If M.I.A. actually was a super heroine, she’d rarely hit the crime scene on time. She’s nearly two hours late for Clash’s four-hour cover shoot (check the magazine details here), and although her charming publicist reliably informs us she is en route, we are worried.
So we wait. We think about her fourth album, ‘Matangi’ (Clash review). And we ponder a potentially large elephant that might enter the room with her: what are we going to call the rapper when she arrives? She recently revealed her name isn’t Maya at all. Apparently that was just the name of her mother’s ski instructor in the 1980s. Obviously.
M.I.A.’s new album is supposedly titled after her real name: Mathangi, like the Hindu Goddess of music. Our thumbs twiddle a little faster. Finally, she sweeps in.
“It is weird,” she concurs. “My family don’t call me Maya. My friends would call me Mathangi for 10 years in middle school, and then I did 10 years as Maya, and then another 10 as M.I.A.”
We ask how her grandmother or mother choose to address her. “They call me something different,” she smiles. “They call me ‘girl’ in Tamil, which is ‘Mathu’. That’s my main name.”
F*ck the ski instructor, let’s stick with her nom-de-guerre; a moniker that suggests M.I.A. has always been the moving target she remains today. It’s here that she thrives, livid in the peripheries, causing a stir where she can.
When we last spoke in 2010 (archived here), this British-born Tamil rapper was preoccupied with the notion of Orwellian governmental snooping. On her ‘Maya’ (Clash review) track ‘The Message’ we hear her chatter along to a love of nursery rhyme wordplay: “Headphones connect to the iPhone / iPhone connected to the Internet / Connected to the Google / Connected to the government.”
This was before WikiLeaks. This was before Edward Snowden. But at the time M.I.A. told us: “I can’t believe everyone is like, ‘OMG Conspiracy theory!’ Well, go back on Google and f*cking Google it. It’s all there.”
Three years later and history has completely vindicated her ‘paranoia’. The naysayers who slagged her are silenced. M.I.A. is notoriously lippy, so you’d think she’d be taking this opportunity to gloat through the channels of receptive press. But instead she remembers how confusing the revelations were as another crisis was breaking in her life.
“Oh my god! Snowden’s revelations happened two days after my custody battle started. So I felt really f*cked up. It was really personal, but it was horrible at the same time.”
M.I.A. was in the USA, trying to fight her billionaire former fiancé Ben Bronfman for custody of their child, Ikhyd. She was facing the institutions of America heads on. She was facing the system that snoops on its own people, the very ones she criticised. And she was facing the possibility that her mouthy and cutting opinions may see her lose custody of her child.
“If you’d been someone who was vocal about WikiLeaks, no one will cut you slack in America,” she frowns. “Everyone was too accepting of what was going on. In America, every social group, no matter who they are – whether it’s the poorest or the richest, or intellectuals, the ‘hood people, whatever – everyone had resigned to the idea that people die. And that’s okay? There is no uproar or outrage in America about anything, there hasn’t been for a long time, no matter what technology or access these people have.”
Ultimately M.I.A. retained custody of her child before moving back to London. It also transpired that very few people seemed to care that the government was reading and storing every single email and Facebook message of America’s public. Snowden’s online interviews explaining the architecture of surveillance have been viewed just 2.5 million times on YouTube, whereas M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ video has been seen well over 42 million times. This is the world we now live in: a pop video is nearly 20 times more popular than the biggest political and social news to hit America possibly since 9/11.