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Refugee, political fire-starter, earth-shaking pop icon. This September, MIA returns with her fifth and final fuck you, AIM.

On June 7 2014, photographer Massimo Sestini flew directly over a shipping container bowing and swaying under the tug of 300 or so migrants. As the Italian Navy rescue helicopter dovetailed the Atlantic, and as Sestini’s camera fired out reels of shots, the men and women below through their arms to the sky, as if crying out to the world for retribution.

In the music video MIA directed for “Borders” — the first single from her September LP, AIM — Sestini’s horrifically inhumane set-piece is brought into motion. In it, cameras crane over boats of extras, actual refugees the rapper recruited from camps in Sri Lanka. The clip was filmed on the site of a real-life border crossing in rural India. Because police stopped extras from accessing the only area of shade on set, many of them came away from it with blistered faces and severe sunburn.

LEFT (Dress VALENTINO, boots VETEMENTS)
RIGHT (Dress MCQ)

LEFT (Dress VALENTINO, boots VETEMENTS)
RIGHT (Dress MCQ)

These kinds of political clusterfucks are ten-a-penny in Mathangi “MIA” Arulpragasam’s world. In the weeks before our chat, the 41-year-old had her headline slot at London’s Afropunk festival cancelled after weighing in on the Black Lives Matter movement. “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter?” she asked ES magazine’s Richard Godwin. “That’s a more interesting question. You cannot create that tag on Twitter, Michelle Obama is not going to hump you back.” A swarm of online abuse followed, and it wasn’t at the thought of being “humped” by Michelle Obama. Like most celebrities in the throes of a public shaming, the rapper was left relatively defenceless.

When we talk over the phone, MIA is in a car, bouncing along a motorway in India. I’m sitting on a set of stairs in a flat in Notting Hill, the west London area where she shared a flat with Justine Frischmann in the 1990s. “This car has air conditioning, so my voice is changing as I’m speaking,” she says. I press MIA on the meaning of her pop music as she approaches the release of her fifth and final record, and she’s indubitable in her one word reply. “Liberational.” Like the refugees in the “Borders” clip — who form two parallel lines either side of the singer, like invading ant colonies — MIA is a second generation immigrant. Before London, she was raised in Jaffna, an area of southern India home to terrorist organisation the Tamil Tigers. Her father became a freedom fighter there, and MIA bounced from war-torn convents — where Sri Lankan Civil War militants would aim machine guns at first-graders through classroom windows — to the dilapidated property her family squatted in Madras.

Things hardly improved when the Arulpragasams emigrated to live on the Phipps Bridge Estate, one of south London’s most notorious crime vortexes.

Dress BALENCIAGA, hoodie VETEMENTS

Dress BALENCIAGA, hoodie VETEMENTS

AIM is an inwardly-looking record. It charts her metamorphosis from border-crossing refugee to rich, well-known artist in order to say something about the world we live in today. After four albums of brilliantly skew-whiff rap fables on tribalism, consumerism and marginalised societies, AIM is MIA staring herself out in the mirror. One Direction expat Zayn guest spots on “Freedun”, a breezily melodic song about MIA’s much-scrutinised public image: “History is just a competition/ Think of me like Tarzan/ I’m swinging this beat, salvation.” “I’m gonna fight Ben with my pen” she taunts in “Talk”, presumably name-checking ex-husband Benjamin Bronfman, who MIA battled with for the legal custody of their son, Ikhyd Edgar Arular Bronfman, back in 2013. “This system has to come with way better shit than racism.”

“I came from a really fucked up political background and got bombed and shot at, but the revolution ended and this is what happens to you, six years later,” she says. “You’re still waiting to see how the so-called democratic dream works out for you.” To announce the record, MIA asked poet and Tamil sympathiser Sinthujan Varatharajah to post a statement. “MIA // AIM” is a 27-line prose on the plight of the modern day British ‘fugee. “Survivors [of war, who have] crossed countless continents, countries and borders, leaving behind their homes, lives and dead,” it read. “…only to be rendered invisible, silent and forgotten in exile.”

But AIM is as much a reconciliation with the past as it is a comment on current affairs. MIA’s ex-boyfriend Diplo returns to the mixing desk after a six year absence from her discography. The result is the slow, minimalist war drums of “Bird Song”, which Dip’ co-produced with fellow EDM maverick, Blaqstarr. “When we made ‘Bird Song’, I was like: ‘Oh my god, this is like some other shit.’ And Blaqstarr’s version, the first one, sounds like: ‘Wow, this is exactly what the song is.’ It’s liberating, you know? It’s what music can be for me. It’s all about liberation.

LEFT (Sweater RAF SIMONS)
MIDDLE (T-shirt “FLY PIRATE” BY M.I.A, boots BALENCIAGA)
RIGHT (Dress VETEMENTS, boots BALENCIAGA)

LEFT (Sweater RAF SIMONS)
MIDDLE (T-shirt “FLY PIRATE” BY M.I.A, boots BALENCIAGA)
RIGHT (Dress VETEMENTS, boots BALENCIAGA)

“I don’t think this record is going to get the same love as any of my records from America, for political and personal reasons,” she admits bluntly. “Which is fine — that’s what the record is about. I’m the one that you want to not give a voice to, because you personally don’t like where I come from — but that is what keeps the whole of humanity in this crazy cycle. The aim, ultimately, is this question — to be like, can you rise above that? People have wars over this shit. Some wars are important, but if you’re fighting wars that are just motivated by ego, insecurity, jealousy, ignorance, because you don’t understand the other community… This needs to be looked at.”

The track “Go Off” is the result of a chance meeting between Blaqstarr, Skrillex and MIA in a hotel lobby back in 2006. After hitting it off, Blaq’ and Skrill’ worked on the tune in one of the rooms upstairs, on a pair of busted speakers. “Skrillex just happened to be there. He’s a bit of an alien, and bringing the two together, it was two aliens in a room. Blaqstarr’s a really interesting person, too — he doesn’t work like any other producer I know. He’s like a mad genius who will knock out a song in five minutes, but if you walk out the room to go and have a pee, he’ll be over it.” The result is one of MIA’s sickest, simplest, most stripped-back cuts, pairing Fisher Price-quality beats — the sound of a toddler smacking on the back of a flower pot — with blood-rippling 808s.

Its music clip comprises drone footage emulating the US air strikes carried out during the War on Terror. It’s a bold series of shots, showing gargantuan chunks of earth collapsing and rockets of sand-dust careening out of shot.

As MIA’s album career draws to a close, the pop-sphere loses an important political firebrand, whose commitment to anti-censorship and freedom of speech is as inspiring as it is hopeless. Still, Jeremy Corbyn is seemingly on board: the Labour leader started following her on Twitter earlier this year. “If I met him, I’d probably want to date him,” MIA LOLs, lightening up for a moment. “I’m in India, and Jeremy Corbyn is like their idea of a yogi, you know? He’s like a man that can stand in a storm and keep very, very still.” Isn’t that what you really want in a leader, I ask? Someone who can stand in a storm and keep absolutely, resolutely, still.

Tracksuit VETEMENTS, boots & OTHER STORIES

Tracksuit VETEMENTS, boots & OTHER STORIES
Photography
Pierreange Carlotti
Fashion
Nicco Torelli
Words
Jack Mills
Hair
Philippe Mensah at l’atelier 68
Make Up
William Bartel at Artlist
Nails
Julie Villanova at Artlist
Fashion Assistant
Abigail Hazard

Thanks to Hotel Molitor Paris

Gather 'Round The Good Stuff

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