THE TRASH-TALKING, TECHNICOLOR BAD GIRL OF RHYME TRIPS OUT ON HER JOURNEY TO MAKING MATANGI, HER OPTIMISTIC NEW RECORD WITH A MAJOR-LABEL STAMP. HERE SHE TAKES US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF TRACING HER OWN TRAJECTORY AND HOW SHE FOUND TREASURE AT THE DIGITAL RAINBOW’S END
It’s been nearly a decade now since Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam—better known to the world as M.I.A.—first sprang into global consciousness. Over the course of four albums, she has asserted herself as a tastemaker, rabble-rouser, shit talker, occasional enfant terrible, fashion icon, and—according to Time magazine—one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Though she has often made headlines for her political views (and occasional public spats with journalists), one shouldn’t forget that it’s her music, as well as her kaleidoscopic power as a visual artist, that makes her a fantastically contrary presence on the otherwise homogenous landscape of pop music. She expanded her scope again just last month, when she moved into fashion with a surprise Versus Versace collaboration based on the taboo aesthetic of designer knock-offs. On November 5th, M.I.A. released Matangi, an album that connects the dots between all of the artist’s previous efforts and takes its name from an appropriately many-armed Hindu goddess. Given her own prodigious talents and an almost pathological need to push boundaries, it’s not terribly surprising that Maya might feel a certain kinship with a deity known as a paragon of music and learning.
This new record is over three years in the making. Now that it’s done and about to be unleashed on the world, how do you feel about it? How was the process this time around?
M.I.A. It’s hard to say, really. This was a weird one for me. It’s the first record to be coming out on Interscope, so I want it to work—both for them and for me. The interesting thing is that the concept of the record is based on not needing any of that—not needing a label or even a music industry. Matangi is the music goddess of Hinduism, and the record explores an idea that is 5,000 years old, from a time before music was monetized and sold. So to make a record like this and then to try to move it through a major label system—at a time when the industry isn’t particularly ready to deal with this kind of a concept…This record takes everything I’ve done before and really develops it.
How did the Matangi concept initially present itself to you?
M.I.A. I’d called the last album MAYA, which is not actually my real name. It’s a fake name. The concept of that record was about illusion, about the material idea of the world and how we view it. So when I got to the Matangi thing, it was about using my real name—Mathangi. You know, every time I’ve made something I just did it instinctively, not because it was the right thing to do financially or culturally. So it was nice to do something that kind of tied it all together. Matangi’s mantra is “Aim,” which is M.I.A. backwards. Her dad was an untouchable, so she was a goddess who represented those who were untouchable. That has always been an important part of my work, representing certain people who don’t have their own voice. My first album really does that, and I named that album after my dad. He was also someone who defended people who didn’t have a voice. Matangi is versed in 64 different arts, so her creativity is not only directed toward music but toward everything. That idea is called “kala,” which is what I called my second album. Hinduism also fights against a concept called “maya”—which is something you have to overcome in order to get to nirvana—and MAYA was the name of my third album. When I made that album I knew that people would likely either love it or hate it, but you really had to deconstruct it in order to get the value out of it. It was a puzzle. So, you know, I didn’t know any of this stuff back when I made those records, it was only after I started learning about Matangi that I started to see how these things fit together…which made me realize that I’d made exactly the things I was meant to make, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I’d basically given up on music and then I found out all this stuff about my name. It’s funny, my last album was kind of really hating on Google and everything it represented…and then that was the way I found out all this stuff about my name. It was like being led to spirituality via technology.
Was there really a point at which you thought you’d never make music again?
M.I.A. Yeah, like I was just saying, after I made the last record I was no longer on XL, my old label, and I felt like I didn’t know how to make a big pop record. I didn’t know how to do the thing that everyone wanted me to do—which seemed like the only thing you could do on a major label.
So exploring the idea and iconography of Matangi really freed you up.
M.I.A. Yeah. You know, on my first three albums I was as conscious of it, but for this one I was definitely a lot more careful about what I say. I wanted it to be more positive—which sounds really hippy—but I wanted to be like, Look, I’ve found this thing that I think is really interesting. No matter what happens with this record—if it comes out or how it comes out or who puts it out—it doesn’t matter. This just gives me the freedom to make music forever. This record also gives me a way to say something about all the shit that has happened to me over the past ten years, which has all been out in the open and everyone has seen. You can go through all this stuff and still be alright. And it’s not about whether you’re making money or not, it’s about doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing in this world…and figuring out what that is.
Does it make you uncomfortable to be thought of as a pop star?
M.I.A. I dunno…it’s weird. I’m not really a pop star. I don’t think I’m popular enough to be a proper pop star. I prefer being called a rapper.
What will the visual aesthetic for Matangi be like?
M.I.A. There isn’t one, specifically. I think the concept is just too vast. You know, Hinduism is…well, it’s a vast idea. The aesthetic will be the kind of thing that’s really good if you happen to be on mushrooms. (laughs) It’s that kind of thing.
MATANGI IS OUT NOW ON INTERSCOPE
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