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Pull Up the People: M.I.A.'s father was a Tamil freedom fighter in Sri Lanka.

Rebel Girl

M.I.A. chats about music, methods and metaphors

By Todd Inoue

ON FEB. 22, British/Sri Lankan MC M.I.A. releases her debut album, Arular. Along with the amazing crossover smash "Galang," she asserts herself on sure shots "Bucky Done Gun," "Fire Fire," "Pull Up the People" and "Sunshowers." Influenced by dancehall, hip-hop, garage and bhangra, M.I.A. is a child of the world, hopscotching across multiple genres, informed by sharp political consciousness. I spoke with M.I.A. (born Maya Arulpragasm) last week, the day after her sold-out Los Angeles debut. She performs in San Francisco on March 16 at the Independent.

What's been the hardest transition from making songs in your bedroom to becoming a known artist?

M.I.A.: Being confident enough to get onstage and do the show. I've been making beats for two years. When I got signed, I had never done a gig. In that department, that's the hardest thing. I had to learn really fast. The first show was for Fader magazine. I did three songs and was out. That was daunting. They gave me the mic and pushed me out there. I basically did it because Fader took a risk putting me on the cover and I felt I should take a risk back. I had to start somewhere but it made me realize that I had a lot to learn in a short amount of time.

You could be like XTC's Andy Partridge and make records without touring.

I spent most of the time sitting in my bedroom inventing ways to get music out there without touring. And one of the things in England—they're strong believers in touring. It comes before everything else. So far, I haven't followed the rules; there's got to be a way around this. I make films as a substitute, but in the end, you need to just do it. I'm getting to really like it, though.

What music were you exposed to growing up in London?

Chart music, hip-hop and dancehall, then I got into the Asian scene—bhangra/raga. Jungle, house and garage mostly through the pirate radio station. Once I discovered pirate radio, that's what I grew up on. I was listening to Madonna and Paula Abdul, and then I heard Public Enemy and Roxanne Shante. It was like, "Whoa, what's going on?" That really blew my mind. Then hearing Jamaican pirate radio—that was really exciting. Hearing Supercat and Mad Cobra seemed really amazing to me.

You use a lot of military and soldier imagery and metaphors in your lyrics and videos. What is the reason?

The reason why I reference war isn't because of my dad [a Tamil freedom fighter], but because it's around my life right now. I grew up for so long without doing music or talking about that kind of stuff. But it seems that after 2001, war was on the front page every single day, on every channel. Everything was escalating and getting bigger and bigger and more and more untouchable for young people to get involved in what's going on in politics. I just tried my hardest to not let politics dissipate to the back of my head. Everybody doesn't feel right to comment on politics because they don't know enough, but that's exactly what the government understands when they talk on behalf of the people. I have a right to talk about it because of my past. So I don't care whether people feel it's daft or scary to talk about politics because it was my life.

Are you comfortable talking about the tsunami disaster?

No, it's the only thing I'm not comfortable talking about. [Long pause] It's really confusing. Until I go there and see it myself, I can't really talk about it. I know as much as everybody else. [As a Sri Lankan] I know I have more of a responsibility to get involved, but I have to find out exactly where to go.

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From the February 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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