July/August 2010



“Art gets redefined all the time by whoever needs it most.  It’s about redefining your new environment. Now the internet has become our environment.”
Useful tools for an artist:
Critical thinking
The Internet

In early May, the Believer sat down with M.I.A., a London-born Sri Lankan, former art-school student, and current Interscope recording artist, on the eve of her third album. Her new music seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, appropriately enough for an era when “pop” and “world music” are no longer opposed categories but increasingly one and the same. For the music biz, this is the meaning of “globalization.”

And yet the music also comes from a person: Maya Arulpragasam, slight, chattily articulate, intensely watchful. As we spoke, she referred frequently to images and sounds on her customized computer: a laptop in “M.I.A. colors” that her fiancé, Ben, had gotten her special, in anodized yellow gold with blue keys and a red trackpad. 

Like her music, M.I.A. has a paradoxical relationship to place, alternately wandering and being stranded throughout the world. At the time of this interview, she was fixed in London, unable to get a visa home, in this case to Brooklyn. This is a family tradition: her mother (ostensibly because of connections to Maya’s father, a significant Tamil figure in the Sri Lankan civil struggles) had been unable to travel for some time. 

This is not M.I.A.’s only contradiction. After releasing the no-samples-cleared bootleg Piracy Funds Terrorism—a title almost no other artist could say and mean—her breakthrough single, “Galang,” went on to sound track a Honda commercial, and consequently earn skepticism toward her politics. And yet her second proper album, Kala, managed to have the most thrilling political anthem of the decade, “Paper Planes.” Elsewhere on the album, hiding from nothing, she insisted she was “dogging on the bonnet of your red Honda.” 

Rioter or passenger, outsider or insider, revolutionary or sellout? The categories don’t work so well these days, if they ever did. This is the point, inevitably, of the music, and it is the music that matters. It is art for a moment when categories aren’t working very well, when things are falling apart and centers aren’t holding. It does not try to contain this situation but to register it, to give it a feeling, to get a sense of whether it might indeed be late in something—pop music, history, the U.S. empire. We discussed these matters, her family, terrorism, and, most of all, the Internet. —Joshua Clover 

BLVR: So what’s art for? Politically or in other senses, what’s art’s function? 

M.I.A.: Art gets redefined all the time by whoever needs it most. It’s also about redefining your new environment. Now the Internet has become our environment. A lot of us stare at the screen for a long time, and you need eyes to redefine that space.

My position in the world, in the future (which I do have to think about), is different. It’s our duty to teach critical thinking. And that’s the thing about China and the future of the Internet—it’s interesting because intellectually, they’re probably the most sophisticated people, who can take this tool to a level we don’t even know yet. But at the same time, creatively, the ideas are not there yet. So the creativity and the ideas come from the West, but technical ability and the tools come from the East. India is a perfect example, because India can produce Star Wars for a million dollars, you know, where in America it costs 250 million. But the day they work out how to write that script that’s not cheesy and hasn’t got eight songs in it with a big fight scene that’s like da-da-da-da [fake punching noises]. The day they figure out how not to make soup and gumbo out of film and do culturally tuned-in ideas that appeal to the West, then we’re gonna be fucked.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Joshua Clover has contributed poetry and an analysis of the economic crisis to the Believer, but this is his first music feature anywhere since he retired as a music critic in 2001. He would come back only for M.I.A., because she combines the best of poetry and crisis. He currently teaches at the University of California, Davis, when he is not in jail.

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