MIA on vaccinations, vindication, and Jesus visions: “People fear me for some reason”Posted by Mike Schumacher
The performer recalls and stokes her contentious past as she promotes her sixth album, criticizing identity politics, the effort to defund the police, and the decision to halt culture.
For 20 years, MIA has been caught between vilification and justification. The rapper and singer, who was born in Sri Lanka and reared in London, has devoted her whole career to speaking out against perceived injustices in the globe, from the underreporting and denial of the Tamil genocide to Julian Assange’s detention as a whistleblower for WikiLeaks. Additionally, she suffers from a fatal condition called foot-in-mouth disease and is prone to flippant and sometimes downright rude trolling in the media and on Twitter.
The music, an inventive, influential, and, to this day, wholly unique body of work, has been at the center of it all. She is one of the favorite musicians of Travis Scott, one of the most popular rappers currently active. In 2020, she received an MBE for her contributions to music.
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Her most introspective song to date, Mata, which was released today, looks back on the highs and lows of her career with an attitude that shows she still has affection for people who have criticized her beliefs. She sings on her new track, Beep, “I tried to make you see I was telling the truth,” and given her cautions against the expansion of digital firms and her development of abrasive noise-pop – years before Yeezus and artists like 100 Gecs – you’re tempted to believe her. Nevertheless, despite all of her introspection, she didn’t let that stop her from tweeting on Wednesday night a controversial comment about right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that had many shocked: “If Alex jones pays for lying, shouldn’t every celebrity pushing vaccines pay too?”
This type of remark is commonplace, as anybody who has been following MIA, real name Mathangi Arulpragasam, throughout her career knows. The 47-year-old rapper is frequently erudite and, just as frequently, profoundly troubling and confusing. She is prone to veering off topic and sharing incredibly detailed historical lessons on Assange’s extradition and the history of the Sri Lankan civil war while speaking over Zoom from Los Angeles two days before Mata is released and about an hour after the Jones tweet.
The record itself doesn’t occupy much of our talk; instead, she goes into a rabbit hole in response to a query about a particular song, concluding that “we’re going to go to Mars and we’re going to evolve the human species.” Instead, MIA expresses her views unembellished on a variety of subjects, including identity politics, Christianity, and, yes, Covid vaccinations. Contrary to other celebrities of her caliber, she doesn’t hesitate to respond to inquiries, and the team members who remain on the Zoom call the entire time—her publicist and a representative from Salxco, her new management company that also represents the Weeknd and Doja Cat—never make an effort to interject, even when the conversation veers toward touchier subjects.
“Faced with having to embrace the concept of Jesus Christ, I was having an existential crisis”
Even though Mata, MIA’s most reflective album, recalls lyrical themes from every phase of her career, it’s evident that this is not an effort to get her back into the popular pop scene she inhabited in the 2010s. Anarchic schoolyard chants, sounds reminiscent of reggaeton and funk carioca, as well as lyrics that appear to reference the foresight of her previous work, are often substituted for basic pop melody on this rhythmic, sample-driven album. She claims, however, that she hasn’t spent time worrying about the fact that some of the issues she raised years ago, like the NSA’s eavesdropping on US residents or the tragedy of the Tamil people, have come to pass. The cosmos is changing so quickly these days, she claims, that it almost seems as if your past is unimportant. When I consider the absurdity of the present world, I think, “Oh, 10 years ago, if they didn’t kill that dude [it is unclear who she refers to] and put that guy in jail, we really wouldn’t have this now.”
The production of Mata caused MIA to experience a great deal of internal turmoil. After filming the Borders music video in India in 2015, she became unwell and had a vision of Jesus that left her feeling “very confused creatively.” She believes that someone performed “some sort of mantra” on her as the cause of the vision. I had doubts about its efficacy, but it proved out to be true. In response to her gradual acceptance of the possibility of death, “I said: “OK, that’s OK, I’m satisfied that I lived and I’ve experienced and done my best. I got the vision as I had given up to death.
After that, MIA had conflict between her newfound Christianity and the Hinduism she had just accepted. It’s not as if I was into the Hindu god who was associated with money; rather, I was into Matangi, a god associated with creativity and the arts, she explains. “I was having an existential crisis,” the author writes, “faced with having to cut that off and embrace the idea of Jesus Christ.”
After visiting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at Belmarsh prison. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
So, according to Mata, “surrendering into the idea that the conflict is within myself” is an aspect of it. She channels what she calls the “vibrancy” of her Tamil ancestry in songs like Zoo Girl and FIASOM, which stands for Freedom Is a State of Mind and is pronounced “fearsome.” Some songs, like The One, appear to embrace the concept of living a moral life. She notes that the epidemic started two years after she had her vision. It’s not a Hindu thing, it’s a Christian thing, and I believe that’s why it occurred, she adds. “That narrative is very Christian.” It makes you ready for an impending event. To comprehend what is occurring, you must use distinct rules.
In recent years, it has been acknowledged that the early treatment of confrontational female stars like Sinéad O’Connor and the Chicks was rife with misogyny. It would have been simple for MIA to mount a comeback based on the idea that she was mistreated by the media and the general public in the early days of her career. She claims that “everyone is more afraid of me than any of those artists.” “Even though I don’t have that kind of financial power, I do feel like people fear me for some reason,” he said. “People are seeing the hyperinflated nature of capitalism and the destruction it causes.”
She understands why the press has been so hesitant to help her recover. She asserts forcefully that outrage over remarks like her tweet about Alex Jones misses the reality that “lying and truth” have been recurring topics in her career. Although she has spoken out on a number of subjects, including the Tamil War and Human Rights in Bangladesh, she claims that her main objective has been to make the public aware of the reality that those in positions of authority often employ deceit. She adds, “I’m not here to talk to stupid people who don’t realize what I’ve done. I received criticism for bringing up the Tamil massacre because, up until 15 years ago, identity politics and the term “oppression” weren’t hip enough. It was not hip. I was thus erased for the whole 15 years.
“Today, you’ve got some white guy who apparently lied and made some families feel terrible, who now has to pay $1bn because he denied someone’s real experience, real loss, and real emotional trauma,” the woman says of Jones. She mentions the 146,000 unaccounted-for Tamil civilians who don’t get the same type of sympathy, even if she finds it “terrible” that Jones’s defamation about the death of their children was directed at the Sandy Hook family. “I would like to bring the same type of court case against every Western publication that said only 40,000 Tamils were killed in the last days of the war if we are going to have a scapegoat in society where somebody is going to pay for [lying about atrocities],” the author added.
On stage at Glastonbury in 2014. Photograph: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns/Getty Images
Although MIA is well aware of the backlash she will face for her tweets about Jones, it’s obvious that her resentment goes beyond any Twitter tiff or outrage cycle. She claims that for 15 years, Tamils have been treated as though they “don’t count, our feelings don’t count, and we don’t care about our dead or the ones that are missing.” I’m going to have to deal with, like, a lot of sheeple who don’t know any better saying, “Oh my God, girl, delete your Twitter,” she says with an American accent. What are you referring to? You can’t say that to me after I spent my whole career paying genuine costs.
So why does she doubt vaccines? Throughout our chat, she often makes connections between the topic and big pharma, the US healthcare system, the housing issue, and public information access—areas of “vital basic human need” that are “exploited for financial gain.”
“They attack anybody by saying things like, ‘Oh, she’s an anti-vaxxer,’ or blah blah blah. She responds, “No, not really, it’s like that. “I am aware of three persons who have passed away after receiving the vaccination and three more who have passed away from Covid. I have experienced this in my life. What is the purpose of anything if someone is going to gaslight me and refute my experience by stating, “No, that’s not your experience?”
At Buckingham Palace with her MBE in January 2020. Photograph: Yui Mok/AFP/Getty Images
(Data released in February 2022 showed that 15 persons in the UK died after getting the vaccine; however, a comprehensive research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed no correlation between the number of fatalities after immunization and obtaining two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. The WHO estimates that more than 6.5 million people have died from COVID globally.)
What is the existence that you are attempting to safeguard by giving me a vaccination if I can’t even have a sensory experience, analyze that data internally, and draw some type of inference? I reside in a world where I am constantly faced with decisions?
Throughout our chat, the concept of freedom without actual choice is brought up multiple times. “On the one hand, I feel like there’s even more of a crackdown on that, but there’s this weird idea that we’re all free, that we fight for everything, and we can say what we want.”
In a similar vein, she views identity politics as disregarding essential human needs that are still unmet. The essential requirements for human survival are food, drink, shelter, and clothes, she asserts. After you have the comfort of those things, identity politics and all this other stuff arises. When you eat well and your body and brain are functioning normally, you can sit and contemplate whether you want to go out and drink or if you want to act or think in a certain manner.
She uses the US effort to defund the police as an example and asserts that doing so would lead to poverty and misery. Even the cops, whom we’re meant to despise, she claims, “had people losing their livelihoods and losing their jobs and can’t pay rent, families losing their homes because they’re threatened with this choice of following orders or not following orders.” “That is actually really taking place right outside our door; this is not taking place in Sri Lanka; this is taking place in the west; this is taking place in your neighborhood.”
She claims that the issue with the cancel culture is this. We don’t all have to, say, make effigies of individuals and burn them in the public for saying anything, going after them like Guy Fawkes, out of fear of being seen as the other, in my opinion.
Time is up for us. This talk with MIA raises more questions than it does solutions, as it has done throughout her career. If there is a sympathetic angle on some of her more alarming views, it is that it is understandable that, after experiencing the uprooting of her family in Sri Lanka and the disorienting effects of fame, she would look far and wide for an explanation of her experiences, not least in her embrace of Christianity. Although she may never have enough time to fully express her feelings on the status of the world, she does assert one universal truth: “I’d like to be there when the shit goes down – revolution.”
Mata is now free on Island.
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