RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The rapper M.I.A. had her breakthrough moment with this hit six years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER PLANES")
M.I.A.: (Singing) All I want to do...
(Singing) And a...
(Singing) And take your money. All I want to do...
MONTAGNE: The song, "Paper Planes," was featured in the hit movie "Slumdog Millionaire." And with that the world was introduced to an artist who learned to survive and, these days, thrive as a rebel, an outsider. She spent her early childhood in war-torn Sri Lanka, then a public housing project in London. M.I.A. sees herself as a champion of people who grew up in tough situations like hers.
Our colleague David Greene spoke to M.I.A. about her life and latest album called "Matangi."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD GIRLS")
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
"Matangi" is actually M.I.A.'s real first name. And, as it happened, it's also the name of a Hindu goddess of music, something M.I.A. discovered by serendipity during a Google search.
M.I.A.: And she popped up and I was like, wow, there's actually a goddess called Matangi. That's weird. And her mantra was aim, which is M.I.A. backwards.
GREENE: Very cool.
M.I.A.: And she lived on the outskirts of mainstream society. And she fought for the voice of people.
GREENE: I want to bring out some of the songs, Matangi, from your new album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GREENE: What are we hearing here? What are you singing about?
M.I.A.: That's just some Tamil syllables I remembered from school when I lived there in Sri Lanka.
GREENE: Her family is Tamil. That's the largest ethnic minority on the island. Her father was a separatist involved in the civil war, so her mother tried to get M.I.A. out of the country.
M.I.A.: We attempted to leave about four or five times, and every time we'd get stopped. And they would stop the bus and take all the men off the bus and we never saw them again.
GREENE: M.I.A. and her mom eventually got out of Sri Lanka and they landed as refugees in a poor London neighborhood.
You made your way to St. Martin's, a very prestigious art school in London. How did you get there?
M.I.A.: I didn't really apply. I just called them every single day. Then eventually they gave me an interview. I don't know how. I didn't have any work, I didn't have any grades. But I believed that it was a massive responsibility to say yes or no to a student. So yeah, I said if you say no, I will literally get on the first bus and go where it takes me. And it just so happens, the only bus you could take outside St. Martin's went to King's Cross, which was the biggest prostitution area.
GREENE: And you're telling them this, that: You say no to me and I'm going to end up on that bus?
M.I.A.: Yes. I said I'll walk out and I'm going to get on that bus and go where it takes me. And the last stop on wherever bus that was, was King's Cross. So I said it doesn't matter, I'll go to King's Cross and I'll go through the motions of being a hooker or being a drug addict or, you know, becoming a smart criminal. And...
GREENE: Yeah, that didn't put any pressure on them whatsoever, I...
M.I.A.: And then I said but, I will have the best film in three years' time from going through that. And I bet you the film would be better than any other film that anyone is going to make in this class.
M.I.A.: And then they let me in.
GREENE: And that is the brashness that helped M.I.A. break into the world of hip-hop, where she's known for infusing her music with politics.
Your reputation among many is that you are an angry rapper. And listening to you now, I mean you this gentle voice. It's fascinating to chat with you. But I wanted to bring up one song and talk to you about it from the new album. It's "Boom Skit" and it's about you not feeling welcomed in the United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOM SKIT")
GREENE: She's talking about Ugandan revolutionary Joseph Kony. He abducted children and forced them to fight in his militia. An American Internet video told the story of one child soldier named Jacob. The video brought massive attention to Uganda's civil war. M.I.A. says, in contrast, Sri Lanka has been all but forgotten.
M.I.A.: It was really confusing to me 'cause I was like, well, what's the difference? One is a story where an American person goes to Uganda, picks out the story and then uploads it to YouTube. And me, I can be on the same category as Jacob, but I did the journey myself. Like, nobody had to come to my village and save me and articulate my story. But...
GREENE: You feel like Jacob, the child soldier, I mean, got all of this attention. And you came from on a very similar path in your life and have been disrespected.
M.I.A.: Yes, but I've done it myself. Got to a microphone myself, got nominated for, you know, a Grammy and an Oscar the same month, to make the biggest platform possible in America. Then I told the story and it didn't translate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOM SKIT")
GREENE: I want to ask you about one thing in this song, "Boom Skit," about the Super Bowl halftime show in 2012, which some of us remember, you performed. This was a huge audience, an American audience, and on camera you gave us all the middle-finger. Why did you do that?
M.I.A.: It's the Matangi mudra.
GREENE: What is that? Why does that explain it?
M.I.A.: Well, you know gang signs. You have in America you have gang signs. Well, 5,000 years ago, there was thing called a mudra, which is your sitting position when you do yoga or you're meditating or you're praying or whatever. And there's not a lot of them that are named after gods and goddesses, but the middle-finger is specifically named the Matangi mudra.
GREENE: So you were not giving America the middle finger? This was the Matangi symbol?
M.I.A.: Yes. Do you like that?
M.I.A.: It's good, isn't it?
GREENE: Something tells me...
GREENE: ...that there might have been another meaning in that.
M.I.A.: It's cultural. In my country, it's godly. OK?
GREENE: Now, is the NFL believing that? I know they're suing you for like one and a half million dollars.
M.I.A.: Of course the NFL is not believing that, because the NFL does not believe in any other culture outside of the NFL.
GREENE: Should I believe you or are you winking in the studio there in New York?
M.I.A.: But it's true; you can Wikipedia it. You could just say Matangi and then mudra, and you'll see it's the middle finger.
GREENE: A lot of people describe you as provocative.
GREENE: Is that a fair label?
M.I.A.: I don't know. I don't intentionally go: Ooh, what is provocative, and try to do that. I just do stuff and people go: Ooh, that's provocative. But I think maybe because sometimes I'm super-ignorant, and sometimes they're super-ignorant.
GREENE: M.I.A., this has been a real pleasure. We thank you for the time.
M.I.A.: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Mr. Greene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: That's rapper M.I.A. speaking with our own David Greene.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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