MIA takes on Google, YouTube and Wikipedia
by Malik Meer
Sri Lankan military take down my videos and bully my fans, says the controversial star on a trawl through her web profile. But she's fighting back by communicating in characters
"Mathangi 'Maya' Arulpragasam (born 18 July 1975), better known by her stage name MIA, is a Sri Lankan/British songwriter, record producer, singer, rapper, fashion designer, visual artist, and political activist."
And right now, perched on a sofa at the XL Records office in west London, staring into her gold Apple MacBook, MIA is reading the above words on her Wikipedia entry. Seven years after her first single Galang spread across the web like an art-school-incubated virus – confirming her status as one of the first pop stars of the digital age – she's back with /\/\/\Y/\ (or Maya, for those who can decipher the slashes), and the Guardian has asked her to talk us through her online presence in an attempt to sort fact from fiction. On paper this sounds like a straightforward process. In reality though, as with MIA's music, a single answer can see her head off across continents on dizzying tangents, and encompass pop references, multi-layered political rants, occasional bouts of paranoia, identity politics, and what was the question again?
We meet 10 days after the music blogs have gone into meltdown following her "trufflegate" feud with the New York Times after its writer Lynn Hirschberg suggested MIA wasn't as 4REAL as she claims. MIA responded by posting the writer's mobile number on Twitter and uploading a clip of the interview online. "This is the new shit," she says unabashedly. "This is the new way to interpret the news for artists because we have got the internet, we have got Twitter, we have got all our fans right there. So why do you have to let someone like Lynn shit on you?"
A prolific web user, she says she doesn't really have a favourite go-to website or music blog because she doesn't trust many of them. "I do go on my Twitter [@_M_I_A_] and look at what my fans say though," she admits. "If my fans are funny then I'll retweet and read what they're saying about other shit." Other than that she says she spends a lot of time looking at "stoopid shit", Mexican gangs, Islamic art, images of "3D mosques", and web art, which is where she discovered the photo illusions of Jaime Martinez and signed him to her label NEET.
Recently, MIA also warned fans that Google was developed with the help of CIA seed money. And her new album opens with The Message, a robotic skit that goes: "iPhone's connected to the internet connected to the Google connected to the government." Still, she's game for our Google challenge. Let the digital dissection begin ...
MIA on her Wikipedia entry
Firstly, we ask her to pull up her Wikipedia entry. It's fairly generic, detailing everything from her name in Tamil script to her love of Harmony Korine and radical cinema. "I hate my Wikipedia page," she announces as soon as it loads up. "It's really boring to look at. I'd get rid of all this white space. And I'd make the font a bit more interesting." If you've ever seen the fluoro overload of her own website or Twitter page this should come as no surprise. As Wikipedia is notorious for its user-generated inaccuracies and also prone to sabotage, has she – as someone with form in using the net to set the record straight – ever doctored her own entry? "No," she insists. "I really don't know how to do that."
We scroll through the page. In the "Art and Film" sub-section it says, "Jude Law was among early buyers of artwork" after her stint at St Martins. That's a lie, surely?
"It's true, actually. He said that his house got burgled and someone took it, though." So, somewhere in London a burglar is sitting on an original MIA print? "Yeah and he's probably, like, peed on it or something and couldn't give a shit," she jokes. We whizz through the sections on her time working with Elastica and meeting electro sex pest Peaches who encouraged her to make music – all true. Is there anything on here that is incorrect? "Are you working for Wikipedia?" she laughs. "I haven't actually read it in detail but … I thought it was interesting that the section on Diplo got removed when we stopped working together. He emailed me about that; that's why I know that section's missing."
Does she know who removed it? "I have no idea."
MIA on why her new album is un-Googleable
MIA often tweets using nothing but keystrokes and punctuation. So it's hardly surprising that she used the outer reaches of the keyboard to spell out the title of new album, /\/\/\Y/\. Why? "I know it's hard," she says sarcastically, "but once we get there it's gonna be OK. You're learning to use keys that are not letters …" She instructs me to type: "Forward strike, backwards strike, forward strike, backwards strike and so on, then Y for 'Why are we doing this?' [laughs] Then we go back to forward strike ..."
So we put /\/\/\Y/\ into Google, hit return and – drum roll, please! – no matches are returned (possibly because Google doesn't recognise slashes as characters). "OK, it doesn't come up, yeah, but one day that'll be coded and take you somewhere amazing." Ask her why she didn't choose something more Google-friendly and her response is another declaration of war on The Man: "To resist the internet is really difficult to do. I mean, there are so many cunts on there. Loads of Wall Street dudes are stepping on to the internet and seeing it as the gold rush and I think it's [about] not wanting to be used for that reason …"
MIA on the music blogs
On the day of our interview, the music blogs are running a story about the appearance of a new MIA vocal on a track called Toldya by British outfit Sali. It rates highly when we first Google "MIA" (alongside the Born Free video and, unexpectedly, her version of The Wire theme with Baltimore's Blaqstarr). NME.com, meanwhile, runs the story as "MIA lends her vocals to new underground track Toldya." So, how did the track come about? "That's not me," she quickly corrects. "It's somebody that's taken a bit of my song and now they're saying that I worked with them. They asked for permission but I didn't write back so they put it out anyway." She sighs: "I already have to deal with being misrepresented all the fucking time but when it's people you know adding to it, then it gets really hard."
And there's another misconception that she'd like to clear up: that former boyfriend and collaborator Diplo produced her first album. "That annoys the fuck out of me because I met him way after I finished it. Everyone is always [adopts mardy voice], 'The producer who made all the songs.' If you read the credits, he worked on one song and that's just putting somebody else's song next to my vocal. Diplo was the mediator with the phone numbers."
MIA on YouTube (and the Sri Lankan government)
MIA's fraught relationship with the Sri Lankan government has been well documented. She named her first album after her father, Arular, a key member of the Tamil separatist movement, and his links to the Tamil Tigers have earned her a "terrorist sympathiser" tag. She has spoken out against the events which last year saw Tamil civilians rounded up and placed in prison camps after the defeat of Tamil Tigers; she says she agreed to perform at the Grammys with Jay-Z, Kanye and Lil Wayne to bring international attention to the cause. She's also tweeted links to executions carried out by the Sri Lankan government. But it's when we direct her to YouTube that she really begins to vent. Type "MIA" into the site and her Clash-sampling, film-soundtrack-bothering global hit Paper Planes is the first video up. But it's hosted by US video channel Vevo, not by her own channel, or any of her fans.
"They buried my Paper Planes, none of my fucking shit comes up," she says. "All my videos have been constantly pulled, the latest thing that's up there is from 11 months ago."
Who's pulling them? The record company?
"No, the Sri Lankan government is writing to them and saying, 'If you stick MIA videos up we're gonna take you to jail for supporting terrorism.'"
What follows is a convoluted, impassioned, 15-minute rant covering death squads, Californian internet servers and Sri Lanka's defence minister. In summary, here are the key points:
1) The Sri Lankan government bombarded fans who uploaded her videos, asking them to remove them: "They've Facebooked and MySpaced my fans saying, 'If you support this person you'll get done for terrorism because under the PTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act] you're supporting someone who supports a terrorist group and you're a terrorist because it covers anything to do with affiliation.'"
2) For a developing country, the government is also scarily clued-up when it comes to the internet, due to its IT links with the west: "They really fucking know what they're fucking doing and it's crazy fucked-up that I am the first artist on the internet who happened to be a Tamil. And the first government that took down the Tamils is the most internet-championing family of the third world. So it was a battle of the internet when we got on there."
3) Her track Sunshowers from 2004 is one of the oldest MIA videos on YouTube. It's hosted by someone called TubeyBooby and the user comments tell their own story. "He's the only fan that's got shit up," she says with pride. "Whoever he is and wherever he is, he doesn't give a fuck, I like him ... I have the Sunshowers comments printed out." There are 10,000 of them, she says, and if you look, you can see where "the military started going in and commenting".
4) By 2008, she says, the propaganda was kicking in and she was "getting boxed in by my own shit". But she doesn't regret anything she's done or said and puts it down to experience: "That's a great lesson to learn, like, this is how it can be manipulated."
MIA on internet skits
As things are, unsurprisingly, getting a little heavy, the Guardian suggests we lighten the mood by searching for "MIA + comedy". "Didn't you find my Born Free video funny?" she jokes, about the Romain-Gavras video which comes with an age restriction on YouTube. "I try to be funny but it's always misconstrued." Although there's a great sketch in which comedian Aziz Ansari tells how he planned to employ his best Tamil chat-up line on MIA, little comes up. However, one site does: Amiright.com advertises itself as "making fun of music, one song at a time" and includes parody songs (All He Wants To Do Is Shoot And Kill Bugs Bunny to the tune of Paper Planes) and a section called "change a song letter in a song title" which sees MIA's Galang become Galant, a Mitsubishi car model. MIA stares at it blankly.
"What? That's meant to be funny? There's loads of fun stuff in my songs; you'll get it if you listen," she protests. "Anyway, I say jokes and people think it's the most fucking controversial thing anyone's ever said. The thing I said about Justin Bieber was a joke but no one got it ..." (She said she found his video "more violent and more of an assault to my eyes and senses than what I've made.").
"So I'm not gonna say jokes any more," she jokes. "You can't trick me, I'm not gonna walk into that trap." - courtesy: The Guardian - UK -