Maya Arulpragasam is an anomaly in many ways. As M.I.A., she has had a lightning-fast rise. From her early singles Galang and Sunshowers, which spread virally through the Web in 2004, to her 2005 debut album, Arular (named after her father), and 2007s Kala (named after her mom), she has garnered nothing but critical acclaim.
Major fame struck in 2008 with the song Paper Planes, after its use in the trailer for the Seth Rogen stoner flick Pineapple Express and in the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. For the latter, M.I.A. received an Oscar nomination along with the films composer, A.R. RahmanBest Original Song for the track O...Saya. In February, on the actual due date of her baby, she performed at the Grammys.
Politically, shes a tireless advocate of the Tamil people, whove suffered in the recent civil war in Sri Lanka between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the LTTE). Life has certainly changed from her early days living in London public housing to her recent engagement to fellow musician and Seagram heir Ben Brewer (né Bronfman, son of former Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman).
Nic Harcourt: Youre from Sri Lankalets talk about whats going on there now. As you know, the majority Sinhalese in the Sri Lankan government recently defeated the Tamil Tigers. Youre an ethnic Tamil yourself. How do you feel about what happened?
M.I.A.: Its really difficult for me to talk about Sri Lanka. One hundred thousand people have died, and there are, like, hundreds of children whove been killed by intense shelling in a no-war-zone area, you know? And its done by the Sri Lankan government, yet it doesnt seep into peoples brains, because everyones fighting under the blanket of terrorism, and that kind of makes it okay for the government to kill 100 babies in a day and for us not to say, That s--t is wrong.
NH: Has the world turned a blind eye to innocent civilians being killed in the name of the war on terror?
M.I.A.: All over world, that is whats happening. As soon as you say youre fighting a terrorist, you can kill anyone you want without anyone asking any questions.
NH: Will it change anytime soon?
M.I.A.: Eventually, its going to break. I think were getting to the end of it. They can say theyve wiped out the Tamil Tigers, but I think if youve killed a certain number of civilians and youve called the United Nations and every humanitarian agency liars, its going to catch up with you.
NH: Did you defend the Tamil Tigers in any way?
M.I.A.: I dont give a s--t what theyve done to the Tigersthey just shouldnt kill little kids.
NH: Your father, Arul Pragasam, was a founding member of EROS [Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students], which supported the Tamil independence movement. Do you often feel persecuted because of your dads association?
M.I.A.: No, if I didnt have my music, I wouldnt be heard, just like the other millions of Tamils who arent heard. Its just weird that I happen to have that association to my dad, who I didnt grow up with and thats been a s--t thing for me.
NH: In January, you went on Tavis Smiley and called what happened in Sri Lanka systematic genocide. That sparked an uproar in L.A.s Sri Lankan community. Then they protested outside the Staples Center during the Grammys andin a twist of ironycalled you a terrorist. What happened?
M.I.A.: Hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese live here in California. And everyone is just blanket pro government. Look, I think its easy to accuse someone of being a terrorist and you can have people call your show and say, How can you have a terrorist on there? I did an hour-long interview with CNN, and they cut it down to one minute and made it about my single Paper Planes. When I went to the Grammys, I saw the same reporter from CNN, and I was like, Why did you do that? And she said, Because you used the G-word.
NH: The G-word?
M.I.A.: Genocide. I guess youre not allowed to say that on CNN.
NH: Then what is the solution to this crisis?