So then I started listening to 'hip-hop' and that was a much better label for me (than skin colour). That was easy. I was like 'oh my god people are going to have prejudice because of music??' That's a piece of piss to deal with!

Ash: Yeah I was the curry muncher of the school. Tell me, how did you go about getting your record deal? Is it harder in the UK? MIA: I don't really know how it works in America but I went about it in a way that suits me.

Ash: Through mixtapes?
MIA: No, not really. That's probably how you do it in America. But for me I really came at music from a different angle. I was an artist first and tried to be a filmmaker, that's what I studied and everything. So when I hit music, I knew I had to do it for the right reasons. It wasn't anything more than just me trying to make music.

Ash: What is hard trying to balance art, and doing what you want to do, and still having to pay the rent, bills etc?
MIA: No I think everything I did; I did it out of necessity. When I made the film in Sri Lanka, they told me I couldn't show it in England. Because every film you make about the Tamil people, it doesn't have to pro or against or whatever it is, you have to - even if you film your Tamil grandma - you still have to send it to the Sri Lankan embassy to get it cleared by them and they have to pass an approval notice. So what you put out of Sri Lanka is propaganda - it's extremely carefully chosen. I didn't know that, but when I came across that law, I felt really defeated and I thought, well what's the point? Why should I be the only one giving a shit about it when the government doesn't even care? All this time I thought, because the Tamil people are banned from the press, I'd be doing something needed. So when I couldn't do it I turned it into an art show because I didn't want to waste all the footage. Then music happened to me because I think I was really open-minded at the time. Formulas never worked for me. I think that's when I learnt in my life you don't necessarily have to listen to anybody in society because everything is made up to make life easier for bureaucrats, corporations and governments. And if you can just choose your own life and customize your own life into what makes you happy, that's really what it should be about.

Ash: You're pretty open about your opinions on terrorism...
MIA: Yeah, well it is happening.

Ash: Ok but you said that terrorists are being dehumanized. If they are using terror and violence why should they deserve anything less?
MIA: Well the thing is I don't condone violence or terrorism but at the same time I really want to be a fair human being and I was to listen to both sides of the story. If one of our methods is to just go and get them, then the opposite end to that is listening to what they have to say. It's not really giving power to a terrorist, that's not really what I am trying to say. Every time there is a war on terror there are civilians caught in the middle who are used as bait, and that's who I want to represent and talk about, because that's the closest thing to my experience. It's not terrorism, it's being a civilian stuck in the middle of that shit. Hip-hop thrived on the thinking that if you start feeling like an outsider, then turn your back to the world and start your own shit. If you apply that to what's going on politically, that's quite dangerous. I think it's more dangerous to let that happen then to actually confront it and talk about it.

Ash: Let's talk about the Indian radio stations. Rumor has it they wouldn't play you stuff because it was 'desi' enough. Is this true?
MIA: I think when the white label came out they asked me to do like a Hindi introduction and a version. I said 'well I don't know', this was so early on. And I thought, well actually I'd be really pissed off if I did a Hindi song and an English station asked me to do an English intro. A song is a song; it is what it is. You shouldn't have to alter a song to identify with different sects of people because that would be me supporting all that division stuff. I said 'no, this is about everybody being on one level, everyone getting it and everybody swapping information'. That's what I want to be about. I kept thinking how brown do you want me to be? I'm already brown!! I come from freakin Sri Lanka, I bang on about it all the time, what more do you want? It's not that I'm embarrassed about my culture and I'm trying to be white.

Ash: Did it piss you off? It pissed me off when I heard this. If they didn't like your music, that's one thing. But to try and put ourselves in a box is ridiculous.

MIA: Yeah. The thing is the scene in England- the Asian scene- is very introverted. People make music for them, by them and keep it within and then compete with each other. Which I think is quite negative. So I was like let's make something and catapult it out to places that have never heard it.

Ash: The biggest compliment comes from people who are not exposed to that form of music.
MIA: Exactly. Every Indian artist that did get played on radio at that time was singing about 'Baby I like you in those jeans, come at shake it with the bah bah' and that's not even a real experience their talking about. So don't give me that shit that you're proud to be Asian when you're not even telling us what it is!

Ash: I know! I wish more people would talk about the real experience of being South Asian. Most girls aren't even allowed to shake it, so I hardly call it Asian!
MIA: Yeah!! (Laughs) It's from an R&B world or whatever but I can get that from anyone. So I didn't really feel like I was let down or anything, I just thought 'you know what, your right' and if this is a judgment on how good I am then let it be. Because if I'm good then one day they'll understand and if not, then whatever. I had a stab at trying to do something else.

Ash: Did you expect to be at a level where more and more people are appreciating your music?

MIA: No. It's really funny though when I went back to London last month I was on the front cover of this music industry magazine. And the headline was 'Brit-Asian something something' and it's so funny because it's almost like they've finally accepted me to be a part of it. I mean they haven't even had a conversation with me or said this is great, let's get organized, let's do something. It hasn't even been like 'it's great that your trying to do this' because it was seen like bad in the beginning, like I was a traitor.

Ash: Well it's really inspiring that you talk about real shit that goes on. In the Asian community, anyone who talks about real shit is a traitor. And now you have big name artists are endorsing you. The Asian scene has too many problems anyway. It's awfully political for starters...
MIA: I know! In fact, that's what fuked me up in the first place because I was 'record of the week' on Radio 1 and I was getting played by all the white DJs, like Joe Whiley, and all the indy DJs. So the Asian lot felt like they didn't know anything about me and they didn't bring me to the table, so they made me feel that.

Ash: How did the Missy Elliott appearance come together?

MIA: She just rang me up.

Ash: Damn, really?
MIA: Yeah someone rang me and went 'Missy's going to call you in half an hour'. I was like wiping the sleep out of my eye and the dribble out of my face.

Ash: What was that conversation like?
MIA: It was mad! I couldn't really say anything for about two minutes. I was like 'Missy? Is this really you?' She was talking so fast and then she starting singing "Sunshowers" down the phone to me- you know (imitating Missy) 'I salt and pepper my mango, yeah girl I've been listening to your shit man you know, I've been bored of the music industry for a little bit. Then I started listening to your shit. You sounded like you're from another planet!' She was really cool. I told her that she really inspires me and she said 'You're doing a really good job. Congratulations.' And I said if I have done anything, a lot of it came from you and she was like 'Ohh if that's the case soldier, you've done a darn good job!!' (Laughs)

Ash: What about the Kanye West album. Rumors are going around that you were apparently supposed to be on it but you turned him down!
MIA: Oh my god! It's turned into this big thing?! Well the same day Missy called me up; Kanye West called me up too. So I was stuck. I had three hours to decide. And he said 'let me come and pick you up from the airport'. I was coming back to do a show in LA from San Francisco. I did have a go at writing to it on the plane and I was prepared- if I had to do it, I was going to get off the plane and do it. But it was just all to overwhelming for me. You have to understand, I left England still cueing at the bus stop, getting screamed at by people in the cue, and really not noticing what the hell was going on. Then I came and landed in America and all of a sudden life was so rapid and I didn't realize what was going on.

Ash: So you did say no to Kanye?

MIA: Ahh Ash I hope you don't make a big thing about it! I was just busy. I phoned him and told him not to come to the airport. I'm sure our paths will cross again but right now we're just talking about each other in the press. I'm sure he's going to hate me now! Kanye West, do not start beef with me please! I got bigger shit to think about right now. I need to get into Sri Lanka without getting shot! I heard Kanye's album yesterday. I heard the song I was meant to be on. Paul Wall's on there.

Ash: Are you cool with it?

MIA: Oh yeah! Man getting replaced by Paul Wall, that's aight! That's enough for me. Nah seriously, I'm chillin.

Ash: What about your lyrics. Where does it come from? Is it elements of different foreign languages or do you just make it up?

MIA: It's a bit of both. I don't really know (Laughs). I think it's a combination of being dyslectic and learning English by just the sound of syllables. When I speak or when I write lyrics, I really see it visually. I think that kind of helps a lot.

Ash: Ok well I don't understand any of it! Yo what the hell does "Bucky Done Gun" mean?

MIA: I don't know!! (Laughs) I really don't know. At the time, the concept that I was thinking of was how far we are going to go with gangster culture in rap music. That's really what I was thinking about. I was thinking about 50 Cent. It started off as Public Enemy and ended with 50 Cent. What was that journey (for rap music) and how did that happen? In London, Bucky is a slang word for gun. It's a real British, grime word. So I was thinking, what is the aftermath of gangster rap? Were they going to get into therapy?

Ash: The video "Bucky Done Gun" has a bit of LL's "Mama Said Knock You Out" in it...

MIA: Oh yeah, I never really made that connection! Now you say it, it makes sense! It started off trying to build a refugee camp and I was really inspired by Qaddafi. I just like the way he looks. I think he's really, really funny. He's the head of Libya but he wears jerry curls and aviator shades. He's totally vain. It's kinda like a rock star thing he does; out of all the leaders in the world he's definitely the vainest. He carries a roll of backdrop under his arm and every time he's got a photo opportunity, he gets the backdrop out and stands in front it. He's like this character that I'm always interested in and I really wanted my video to be something like that- that sort of insanity. But it was too much for the American directors! They were 'Ah what are you talking about?' (Laughs) So I did my best to take Qaddafi out of the picture!

Ash: How do you describe your sound?

MIA: I think my sound is basically...I don't know. I want to say useful. Musically, in an album, I wanted to give the people something that you don't think you need, yet, but you will. I really felt like at the time there were certain answers I wanted in the world. How much of me is so odd, that nobody else understands it? That's the question. You make art and you stick it out, and if people get it, you realize that you're not that different. Then the next step is to make something where your opinions are all over the music and see if they get that. And if I can make a kid in America get it and a kid in Palestine get it, a kid in Sri Lanka and Pakistan get it, then I think that's kind of cool.

Ash: Do you think they get it, the message behind the music? Or they just like the music?

MIA: Well when I went to Japan, and the people read about me, they really got it conceptually. Then when they listen to the music, that's not what they're looking out for. They just want to come and dance and have a good time. If you make an album that fulfils everything then that is cool, which then answers my point about what the album is. It's like a mixtape but with one artist. Rather than a mixtape having twenty different sounds and twenty different artists, it's one person going on that journey. The only opinions that are not on my album are ideas that are already in the mainstream, shoved down our throats anyway. So I felt like I don't need to discuss them. It's nice to take music and make is useful again like Public Enemy used it.

Ash: What's in the future? You talk a lot about going back and helping the poor in Sri Lanka but there's so much corruption.

MIA: Yeah, I don't know. I feel like the music thing is cool, I have an idea on how the next album will be. But as a person, I'm trying to figure out- and I have to decide now- what it is that I'm going for. Because I feel like I'm really grateful for where I am now but it's by chance. And I'm not motivated by fame. So there's nothing that really makes me want to do that whole lifestyle. I need to figure out exactly what I need in order to go back to Sri Lanka and make a difference, which is what I think about everyday. How do I get into the country without getting shot down? And if you're the only optimistic thing coming out of Sri Lanka, and especially for Tamil people, they'll take you out as soon as they get the chance. It's like 'don't come around here with your bullshit'. I don't want to go and take sides, I want to actually give my money to the people in the middle and help them help themselves without any government officials getting involved. I have to figure out what I have to gain in the west in order to protect myself in the east.