by Lynn Hirschberg
On the Grammy Awards in 2009, Maya Arulpragasam, also known as M.I.A., performed her biggest hit, “Paper Planes,” a rap song that infuses rebellious, defiant lyrics with the sounds of her native Sri Lanka, a riff lifted from the Clash, the bang-bang of a gun and the ka-ching of a cash register.
M.I.A. on the roof of the Ohm Building in New York
pic by Ryan McGinley for The New York Times: click on pic for larger image ~ for more pic and audio on NYTimes.com
Maya, as she is called, was nine months pregnant (to the day), and while she was onstage rapping about “some some some I some I murder, some I some I let go” — in a black skintight, body-stocking dress, transparent except for polka-dot patches that strategically covered her belly, breasts and derrière — she began to experience contractions. As the pain hit, Maya was performing with the male titans of rap (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, T.I.) and she later told me that she thought all the free-floating testosterone caused her to go into labor. While American rappers today tend to celebrate sex, wealth and status, Maya, who grew up listening to the politicized rhymes of Public Enemy, takes international dance beats and meshes them with the very un-American voice of the militant rebel. In contrast to, say, Bono or John Lennon, with their peacenik messages, Maya taps into her rage at the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka to espouse violence: while you’re under the sway of the beat, she’s rapping, “You wanna win a war?/Like P.L.O. I don’t surrender.”
Although her publicist had a wheelchair ready and a midwife on call, Maya, who has a deep and instinctive affinity for the provocative, knew that this Grammy moment was not to be missed. It had everything: artistic credibility, high drama, a massive audience. The baby would just have to wait. The combination of being nearly naked, hugely pregnant, singing incendiary lyrics and having the eyes of the world upon her was too much to resist. And she was riveting, upstaging the four much more famous guys and dominating the stage. “That’s gangsta,” said Queen Latifah, one of the show’s presenters.
Three days later, her son, Ikhyd (pronounced I-kid) Edgar Arular Bronfman, was born. His father is Maya’s fiancé, Ben Bronfman, son of the Warner Music Group chief executive and Seagram’s heir Edgar Bronfman Jr. In one of many contradictions that seem to provide the narrative for Maya’s life and art, Ikhyd was not, as she had repeatedly announced he would be, born at home in a pool of water. As usual, she wanted to transform her personal life into a political statement. “You gotta embrace the pain, embrace the struggle,” she proclaimed weeks before Ikhyd was born. “And my giving birth is nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp.”
As it happened, Maya, who is 34, gave birth in a private room in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Ben’s family insisted,” she told me a year later, when we met in March for drinks at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in nearby Beverly Hills. Before the Grammys, Maya and Bronfman moved to Los Angeles from New York, buying a house in very white, very wealthy Brentwood, an isolated and bucolic section of the city with a minimal history of trauma and violent uprisings. “L.A. is a lovely place to have a baby,” Maya said. She’s surprisingly petite and ladylike, with beautiful almond-shaped dark brown eyes and full lips that she painted a deep red the day we met. Maya has a unique tomboy-meets-ghetto-fabulous-meets-exotic-princess look that, like her music, manages to combine sexy elements (lingerie peeks out from under her see-through tops) with individual flourishes (she designs elaborate patterns for her nails) and ethnic accents (the bright, rich prints of Africa are her wardrobe staple). Like all style originals, Maya wears her clothes with great confidence — she knows how to edit her presentation for maximum effect. At the Beverly Wilshire, she was wearing high-heeled pumps with leggings under a hip-length, sheer white tunic woven with gold threads and an outsize black jacket that looked as if it might be on loan from her boyfriend. Her only jewelry was a simple diamond engagement ring.
“We went to the Grammys, we had the baby and we bought the house,” Maya said as she studied the menu, deciding on a glass of wine and French fries. “A month later, all this stuff was happening in Sri Lanka” — the Tamil insurgency was being defeated amid reports of thousands of civilian casualties — “and I started speaking up against it. And then, within a month, I found out my house was being bugged, my phones were being tapped and my e-mails were being hacked into. I was getting death threats, like ‘hope your baby dies.’ The biggest Sinhalese community is in Santa Monica, people who are sworn enemies of the Tamils, which is me.” She paused. “I live around the corner from Beverly Hills, and I feel semiprotected by Ben and, if anything happens to me, then Ben’s family will not take it. Jimmy Iovine, who runs Interscope, my record company, said, ‘Pick your battles carefully — don’t put your life at risk,’ but at the end of the day, I don’t see how you can shut up and just enjoy success when other people who don’t have the fame or the luxury to rent security guards are suffering. What the hell do they do? They just die.”
pic by Ryan McGinley for The New York Times ~ more pictures
Maya’s tirade, typical in the way it moved from the political to the personal and back again, was interrupted by a waiter, who offered her a variety of rolls. She chose the olive bread. Maya’s political fervor stems from her upbringing. Although she was born in London, her family moved back to Sri Lanka when she was 6 months old, to a country torn by fighting between the Tamil Hindu minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. In the ’70s, her father, Arular, helped found the Tamil militant group EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students), trained with the P.L.O. in Lebanon and spearheaded a movement to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country. EROS was eventually overwhelmed by a stronger and more vicious militant group, the Tamil Tigers. In their struggle for political control, the Tigers not only went after government troops and Sinhalese civilians but also their own people, including Tamil women and children. “The Tigers ruled the people under them with an iron fist,” Ahilan Kadirgamar at Sri Lanka Democracy Forum told me. “They used mafialike tactics, and they would forcefully recruit child soldiers. Maya’s father was never with the Tigers. He stayed away.”
In 1983, when she was 8, Maya, her mother and her two siblings moved to London. Her father stayed in Sri Lanka. Throughout her music career, which began in 2004, and especially around the time of the Grammys, Maya has used the spotlight to call attention to Tamil grievances. She named her first album “Arular,” after her father. Even though her father was not a Tiger, she also used tigers on her Web site and her album artwork and she favored tiger-striped clothing. This was not an accident. By the time her first album came out, the Tamil cause was mostly synonymous with the cause of the Tamil Tigers. Maya, committed to the cause, allied herself with the group despite its consistent use of terror tactics, which included systematic massacres of Sinhalese villagers. (In turn, government forces were known to retaliate against Tamil villages and were accused of supporting death squads.)
In the press, Maya was labeled a terrorist sympathizer by some; others charged her with being unsophisticated about the politics of Sri Lanka. “People in exile tend to be more nationalistic,” Kadirgamar said. “And Maya took a very simplistic explanation of the problems between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese government and the Tamils. It’s very unfair when you condemn one side of this conflict. The Tigers were killing people, and the government was killing people. It was a brutal war, and M.I.A. had a role in putting the Tigers on the map. She doesn’t seem to know the complexity of what these groups do.”
But many of her fans didn’t listen too closely to her lyrics, concentrating instead on the beat, the newness of the sound and her own multiculti, many-layered appeal. She was an instant indie darling (although “Arular” sold only 190,000 copies in the United States). Her songs were creative and abrasive in an intoxicating way, and it didn’t hurt that Maya was absolutely great looking. She quickly became a style icon: like that of all great pop stars, her anger and spirit of revolution was mitigated by sex.
“Maya had all the pieces of the puzzle,” Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Records, told me. “When I met her, I thought, Who wouldn’t want to sign her? Her politics didn’t matter to me. The whole game is about waiting for that moment to move popular culture. Maya can move the needle. I want to go where she’s going to take me.”
Iovine may have instinctively realized that in fusing style, music and controversy, Maya evoked Madonna. While Madonna has always been more interested in writing melodious, catchy pop songs and less interested in niche hipster credibility than Maya, they share a gift for grand self-invention. Like Madonna, Maya is not a trained musician but instead a brilliant editor, able to pick and choose and bend the talents of others to fit her goals. They share an enormous appetite and a discerning eye for the intertwined worlds of fashion, art and music. “Madonna is the one,” Maya said. “Madonna did amazing songs. She had an amazing sense of style, without a stylist. And she was flawed, and sometimes she admitted it. I’ll fight the fight for Madonna. I think she should send me some chocolates or something to thank me.”
Yet while Madonna stuck to sex and the Catholic church for her headlines, Maya is compelled by a violent separatist movement and the politics of resistance. Her allegiances have fueled her music and her rhetoric. In January 2009, while the civil war in Sri Lanka was raging, Maya repeatedly referred to the situation as a “genocide.” “I wasn’t trying to be like Bono,” Maya told me. “He’s not from Africa — I’m from there. I’m tired of pop stars who say, ‘Give peace a chance.’ I’d rather say, ‘Give war a chance.’ The whole point of going to the Grammys was to say, ‘Hey, 50,000 people are gonna die next month, and here’s your opportunity to help.’ And no one did.”
Her rhetoric rankles Sri Lankan experts and human rights organizations, who are engaged in the difficult task of helping to forge a viable model for national unity after decades of bitter fighting. “Maya is a talented artist,” Kadirgamar told me, echoing the sentiments of others, “but she only made the situation worse. What happened in Sri Lanka was not a genocide. To not be honest about that or the Tigers does more damage than good. When Maya does a polarizing interview, it doesn’t help the cause of justice.”
Unity holds no allure for Maya — she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. “I kind of want to be an outsider,” she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. “I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.”
AFTER BUYING THEIR home in Brentwood, Maya and Bronfman, whom she met in New York shortly after the breakup of his band, the Exit, decided to build a recording studio in the house. “It was very grown-up,” Maya recalled when we were in L.A. Bronfman, who is tall, soft-spoken and protective of his fiancée, now works with Global Thermostat, a technology company that is working on ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and is a founder of Green Owl, an environmentally conscious record label and sustainable-clothing line. “Everyone got so freaked out when they heard we bought the house,” Maya continued. “When we moved in, we imported all our English friends. Suddenly, everyone was living with us — eight people at once. For the first time, I had something called the comfort of your own house, and it turned into a commune: they all came for two days, and they never left. My producer, Blaqstarr, was living there. And then Cherry, who sings with me, was staying with us. And Rusko, who was also producing, was there all the time. My brother arrived. And in the end, we had three people to a room. We ended up buying a second house for everyone to live in.”
In August 2009, they started recording Maya’s third album, which will be out in early July but still didn’t have a title when I saw her in March. “We’re one big, horrible family,” Rusko said when I called him in Los Angeles, where he moved permanently, to talk about making the record. Blaqstarr also moved to L.A. “We follow Maya,” he said. “Her studio was like a biodome connected to her house. I lived in the studio. Everybody was hanging out; there was only one kitchen, and we’d all meet up in the kitchen.”
When Richard Russell, the head of XL Recordings, Maya’s British label, visited the house, he told her it reminded him of how the Rolling Stones recorded the classic album “Exile on Main St.” in a villa in the South of France in the ’70s. “I told Richard I felt so disconnected from the world I had known,” Maya recalled. “And he said, ‘The best music can come out of that.’ It was certainly different. I’d be writing lyrics upstairs, and Blaqstarr would be doodling downstairs, and I’d hear bass lines through the floorboards. I’d get inspired and leave the baby monitor on and go down to the studio. There is almost no cellphone reception at my house, and we couldn’t always find our land lines. It was easy to shut the outside world out. And I was making music for me again.”
The album (“I’m thinking of naming the record Nano, because nano bombs are the hip thing”) is still dominated by political lyrics, but the music is more melodic. On several tracks, Maya even sings. “I had to try,” Maya said.
Diplo said, “I made her sing.” He was a producer of her first album as well as “Paper Planes” and was also Maya’s boyfriend for several years. “Maya is a big pop star now, and pop stars sing,” he said. “For me, making this record wasn’t easy. In the past, we were a team. But Maya wanted to show us how much she didn’t need us. In the end, Maya is postmodern: she can’t really make music or art that well, but she’s better than anyone at putting crazy ideas into motion. She knows how to manipulate, how to withhold, how to get what she wants.”
What Maya wants is nearly impossible to achieve: she wants to balance outrageous political statements with a luxe lifestyle; to be supersuccessful yet remain controversial; for style to merge with substance. “If you want to be huge, you have to give up a lot,” Michelle Jubelirer, Maya’s longtime lawyer, told me. “Maya vacillates between wanting to be huge and maintaining her artistic integrity. That’s her dilemma.”
On a crisp, sunny day in mid-April in London, Maya and her publicist, Jennie Boddy, were in a car being driven to the home of a Sri Lankan wedding photographer. Instead of doing standard publicity photos to promote her still nameless album, Maya had the idea of using a photographer she found in the phone book who worked, as many Sri Lankan photographers do, in an almost Bollywood style, by inserting a simple picture, in this case of Maya, into dozens of fantastic, almost surrealistic tableaus. A few days ago, Maya hatched this plan, which like most Maya plans was inventive, artistic and, in an unsettling way, combined the high with the low. “I’ve had my eye on some jewelry from Givenchy forever,” Maya told me, as we inched our way in bumper-to-bumper traffic. “It is millions of dollars’ worth of gold jewelry. To wear it for these pictures, Givenchy had to send a bodyguard. I liked the idea of a photographer shooting me in his council flat in all this gold, knowing that the jewelry requires a bodyguard.” She paused. She was wearing opaque brown stockings, very small, tan leather shorts that laced up the front, high-heeled ankle boots and a fluorescent yellow bra that periodically flashed through a loose, open-knit Phat Farm sweater topped by an oversize dark brown jacket. Maya’s nearly black hair was pulled into a bun on top of her head, her nails were colored in an elaborate checkerboard pattern and she had applied a dark indigo powder to her eyebrows. It was an exotic mix: her body was downtown and her face was uptown. “All of what I’m wearing is American,” Maya said. “If I was a terrorist, I wouldn’t be wearing American clothing.” She paused. This may have been a joke, but Maya rarely laughs. She speaks carefully, slowly, with a kind of deadpan delivery. Like a trained politician, she stays on message. It’s hard to know if she believes everything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd.
Maya had flown to London nearly a month before and was living with Ikhyd at her mother’s apartment an hour outside the city. Initially, she came to see her mom and work on the album art and the first video, for the song “Born Free,” which is, strangely, not the first single. But she needed to renew her U.S. visa, and until her immigration lawyer could resolve the matter, Maya was stuck in London. “I want to be back in New York by May 3,” she said, staring out the window. “I’m invited to the Met Ball, and all my girlfriends say: ‘Oh, the Met Ball! I want to go to the Met Ball!’ ” The annual Met Ball for the Costume Institute is a yearly black-tie gala held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is co-hosted by Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue. “I’m going with Alexander Wang” — the fashion designer — “and I wanted to wear a dress made out of a torn-up American flag,” Maya added. Wang made a hand-crocheted, gold-metallic dress over a black leather bodice instead.
Maya has a complicated relationship with America. When she was recording “Kala,” in 2007, her second album (named after her mother), her request for an artist’s visa was initially denied. (Maya maintains it was because of her song lyrics; the State Department is not obliged to give applicants a reason for denying them entry.) She had wanted to make a more classic hip-hop record in Baltimore, where Blaqstarr then lived, or with Timbaland in L.A. but instead, recorded it all over the world. She traveled to Liberia, India, Angola, Trinidad and Jamaica (“where they have the cutest boys”). “Kala” is layered with sounds like tribal beats, dance hall and the lush musical productions of Bollywood. One track, “Bird Flu,” combines 30 of India’s top drummers in a crazy rush of rhythm. Maya was finally granted a visa and recorded “Paper Planes” in New York, but came back to England so that two sets of twins from Brixton could sing the backing vocals. She felt this inclusion made a kind of political statement at a time when England was spending millions of pounds on weapons and war. However incoherent the reason, the chorus of “Paper Planes” is contagious. “I never thought the song was political,” Diplo told me. “Mostly, Maya was making fun of American rapper culture. ‘Paper Planes’ was making fun of being what American kids are into, of being ‘gangsta.’ ”
She also recorded a song, “O Saya,” with A. R. Rahman, a composer and perhaps the most powerful producer in India, that ended up on the “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack. “O Saya” was nominated for an Academy Award, and in 2009, she was to perform on the awards show. “It was after Ikhyd was born,” Maya recalled, “and they told me they’d wheel in a bed and let me perform the song in bed.” She paused. She declined their offer when she found out that the televised song would be edited down to a minute. “It was too little time.”
Maya rolled down her window and pointed. “That church saved my life,” she said, as we drove past a church in East London. “Christ Church! That’s the last time I got to be a high-school dropout: I should have been in school, and a youth worker at the church, who had been in prison, grabbed me and slammed me against the wall one day and said: ‘What is the matter with you? If you stay around here, you’ll end up living in one of these apartments with six babies before you’re 20.’ I used to be hanging about, getting into trouble. He changed my life.”
After leaving Sri Lanka in 1983, her mother moved Maya and her brother and sister to Phipps Bridge Estate, a housing project, or council flat, in South London. It was rough. “We lived in a notoriously racist area called Mitcham,” Maya said. “It’s where all the skinheads lived. I was shot at for being a Tamil in Sri Lanka, and then, everyone was calling me a Paki in London, and I’m not even Pakistani. My mom sat me down and said, ‘When they call you that, tell them to sod off.’ ”
When Maya arrived, she knew only two words in English, she says: “Michael” and “Jackson.” She learned English from the radio, television and newspapers. Her mother, Maya claims, got a job as a seamstress, hand-sewing on medals for the royal family. “She worked for the queen for 25 years,” Maya said, as the car finally emerged from traffic. “And now, they’ve taken my mom’s U.S. visa away. A 65-year-old woman is counted as a terrorist, and America supports that.”
When she was a child, Maya sat under the table while her mother sewed and caught fabric scraps as they fell. “The first thing I made was a bra,” Maya said. “Two circles in pinky red, blue straps.” Her father remained in Sri Lanka (whenever they saw each other, he was introduced to Maya as her uncle, so that the children wouldn’t inadvertently reveal his identity). Maya claims that she has not seen him in years. Diplo told me a different story. “I met her dad in London with her,” he said. “He was very interested in sustainable living and was teaching in London. But he wasn’t a good father.” Whatever the truth is, Maya has gone from trumpeting her father’s revolutionary past in order to claim that lineage to playing down his politics to support a separate narrative. “He was with the Sri Lankan government,” she now maintained, when I saw her in Los Angeles. “He’s been with them for 20 years. They just made up the fact that he is a Tiger so they can talk crap about me.” (Her father could not be reached for comment.)
Maya has always been interested in having a political agenda, no matter how murky. In 1993, Maya applied to Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London; she had decided to become a filmmaker. “I never thought I’d go there,” she says now. “Someone mentioned it to me once — they’re like, ‘Oh, my god, there are so many good-looking people there.’ One day, I was standing outside of it, and I decided I needed to go there. I wanted to make documentaries about people who didn’t have a voice. I wanted to be the messenger.”
During her interview for the school, Maya says, she told the admissions officer that if he didn’t accept her application, she would become a prostitute or a crackhead or the best criminal in the world. “I said to him, ‘Don’t make me do it,’ ” she says now, smiling. “ ‘If you don’t let me in, there’s only one option: I become a hooker.’ He said, ‘That is emotional blackmail.’ It might have been, but I couldn’t stand that one person had that much power over my life, that if he said yes or no, it would change everything.”
He eventually said yes; that in Maya he saw rebellion and that art colleges need rebellion, or at least that’s how she remembers the reaction. For four years, she concentrated on directing movies, but she was not patient enough for the form. “Film is not instant enough for the person I am,” she said. Maya switched to videos (which were faster), and her classmate, Justine Frischmann of the band Elastica, asked her, in 2000, to create the artwork and a video for the band’s second album, “The Menace.” Frischmann and Maya became roommates, and when the two went on vacation to a small island off Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, Maya began tinkering with Frischmann’s Roland MC-505 Groovebox. “I was bored,” Maya recalled. “And I saw the machine. I’m tone deaf and not very musical, but I like dancing, if that counts. I’ve got rhythm. Justine had disappeared for about six hours, and I waited and waited, and I finally thought, I’ll just make something. The second song I made was ‘Galang,’ and I didn’t plan on singing it myself. When we got back, I scouted girls to sing it, and I would tell them, ‘This is how you do it: “Galangalang a lang lang,” ’ and none of them could do it right. So I thought, I need to do it myself.”
If she was reluctant, her nervousness didn’t last long: “Galang,” original and addictive, became her calling card. In 2003, she put “Galang” and two other songs on a 12-inch record. Diplo, whom she had not yet met, was hosting and working as a D.J. at parties in Philadelphia. He was given “Galang” by an editor from i-D magazine in London. He began playing the song and talking up Maya. “I was D.J.ing at a club called Fabric,” he told me, “and when she walked in, I was playing ‘Galang.’ This was before she had a major record deal. She met me, and we started a relationship. Maya was into the whole terrorism gimmick at the time. It was all underground back then. In the beginning, she was trying to be different. She understood that no one was doing what she was doing.”
Even though she had a record out, Maya had never performed. “In 2004, I went onstage for the first time,” she said. “They put a mike in my hand and pushed me out the door into the crowd. I did the three songs I had recorded and got out. It was the worst day of my life.” But it didn’t stop her: she has always been focused. “Maya’s got a lot of hustle,” Richard Russell said admiringly. Russell’s XL Recordings is a small but influential label in Britain that puts out an eclectic mix — Thom Yorke, the White Stripes, Devendra Banhart, Adele, the Horrors. The label’s office is located near Portobello Road in what feels like a cluttered house, the front door nearly undetectable beneath a woodcutlike painting by the artist Stanley Donwood that depicts London being swallowed by a tidal wave.
“In 2003, Maya turned up here and said, ‘I heard you’ve been looking for me,’ ” Russell told me when I went to see him. “She decided that we were going to put out her music. And since Maya is able to will the universe and is an obvious force of nature, I found myself saying yes.”
He was impressed by “Galang,” but he was still hesitant. “There was a lot of cynicism about Maya,” he said. “She wasn’t a musician, and she had no basic musical craft. The label’s ethic is music that’s quite serious, and we work with people where music is not a way to become famous. It’s everything they’re about and, with Maya, people couldn’t see beyond the fact that she wasn’t a musician. Now, as much as I respect musicians, nothing takes the place of ingenuity and inspiration and originality. If you’ve got that spark, something to say and you’re determined enough, it might be quite interesting.”
When Russell signed her, he imagined Maya as a kind of English answer to American hip-hop. Just as the Beatles and the Stones channeled American R & B, Russell said he felt that Maya would rework the sounds of rap music from the States. “England is good at being mongrel,” Russell said. “Maya is a mixture of black American culture, Sri Lankan culture, art, fashion. We mix it up well here and sell it back. As a country, we’ve always known how to do that. You see that in ‘Galang’: the different ethnicities, the art vibe, the Missy Elliot influence. Maya got it right and added to it.”
Until she signed with XL, Maya was working as a clerk in a store called Euphoria. “I was ringing up a sale when Richard called me to tell me he was going to put out my record,” Maya said, as the car pulled up to a housing project in East London. “I told him, ‘You need me!’ and he said, ‘I don’t need you, but I want you.’ ” She smiled. “That was the right answer.”
RAVI THIAGARAJA, THE Sri Lankan photographer, answered the door of his flat and invited Maya in. Unlike most people, Maya is not tethered to her phone (“I have an iPhone,” she told me, in her child-of-Godard mix of politics, paranoia and pop. “I like to be very close to the C.I.A., F.B.I. and Sri Lankan government. I want to be completely reachable at all times”), but she’s never far from her acid yellow Mac laptop, which is inscribed with the M.I.A. logo. Her life is there: song lyrics, ideas for her Web site, the secret video she’s working on, photos of Ikhyd, unfinished artwork and more. As the photographer and his wife ushered us into the living room at the rear of the house, they wished Maya a happy Sri Lankan New Year. “I had no idea it was today,” she said, as she settled into a sofa and clicked open her laptop.
“Would you like some rice pudding?” the photographer asked. Maya explained to me that rice pudding is the traditional celebratory food for the Sri Lankan New Year. Maya said no, and the photographer went to get the pictures.
He handed Maya a disc, and she slid it into her computer. There were dozens of shots, each featuring Maya dripping in gold. She was wearing seven or eight thick gold bracelets on each wrist, heavy earrings and what appeared to be ropes of gold attached at the throat like a tight gold turtleneck. “I wanted to look like an Iranian princess,” Maya said. In the photos, the rest of her outfit was casual: a black hoodie, black T-shirt and black leggings. In each shot, Maya was carefully placed in a scene, like a gold-clad visitor from another planet. In shot after shot, she was perched on different thrones, posing with dancers, encased in a bubble ascending to heaven. Three Mayas were disco-dancing together on a fluorescent Day-Glo floor, two Mayas were facing each other in a heart, multiple Mayas were covered in cascading roses. She was positioned in front of a pyramid, in a pyramid and above a pyramid. In most of the shots, Maya appeared to be a very wealthy deity.
Although she was pleased, Maya, in her editing mode, wanted more options. “I love the car backdrop,” she said. “Do you have one with a yellow Porsche?” Maya studied her computer screen. “This could be a possible album cover,” she said. “And I’d love a calendar, if you can make one. Twelve months of these pictures.”
An hour passed, in which Maya reviewed dozens of other backdrop possibilities. When she’s working, her concentration is total. She rejected a palace shot as being too much like something the Sex Pistols did and nixed a nature scene with a picket fence. It was hard to imagine what the initial photo shoot was like: this flat was so humble and the Givenchy jewelry was so Midas that the contrast, while striking, also seemed a little unkind. And yet, the pictures were fascinating and memorable. Maya’s concept, though somewhat mocking (of both sides), was clever and original. She took an art form that is common in India and added her own flavor to it, which is, more or less, her gift as an artist.
“Are you the singer?” somebody said. A neighbor had come to use the photographer’s computer and saw Maya sitting on the couch, studying her photos. “Uh-huh,” Maya said, looking up. The neighbor seemed stunned. “What are you doing here?” he said. Maya smiled. “Why wouldn’t I be here?” she replied.
THE FOLLOWING NIGHT, at 9 p.m., Maya was at the Alpha Centauri recording studio, sitting in front of a huge soundboard, her computer open on her lap, listening to two versions of “Born Free,” the track that begins her new album. The first “Born Free” was mixed very loud and emphasized the hard drum sample from the band Suicide that anchors the song, while the second version was quieter and more rhythmic, less rock and more rap. “I like the first cut,” said Courcy Magnus, a producer from Philadelphia, who along with his producing partner, Kyle Edwards (who is based in Atlanta), had flown to London to work with Maya. Although her still-untitled record was, technically, finished, there wasn’t a song that popped out to Interscope, Maya’s American label, as a perfect single. They loved the record, but as Diplo told me, “Albums now are a hit song and 11 other songs that are attached to it.” The goal for Magnus and Edwards was to invent that hit.
“I need a beat for this song,” Maya said. She played a short bit of music on her computer. It was a scrap of a song — classic and simple, almost pop. “Melody is not something I do,” Maya said. “I’m trying to do things I can’t do.” The producers nodded, eager to please. “Do you want more creative drums?” Edwards asked. “More percussion?” Maya said nothing. She stared for a second. “Jay-Z should have been on this beat, and he would have had an amazing hit,” she said finally. “I felt like I was doing something that belonged to Jay-Z.”
The producers played her tracks that didn’t have much to do with what Maya had played them. It was a beginning. “Producers are important,” Iovine had told me. “Every song starts with a beat and a sound and that usually comes from the producer. I run my company through record producers. I started out as a record producer. If I let myself go, that’s where the wind takes me. But the trick is — and Maya is amazing at this — to fuse the style of the producer with the artist. Maya is a great judge of what works: she knows how to get the best from her producers.”
Each song is invented differently, but generally Maya likes to whittle her songs down from long jam sessions. “We recorded everything live at the house in L.A.,” Rusko, who produced half the album, including the first single, “XXXO” (which he worked on with Blaqstarr), told me. “We’d record 20-minute takes of Maya doing different vocals and 20 minutes of me doing different beats. On ‘XXXO,’ we tried all this stuff before we got the end result. Maya has ideas that can’t be physically done. She wants this sound or that sound — the tracks already exist in her head. In the end, she has a plan for everything.”
Diplo wasn’t allowed to work at the house (“Her boyfriend really hates me,” he said), so Maya and he recorded “Tell Me Why,” perhaps the closest thing to a pop-radio song on the record, at Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica. “It was my birthday; I was on mushrooms,” he recalled. “It was a special atmosphere: I found the sample” — a patch of music lifted from a song by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers — “and Maya actually whistled. I did 15 demos for her before she finally chose that track. Even if she hates my guts, she knows that we can do crazy stuff together. The sound on her records is unlike anyone else’s, and we all take that very seriously.”
In London, the mood was different. Although she ended up working in the studio until 5 in the morning, Maya was concentrating on other aspects of the record — the top secret “Born Free” video was set to go viral in a week; she still had to do the artwork for the album; and she had to decide what to call the album. She didn’t seem particularly interested in creating a hit. “If we do another song, I want it to be something new,” she said. “And right now, my mind is on other things.
THE NEXT DAY, we were back in the car, on our way to East London to meet with Hermione de Paula, a design team that Maya wanted to hire to create some clothes for her to wear on tour this summer. “I am so tired of stylists,” Maya said. “They are ruining individual style. If Patti Smith was starting now or Debbie Harry, the stylists would try to dress them, to change them. Their style would be lost.” Maya, who was wearing jeans made out of denim that had been quilted into a tribal pattern and a loose crocheted top in red, wanted the Hermione de Paula girls to incorporate her ideas with their existing designs that she had seen on their Web site. “They have a jumpsuit that I like,” Maya said. “But instead of using their fabric, I want them to use a fabric that’s made from a document I found.” She took out her laptop and clicked on an official-looking typed letter that had been censored. Black bars erased certain words. “I’d like to turn this page into fabric,” she said. “I know someone who can do that. And then I want to take that fabric and make it into a jumpsuit. I’d like to turn censorship into fashion.”
It doesn’t stop there: Maya would like to build a stage show around the idea of censorship. When a patron enters the club — “We could only do this in small places,” she acknowledged — every move would be limited. If you went to certain areas, alarms would go off and you might be asked to leave. “I want to be like the government,” Maya said. “It could be interesting.”
The censorship tour is doubtful — Maya is currently booked into large outdoor arenas. She finds performing stressful. In June 2008, she announced at the Bonnaroo festival that her performance there would be her “last gig.” But the record business in 2010 demands touring to ensure record sales, as well as secondary revenue, mainly from T-shirt sales. “Maya has to perform live,” Iovine told me. “That’s the key to success today.” Her tour also gives her an opportunity to spread her antiestablishment/conspiracy-theory message. “I feel like art has a responsibility to make things visually interesting and stimulating,” Maya said now, as we waited, as always, stuck in traffic. “But, at the same time, I like questions. I can’t get a visa right now because of things I’ve said. And that’s wrong. If certain words are banned, then that has to be written up on every box of crayons or paints or on every pen. There needs to be a warning on everything I use to write with that says, ‘Do not write these words, or we will put you in jail.’ ” Maya paused. “And if that’s what America is, then the American people should know that.”
She paused again. “America also has no sense of humor,” she continued. “There’s this show in England about kids who want to be terrorists. It’s brilliant! The kids are buying Ajax to make bombs and trying to think of new ways to do suicide bombings. It’s really, really cool.” She paused again. “Because I think that’s funny, I’ll probably be called a terrorist.” She sighed.
After nearly an hour of driving, we arrived at the designers’ studio. The two women, who were dressed alike in black, loose-fitting tops and platform boots, greeted Maya like a long-lost sister. Their studio was cramped, and two small dogs were happily jumping about near a rack of clothes. Maya’s eye immediately went to the jumpsuit. It was very fitted, with a high Peter Pan collar and cutouts that would reveal flesh on either side of the waist. The girls showed Maya one of their dresses, a slinky column in shades of gray. “No dresses,” she said flatly. “I want to invent an idea for this album, and that idea is based on a uniform. A jumpsuit is like a uniform.”
Maya seemed to be going for a combination of sexy and militaristic. She showed the girls her fabric ideas on her computer, and they were amenable. “Nike is the uniform for kids all over the world,” Maya said for no apparent reason. “And African design has been killed by Nike. Africans no longer want to wear their own designs.” The designers said they thought that was terrible. “The best sportswear is on Blackwater operatives,” Maya continued, referring to the agents who were clandestine guns for hire in Iraq. The designers nodded, but they clearly had no idea what she was talking about. “I want to have a uniform like theirs.”
The oddity of using a garment linked to mercenaries to convey a very different message seemed to elude Maya. As we got ready to leave, she became surprisingly strict with the designers. You are part of my team, she seemed to be saying. And, as part of the team, you must live up to my vision. “I want everything on this album to be a collaboration,” Maya said. The women looked both proud and nervous. They were now recruited.
ROMAIN GAVRAS, THE director of the video for “Born Free,” arrived in London from Paris in April with the master version of the nine-minute minifilm. He was late, because of the ash cloud from Iceland that had engulfed Europe and closed down airports. Gavras had taken the train. All week, Maya was unusually secretive about the “Born Free” video — she would mime zipping her lips whenever anyone asked her about it. Although she showed the video to Richard Russell at XL (“People need to decide if they think it’s valid,” he told me when I asked him about it), she hadn’t sent it to Interscope, even though she planned to release the video in America in four days. “The Interscope lawyers will want to send the video to a censorship board,” she said now. Maya was sitting with Gavras, a tall, bearded man dressed completely in dark blue, from his knit ski hat to his jeans, in XL’s conference room. “I didn’t really approve the video,” she said jokingly. “He hijacked my song.”
Maya met Gavras, who is the son of the politically charged filmmaker Costa-Gavras (his 1969 film “Z,” which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, was a kind of antifascist thriller designed to expose corrupt tactics within the Greek government of the early ’60’s), when she played Paris a few years ago. “He hit on my friend,” Maya recalled. Gavras is willfully notorious: in 2008, his video for the song “Stress,” by the band Justice, depicted a Parisian street gang who steal, destroy tourists’ cameras and beat up innocent bystanders. “For a few months, I was one of the most hated men in France,” Gavras said at the time. “It was fun. It was an amazing free promo,” he continued, adding that in France, “you can only get that much press if you have sex with children.”
Gavras had asked Maya if he could shoot the video for “Paper Planes” on the Mexican border. “I didn’t understand the lyrics,” he said. “I thought it was about illegal immigration.” Maya was game, but Interscope vetoed his idea. “Interscope won,” Maya said. “I don’t want them to win this time.” She paused. “So, do you want to see it?”
Unlike, say, her performance at the Grammys, which was a perfect fusion of spectacle (a nine-months-pregnant woman rapping in a see-through dress) with content (Maya’s fervor was linked to the music), the video for “Born Free” feels exploitative and hollow. Seemingly designed to be banned on YouTube, which it was instantly, the video is set in Los Angeles where a vague but apparently American militia forcibly search out red-headed men and one particularly beautiful red-headed child. The gingers, as Maya called them, using British slang, are taken to the desert, where they are beaten and killed. The first to die is the child, who is shot in the head. While “Born Free” is heard in the background throughout, the song is lost in the carnage. As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve.
“The video was more than fine with me,” Jimmy Iovine told me later that night. Despite Maya’s efforts, he had seen it. “I didn’t even have a blink.” A canny showman, Iovine knew that the video would get attention, that Maya would get her visa (which she did) and that all the noise was good for business. He has a long history of driving record sales with violent imagery: in the 1990s, Interscope was home to Death Row Records, where Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur made millions rapping about all things gangsta. Iovine also appreciates the outrageous: Interscope’s biggest artist is Lady Gaga, who has melded big-time theatricality with disco-based pop, a kind of love child of Elton John and Madonna.
“With our video, we were really copying ‘Telephone,’ ” Maya says now, referring to Gaga’s recent video with Beyoncé. “Both our videos are road movies. We kill people, and they kill people. They start out in a prison, and we start out in a squat, hunting people down.” Maya zipped her lips again. “I can’t talk about Gaga anymore,” she said. “All I’ll say is, it’s upsetting when babies say ga-ga now. It used to be innocent. Now, they’re calling her name.”
Maya feels that Gaga is not original, that she mostly borrows from the Abba playbook, and she gets annoyed when Gaga is compared to Madonna. “You can’t really say that Gaga is culturally a change,” Maya said. “Madonna was truly unique.” Gavras nodded. “And Madonna was pretty,” he said. “Pop stars should be pretty.” Maya flipped open her computer. “Do you want to see this amazing parody of ‘Telephone’?” she asked. “It’s brilliant!” Gavras stood behind Maya and watched. “This parody has three million hits,” Maya said. “That’s way more than I’ve ever had.”
Downstairs at XL in a small recording studio, the producers Magnus and Edwards were working on Maya’s potential hit song, and the XL publicists wanted her to concentrate on her European press. She had finally decided on a title for the record, which was meant to be an artistic rendering of her name. “I need to figure out what to wear for a photo shoot for tomorrow,” Maya said. “I think we should go shopping.”
Gavras and Maya left XL and headed for Portobello Road, a few blocks away. As Maya pointed out the sights (“Stella McCartney owns that building”), she sorted through the racks of clothing that dozens of dealers had set up on the street. She didn’t want to go back to the studio. “I’m in the visual part of my brain now,” Maya said, as she held up an outsize yellow sweater. “The musical part of my brain is shut down.”
While Gavras talked on the phone, Maya walked ahead. She passed a small shop that sold Indian clothing and pottery, most of it cheaply made. There were sparkly shawls and gauze tunics crowding the window. “I used to buy a lot here when I lived in London,” Maya said. She spotted a tiger costume, complete with whiskered hood, hanging next to an orange sari. “Look at that tiger!” Maya said. “I could wear that at the photo shoot tomorrow!” She paused and considered the implications of dressing up as a tiger. “It’s probably too much,” she said finally. “It might seem like I was making a joke.” ~ courtesy: NYTimes.com ~
Lynn Hirschberg is a longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine.