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Exclusive: M.I.A. Gets Drunk, Talks Beyoncé

M.I.A.Photo: Duquenois / DALLE / Retna

M.I.A.’s new album, Kala, was recorded in Bollywood studios, Indian fishing villages, and Trinidadian forests — but not by choice. The Sri Lankan robo-diva (née Maya Arulpragasam) had been set to record with Timbaland in the United States last year, but, even though she pays rent on a Bed-Stuy apartment, she was denied an American work visa (possibly owing to her implicit support of Sri Lankan terrorist group the Tamil Tigers). No matter; Kala is a delirious, dance-inducing amalgamation of Sri Lankan folk music, Bollywood caricature, and didgeridoo flatulence. In short: It’s awesome. M.I.A spoke with Vulture.

How do you like living in Bed-Stuy?
I like it a lot. I live on top of a club and across the way from the mosque. There are African communities, the hip-hop community, [and] you’ve got a lot of Indians there. You’ve got Tyler Pope, the bassist from LCD Soundsystem, living out there. There’s a community brewing, people who are doing these electronic, digital sounds.

How did your visa situation affect Kala?
I was like, “Shit, I talk about being a refugee so much that I’ve become one.” I didn’t have access to any of my clothes, my demos, or my equipment. I thought, Can you walk into a town today and make a song with what you find? I was like, I’ll just go and sit in the middle of Africa and see how it comes out.

Where did you go?
I was in India for a long time and then I went to Trinidad. I got there the week this little boy got killed by two other boys. It’s the worst story I’ve heard in my life. This boy dragged himself home for two miles and died when he got to the front of his house. The craziest uproar was happening on the island; everyone wanted these two boys dead. We landed and set up in the middle of that. People think of Trinidad as the party place of the whole planet. It made me realize that in a party place, the dark side is much darker.

Were you incorporating local music traditions into your tracks?
Sometimes. In India, I used the temple drums they play at funerals. These huge, massive drums that they hang around their necks. And they get drunk, and when they play, they start doing cartwheels. It’s so crazy, it’s so mad. I thought, If I have to buy them a bottle of Bacardi and get them to drum on my song, I’m going to do it.

Did they drink Bacardi straight?
Yeah. It’s actually a drink called Arac. It’s the strongest drink they have in India. It just burns you. These men have been doing it for so long. You have to get them drunk because it’s just made up on the spot; it’s freestyle.

How did people respond to you in India?
I tried not to get drunk too much — I’m already too over the top for them. Just the fact that I make music, they were like, “Who are you? What are you doing?” I think they thought I was really overexcited. I was like, “Oh, my God, you guys are so major!” India is one of those places where you think everyone is more musical than you.

Are there things happening, musically, in New York that you’re interested in?
The new music, digital-beat sound is getting more solid. I don’t know if that’s particular to New York. In Bed-Stuy, there are communities of kids growing up on the bed of hip-hop, in a neighborhood, where Biggie and Lil’ Kim came from. And now you’ve got Senegalese kids wearing white tees because they’re cheap and you can buy ten in a pack, not because it has any relevance in representing the hood. It doesn’t seem like they are jumping to make generic hip-hop — they want to make something of their own.

What do you think of Beyoncé?
She’s like super. She’s like harder, faster, stronger. In our lifetime, Beyoncé will be a classic, like how people talk about Aretha Franklin.
—Emma Pearse

Exclusive: M.I.A. Gets Drunk, Talks Beyoncé