Red Eye Chicago
M.I.A. IS GLOBAL V.I.P.
A new artist who finds success can expect many perks—the most exciting being an explosion of options.
Superstars court you for collaborations. You get exclusive, V.I.P. invites. You inch closer to becoming part of music’s mainstream.
M.I.A. had all of that and more within her grasp after she released her debut CD, “Arular”—an exotic blend of intoxicating world rhythms made gritty by her hard-hitting, politically charged rhymes. The album was a critical success, sold a respectable 130,000 copies according to Nielsen SoundScan and made her an indiescene darling.
She couldn’t partake of much of that good fortune, though, thanks to legal limbo that kept her out of the U.S. for a good part of the last two years—unable to secure a long-term work visa to enter the country thanks to familial ties to guerrilla fighters in her homeland, Sri Lanka, and perhaps her own biting words on record.
“After the ‘Arular’ album I had financial freedom but I couldn’t have the other sort of artistic freedom, because people sort of like scrutinizing the words I said, and I couldn’t get a visa because of it,” said M.I.A, who was born Maya Arulpragasam in London, but spent most of her youth in Sri Lanka before settling in Britain with her mother and siblings.
“On the one hand, you get all the opportunities; you can go to Beverly Hills, you can work with Timbaland, you can go to Gwen Stefani’s house, but you can’t get in. Creditwise, all the artists are like, ‘Oh, she’s really amazing,’ but I couldn’t go and participate in any of that.”
Instead M.I.A. traveled the globe to record her sophomore album, “Kala,” which dropped last week. She recorded the album in places like war-torn Liberia, spent time with Aborigines in Australia, drummers in India and musicians in Trinidad, resulting in an album that has a decidedly Third World perspective— one that’s not heard nearly enough in music today, in M.I.A.’s opinion.
“The thing is, an American voice, in every shape, form, size, is getting heard on the planet all over the world. If you go to a mud hut in Africa, they are listening to an American voice,” M.I.A. said. “(But) a twoway exchange can exist.”
It’s not just the Third World sound that makes the album unique—it’s the words that accompany it, and they still are fierce. On “Kala,” she references warlords, raps with the artist Afrikan Boy about poverty, and talks about oppression of the world’s poor. She’s not as blatantly political as she was on “Arular.”
“I had to morph,” she said. “I’m going to get into more trouble for saying this, but it was morphing from being lyrically political into just living political and being comfortable with that. Sometimes you don’t have to shout out about stuff.”
Early this summer, she finally gained her work visa and moved into her New York apartment. She appeared at Lollapalooza earlier this month. M.I.A. doesn’t feel as if she’s lost anything by not being in the U.S. In fact, she thinks it was the U.S. that may have come out the loser for the delay.
“Me not being able to get into the country actually forced me to go to Africa and India, which actually works out worse for whoever wants me to shut up, because the worst thing you can do is make Africa look cool, or like make India look cool,” she said. “They just made it a step closer for a bridge to get built between modern developing countries and modern Third World and America, which is what needs to happen.”