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For Maya Arulpragasam, an MC and dance-music innovator who performs as M.I.A., creativity isn't something that drops in and out of her life. She feels its flow constantly, leaving her to choose how best to channel it from one moment to the next. "Every day is like that," she says in an accent that splits the difference between London, her birthplace, and Sri Lanka, where she did much of her growing up. "I'm thinking about making a gift and doing something on a website and then writing a song and then making a dress for the stage" — like, for instance, the one she stitched together to wear during her appearance at April's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. "It's just about getting into your own creative world," she believes. "The medium is secondary."
At the same time, she's not so lost in her imagination that she resents intrusions from reality. Several years ago, when she signed as a recording artist, for instance, she was thrust for the first time into a universe of complex transactions, fine print and other unpleasantries of the sort despised by the average artist — but not by her. "When the contract happened, I was just happy," she recalls. "I was on the dole, and my mom was getting evicted and stuff like that. For me, it was like, 'Wow — for the first time, I have no pressure to juggle.' I didn't have to think about how to support myself and having shitty jobs and being on the dole."
Of course, many challenges remain. Her debut recording, 2005's Arular, was immediately embraced by reviewers and trend-sniffers thanks to the globe-trotting amalgamation of dance beats of the sort heard on songs such as "Fire Fire" and the smash club banger "Galang," not to mention lyrics that dealt confidently with self-actualization, global politics and lots more. Soon thereafter, Interscope, among the sturdiest of the major labels still standing, brought her aboard — but neither the firm's marketing might nor the participation of super-producer Timbaland could turn Kala, her much-acclaimed bow for the imprint, into a commercial success on this side of the pond.
Not that the album's reception has embittered her toward America. She currently lives in Brooklyn, and while she continues to abhor plenty about U.S. policy, she senses a shift among the masses gradually taking place. "When I walk around Bed-Stuy or someplace like that, the mentality of the people has changed," she maintains. "There's some vibe that's going on, and I think it might be possible to find it in a lot more remoter places — other states that used to probably be very George Bushy." This development fills her with optimism, since "I think it's actually possible to trickle change from the bottom up."
Political activism doesn't just run in Arulpragasam's family; it takes cover, too. Her father, Arul Pragasam, the inspiration for Arular's title, served as a member of the Tamil Tigers, a revolutionary Sri Lankan sect that was hardly a favorite among officials of the nation's ruling government. As such, he was largely absent during her formative years, and he didn't tag along when she fled the country, which was mired in civil war, along with her mother, Kala, her second album's namesake, and two siblings.
After stints in India, the refugees made it to London in 1989, shortly after Arulpragasam hit double digits. A few years later, she enrolled at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, where she initially concentrated on the visual arts; she turned out paintings and experimented with film and video. These specialties came in handy when Justine Frischmann, frontwoman for Elastica — a one-hit wonder in the States (remember 1994's "Connection"?), but a more successful outfit in the U.K. — hired her to design the striking cover for the 2000 CD The Menace. Next, Frischmann asked her to document one of the band's tours, which also featured Peaches, a Canadian MC and provocateur. Peaches made her music with a sequencer called a Roland MC-505, and after Arulpragasam saw firsthand how compact and effective the instrument was, she began to fiddle around with it herself. Soon, she was smitten.
"When I sat down to write songs, it was like, 'I'm using this whole different part of my brain,'" she notes. "I was just writing beats from one machine, the 505. I was just really excited about discovering something that involved one voice, one tool, one room, one human being. To me, it wasn't like making a film, where you need thirty people and money and funding and someone to print it up for you and show it somewhere. It just was all such a long-winded process, so I loved the idea that if you had something to say, you could put it into a song that you could write in twenty minutes."
Legend holds that "Galang" was just the second tune Arulpragasam penned, but it caught on quickly after its release as a single in 2003. XL Recordings put out Arular the following year, and Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope and affiliate labels Geffen and A&M, took notice. The pairing of Interscope and M.I.A. seemed unlikely, particularly in light of Arulpragasam's proclivity for radical rhetoric — e.g., "Every gun in a battle is a son and daughter, too/Why you wanna talk about who done who?," from Arular's "Pull Up the People." However, Arulpragasam says she and Iovine connected from the beginning. "I think Jimmy is a really fair guy," she says. "You can just go, 'Fuck you. This is what I want to do right now. This is what I'm doing, because otherwise, there's no point in doing it.' And he understands. He's like, 'Cool,' and means it. He's like, 'If you've got conviction, you've got conviction. I'm not going to fight it.'"
Arulpragasam concedes that Iovine "can't help being sort of businessy and having ideas about what you should do," and the decision to team her with Timbaland on Kala seems like just such a commerce-driven notion. She insists this isn't true, emphasizing that "Timbaland was one of my idols. All my friends would be like, 'If you work hard at it, maybe you'll meet Timbaland one day.' That used to be one of my motivations." In the end, though, Timbaland could only oversee "Come Around," which is far and away Kala's weakest track — and if Arulpragasam doesn't validate this view, she admits that the collaboration was ill-timed. "I was two years into being a music artist, and I was already nine or ten songs into my album," she points out. "So when I got to meet him, it was like, 'What am I doing here?'" In her view, "Timbaland has become — I don't want to say this, because it's a really harsh thing to say — but I was scared of being a textbook artist and making an album with ten different hot producers. I wanted one producer to do the whole album, but I didn't have that luxury."
Good thing, because Kala turned out far better than if it had been larded with Justin Timberlake cameos. The central chant in "Boyz" — "How many no-money boyz are rowdy?/How many start a war?" — adds a provocative twist to the song's ass-shaking imperative, and "World Turn" and "XR" are scorching, singular efforts of which Iovine should be proud. Granted, he may not finance such material indefinitely, especially if sales keep lagging — but whatever happens, Arulpragasam doesn't plan to go quietly.
"The creativity part, I fight for it every day. I fight so that I don't lose my attachment to that creative place," she says. "And that's the difficulty. You just have to realize that the business side is purely about funding, and it's not about creative control over what you do. And I think I've been really lucky that they've left me alone. Otherwise, I wouldn't have made the album I made."
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with M.I.A.