M.I.A. on Standing Up for Refugees, Working With Zayn & Making Her 'Breakup Album'

Daniel Kennedy
“You can see my skin tone. It’s not like I haven’t suffered,” says M.I.A., photographed Aug. 29 at Lock Studios in London.

"Let’s see what these girls talk about and how they do it,” says M.I.A., scanning through a pile of glossy magazines before picking out British GQ with Charlize Theron on the cover. “She’s had a crazy life. Let’s see how she stays out of controversy,” says the singer, real name Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, a wicked grin lighting up her face.

M.I.A. Photos: The Billboard Shoot

Dressed in black heeled boots, dark leggings and bright blue Adidas T-shirt, the petite 41-year-old — perched on a sofa in a London studio — looks more like a wet-behind-the-ears buzz act than a battle-hardened veteran five albums into her career. In person, M.I.A. is far bubblier than her incendiary Twitter feed suggests, but still doesn’t shy away from provocative statements: “I can’t be compared to other industry acts, because I don’t have a 10-man team behind me profiting off my brand. I’m not a brand. I’m a person, and that’s the difference,” she says with a steely gaze. “From day one I have talked about what is important to me, even though it wasn’t cool at the time, but it’s cool and trendy now. I have contributed to women who don’t have to compromise to be in the music industry.”

For an artist who announced her mainstream arrival with the sound of gunshots (courtesy of breakthrough single “Paper Planes” in 2007), shock is nothing new. The most recent controversy stemmed from comments she made to London newspaper The Evening Standard about Black Lives Matter, saying: “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter?” The uproar got her dropped from the Afropunk festival in London, and two months latter the matter still rankles. “I feel like I’m the only outsider at this point, as a musician, who can even say this because there isn’t anyone else,” she says, explaining that her comments were not criticizing Black Lives Matter, but the hegemony of American politics in pop culture at the expense of more global concerns. “Where is the other immigrant who is going to say it? You can see my skin tone. It’s not like I haven’t suffered any of the shit with race or being persecuted that everybody is talking about.” That’s why the current refugee crisis cuts so deep. “That kid who has just come over is going to go through all the things I went through, only this time it’s a Syrian and not a Tamil,” says the singer, who was born to Tamil parents in London and raised in Sri Lanka. “If that whole journey is another 10 years to make another me, that’s a long time to wait for someone to come and talk about it.”

M.I.A. has always been comfortable vocalizing her positions, an attitude that occasionally seems like self-sabotage. In 2010, she responded to a high-profile (and highly critical) New York Times profile by tweeting the reporter’s cell number. Performing with Madonna and Nicki Minaj at the 2012 Super Bowl, she gave her biggest ever audience (or, at least, the video camera) the finger, an act that earned her a $16 million lawsuit from the NFL (they settled). She has picked fights with everyone from Justin Bieber to Lady Gaga, and she can’t seem to get a U.S. visa (perhaps due to past support of the Tamil Tigers separatist group), which makes touring stateside difficult.

The previous evening, M.I.A. had flown back to London, where she lives with her 7-year-old son Ikhyd, after a monthlong stay in India. The original purpose of the trip was to study. Instead, she found herself corralling a 100-strong film crew into shooting a video for latest single “Freedun,” featuring Zayn. “I didn’t want to be a tyrant, but when I practiced that ethic of ‘chilled director,’ nothing got done! Absolutely f—ing nothing,” she says of the shoot, which only came about when her manager “dangled” the former One Direction heartthrob in front of her. “She said, ‘Zayn wants to come to India tomorrow.’ I was like, ‘What for?’ I’m not making a video!’ ” In the end, she took the bait and shot the video.

“Freedun,” a lithe and upbeat pop song in which M.I.A. calls herself “a swagger man from the people’s republic of swagistan,” exemplifies the playful, conciliatory mood that runs through AIM, her fifth and, she claims, final album, which arrived Sept. 9. “AIM is about the survivor. I’ve realized there’s no point in me constantly complaining. I’ve got to turn around and look at what happens [to you] once you survive something,” says M.I.A., whose family — minus her largely absent activist father — fled to London as refugees of the Sri Lankan civil war when she was 10. She learned English, went to school and talked her way into art college, where she forged the “refugee aesthetic” that has defined her music. To be fair, she comes by any persecution complex honestly: Her childhood (“I was shot at. Bombed for being a Tamil ... Seven of us slept in a room”) had a profound impact, so when she saw reports of the Middle East refugee crisis she was propelled to respond. She quickly wrote the song “Borders” — a blast of metallic beats, Internet slang (“being bae”) and rebel attitude (“guns blow doors to the system”). The track, released last fall, was intended as a standalone work, with no plans for a full album. “Then I became single,” she says, alluding to an acrimonious split with Benjamin Bronfman, son of former Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr., and father to Ikhyd. “I realized I need music to help me. That’s when I started writing.”

She calls the result a “breakup album,” although anyone expecting a collection of tear-stained ballads is in for a shock. Recorded in London, Los Angeles and Jamaica, and featuring production by Skrillex, Blaqstarr and a remix from her once-estranged ex Diplo, AIM’s 12 tracks span polemical bombast (refugee-inspired “Borders”), dreamy synth-pop (“Survivor”) and woozy Bollywood-style bangers (“Go Off”). “I’m not sure if I suit the album format as a person,” she says about her future. “The first thing that comes to mind is that I want to study.”

M.I.A. says her retreat from fame dates to her third album, Maya. “In 2010 I was like, ‘What’s the point in me doing anything?’ It doesn’t mean shit and it’s only about money. There’s loads of people who do it better,” she says, noting that music today seems at a dead end: “At the end of rap music is Kanye West. The entire genre is boiled down and distilled to Kanye! Indie is distilled to Coldplay. And pop is distilled to Taylor Swift.”

So if AIM does mark the end of M.I.A., what does she think her legacy will be? “That I didn’t take the easy route, but still survived.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 24 issue of Billboard.