Grammy- and Oscar-nominated hip-hop artist describes the conflict taking place in her native Sri Lanka.
Hip-hop artist M.I.A.
Tavis: M.I.A. is a talented singer-songwriter and hip-hop artist who has the rare honor of being nominated — get this — for an Oscar and a Grammy in the same year. She’s featured on the soundtrack of one of the year’s biggest films, “Slumdog Millionaire,” and is up for record of the year for her song “Paper Planes.” Here is some of the video for “Paper Planes.
Tavis: So we’ll deal with the obvious first — somebody’s having a baby.
M.I.A.: It’s M.I.A. and the baby here. (Laughter.)
Tavis: Somebody’s having a — the baby ain’t M.I.A., I can see that.
M.I.A.: I know, it’s very there.
Tavis: Yeah, there he is. The funny thing — maybe funny’s the wrong word; I found it interesting — so you’re nominated for a Grammy and I’m told the baby is due on Grammy night?
M.I.A.: Mm-hmm. So if I turn up —
Tavis: How’d you work that out?
M.I.A.: — I have to turn up in my hospital gown on a stretcher, (laughter) and they already have, like, a helicopter organized for my fast exit plan.
Tavis: So did you plan it this way, to have the baby on the Grammy day?
M.I.A.: No, not at all. I didn’t even know I was going to get nominated, and then they nominated me for a Brit as well, in England, and it was just like everything happened in the same week. But yeah, it’s just — it’s insane.
Tavis: I asked M.I.A. when she walked out, we were just talking off camera, and I said, “So where’s home for you these days? Where do you live?” She says, “I live in New York.” So I was asking her when she was headed back to New York. She said, “Oh, no, I can’t fly now, I’m stuck in L.A.” So we know where the baby’s going to be born, because you’re not getting on a plane to go back to New York for a few days.
M.I.A.: No, and the Grammys are here anyway, so it just worked out. Like, as soon as I came they were, like, “You can’t fly,” and then I found out that I was nominated. And that’s kind of why they invited me to go on the show to do the Grammys and perform there. They say anything could trigger off labor, so.
Tavis: Not now — not for the next nine minutes, please.
M.I.A.: I know, I know. But I think, like, singing with Jay-Z and Lil Wayne and Kanye and —
Tavis: Yeah, that could make anything happen.
M.I.A.: — T.I. could, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, that could make — with them Negros, anything could happen.
M.I.A.: Exactly. (Laughter.)
Tavis: So just not for the next nine minutes. What do you make of all of this? This is, like, rare.
M.I.A.: This is a good luck baby for me, and all the events, the way it’s been happening, the way I’ve been sort of seeing it, is that being the only Tamil in the Western media, I have a really great opportunity to sort of bring forward what’s going on in Sri Lanka. Like my success, it just seems to parallel the situation in Sri Lanka — the more successful I’m getting, the dire the situation in Sri Lanka’s getting.
And there’s a genocide going on, and it’s kind of — it’s ironic that I am the only Tamil, and I’ve turned into the only voice for the Tamil people, the 20 percent minority in my country. And yeah, it’s weird that I’m being given the opportunity.
Tavis: This platform.
M.I.A.: Yeah, a platform.
Tavis: Since you’ve been given the platform, take it for just a second. For those who may not be familiar with Sri Lanka and the Tamil people, tell me the top line of who the Tamil people are, what’s happening in Sri Lanka, now that you have this platform to talk about it.
M.I.A.: Well, Sri Lanka is an island off the coast of India. There’s two ethnicities there; one the Sinhalese, which is the majority and the government, and the minority, who are the Tamils. That’s where I’m from. And my lifetime sort of began there, I spent 10 years, and I was there during when the war started and fled as a refugee to England.
And basically since I fled till now, it’s — there’s been a systematic genocide which has quiet thing because no one knows where Sri Lanka is. And now it’s just escalated to the point there’s 350,000 people who are stuck in a battle zone and can’t get out, and aid’s banned and humanitarian organizations are banned, journalists are banned from telling the story.
It’s just, like, one-sided, 100 percent, and I think it’s just escalated because Obama was coming into power, because only under sort of Bush’s presidency that you could get away with doing as much as that.
Tavis: When you say there’s genocide happening there, what’s your sense for why a story of genocide isn’t being covered more in the media? Why don’t we know more about this?
M.I.A.: You don’t know more about it because due to the propaganda — when you think Tamil, you automatically thing tiger, and that is completely disproportionate. So human beings around the world have to be taught to go Tamil equals Tamil civilians first, and the Tamil Tiger is a separate thing. And both of those groups are different. It’s like a square and a circle.
And the thing is there’s only 4,000 Tamil Tiger soldiers in Sri Lanka, and if you want, you could just sneeze and wipe them out in a day. They’re not that sophisticated with their weaponry and stuff like that — the Sri Lankan government, which is a million soldiers big, can handle that.
But using those people, we’re managing to wipe out the whole Tamil population, the civilians, and that is why you don’t hear about it, because the propaganda in the media, because if you’re a terrorist organization, you don’t have the right to speak, that is passed on to the Tamil civilians. The Tamil civilians don’t have the right to speak or right to live, they don’t have any liberties.
So that’s been the key thing, that when you think al Qaeda, you’re not thinking Afghanistan. That if you want to go and fight and kill al Qaeda, then you can, but you can’t wipe out Afghanistan. And that’s what’s happening in Sri Lanka, and I think it’s really important for America to understand that, because they set the precedent on how you fight terrorism around the world.
And it’s really important that just that sort of throwaway comment, “Oh, Tamil, she must be a Tamil Tiger,” actually, the repercussions of that is killing people back home.
Tavis: And offensive, I would assume.
M.I.A.: Yeah, definitely.
Tavis: I’m glad we had a chance to talk about that. I learn something on this show every day, so I thank you for indulging my questions about that. You mentioned — we were talking about your country you mentioned that you sort of grew up there and you were there for at least 10 years. There were some other years when you weren’t there, and I was reading about your background — you’ve lived, like, a lot of places. How has that impacted your music, your sound, your style, the fact that you —
M.I.A.: Well, I’ve lived in India, too, and —
Tavis: Right. And London, and —
M.I.A.: Yeah. I’ve just always traveled because that’s what you do when you’re a refugee, and I think it’s just impacted me because I’m not judgmental, and I like to hear things from the horse’s mouth and I use my own brain to make judgments about what the truth is and what isn’t, and I know it from my own experiences what that is.
And I think it’s always been that’s the thing about my music. Like, I wanted to become a musician and help, like, some sort of change, or stand up for what I believe in, or use music for what it’s supposed to be for. And so it wasn’t really about getting fame and success and becoming a celebrity and selling records, it was more about bringing together an opinion or a point of view of the other that doesn’t usually get heard in the mainstream.
Tavis: You know there are a lot of artists who shy away from that; they don’t want to bring their truth, whatever that is, into their music. They just want to entertain people.
M.I.A.: I know, but music was also used for social change. It’s not a bad word. And I think we just kind of shy away from it because the pressure of being successful and the pressure of being sexy and standing up for nothing is just so big, you know what I mean? (Laughter.)
Tavis: Yeah, I like that.
M.I.A.: Yeah, so I think that is — you have to be pretty tough to, like, fight that, and the fact that I kind of had the experiences that I had made me so tough and thick-skinned that it didn’t matter what anyone put onto me, but it was more about the people that I was representing.
Tavis: Tell me about the song for which you were nominated for this Academy Award.
M.I.A.: It’s kind of stirred up some emotions. I feel like people either love me or hate me, which is good, because that was the point of what I do. The point of M.I.A. is to be — it’s either to be loved or hated. At least you evoke that much of a strong opinion about music.
And “Paper Planes” I think is one of those songs that did that, and people couldn’t work it out, and I think it was subversive for some people and it was too obvious for other people. Everyone constantly asks me what it’s about, and like, “Are you a terrorist?” And it’s like, “No,” that has nothing to do with it.
And it could be about gun corporations selling guns and making billions of dollars, or it could be about immigrants coming over and being the scary other that’s going to take everyone’s jobs. And I kind of want to leave it ambiguous for my fans.
Tavis: Well, you picked the right soundtrack to be on.
Tavis: This movie is huge — 10 nominations.
M.I.A.: Yeah, Danny emailed me. I was in — I hadn’t — I wasn’t really aware of it, but he went to India and then after he filmed the film he emailed me and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. And I love Danny Boyle. “Trainspotting” is one of my films that I would take to my grave.
And yeah, he basically gave me the opportunity to work on it, and the way I saw it when he showed me “Paper Planes” in the movie, it just looked like the most expensive, well-directed video I could have had for my song. (Laughter.)
So I was, like, “Yeah, great,” and it made me cry, actually, when I saw it, because it was just really true and amazing.
Tavis: My time with you is up. Will you indulge me just one time? I want to hear you say your full name. Just say it for me one time, your full name.
M.I.A.: It’s Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam.
Tavis: I just wanted to hear that. That’s all. (Laughter.) I knew I never could. I’ll just call her M.I.A.
M.I.A.: It’s a Tamil thing.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s a Tamil thing. I’ll just call her M.I.A. She’s nominated for Grammys, Academy Award, baby due on Grammy night — what a year it is turning out to be for M.I.A. Congratulations on this and all of this, and I’m glad to have you on.
Tavis: It’s my pleasure.