MIA doesn't just 'sing' or 'rap'; those terms are too pedestrian, too neatly packaged for what she does. She detonates words, explodes beats, and her songs are shrapnel, embedding themselves under your skin. She weaves tales that are as much about the blood-stained streets of war-torn nations as they are about the sweat-soaked dancefloors of London's underground scene. Her Oscar-nominated 2008 song – O Saya from Slumdog Millionaire – was a collaboration with our very own AR Rahman. Her latest hit Time Traveler from the 2022 album Mata and her return to India as the headliner for NH7 Weekender in Pune brings things full circle.
Is there a particular message you hope to convey in your festival set?
It's all about how it resonates with each individual and the unique vibes they take away from it.
In what ways has your upbringing in London – with its own vibrant music scene – shaped your approach to music?
London, for me, has always been this incredible melting pot of cultures. I mean, going back to the '90s, when things like the Indian summer were happening – not to age myself too much! It was this exciting time with a boom of daytime Bangladeshi culture. I vividly remember places like Blue Note, where everyone would gather, and tracks like Blue Monday had us all dancing. Living through the Indian aspect of it was just something else.
Nowadays, with the rise of technology, it seems like there's a push for everyone to stick to their own corners. But back in the day, London was the opposite. Musically, it was the centre of the world. Growing up in that environment gave me the confidence as a brown girl to knock on the doors of any record label and say, "I'm serious about music." In London, you had to be serious, and that's what made the music scene there absolutely brilliant.
You've also been involved in fashion, with H&M's recycling campaign for example. What drew you to sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion is a big deal for me, always has been. Sure, the whole idea of having a brand and selling clothes has been dangling in front of me, but I've held back because I don't want to be just another contributor to the world's pollution woes. It's like I'm taking careful steps, not small, but definitely cautious, to build something without harming the world that's given me so much.
I've got this thing about being conscious – conscious of people polluting rivers in India, conscious of environmental issues, conscious of nutrition. It's always been there, both in my thoughts and kind of ingrained in who I am. Heck, even my dad was in the mix, working with the government in the '80s to figure out ways for sustainable agriculture in India. Designing machines, setting up programmes – he was on it. So, I guess you could say I've been brought up with a certain ethos, and it's something I want to carry forward in what I do, especially when it comes to fashion.
Looking back on your career, is there a particular moment or achievement that you're most proud of?
Oh man, there are so many moments that make me go, 'Whoa, did that really happen?' It's hard to pick just one, but let me tell you about my first show at Coachella. I was so clueless about what was going on. I hit the stage, people started shouting, and I was like, 'Wait, I only have four songs, what do I do now?'
We went into panic mode, trying to dismantle the stage, and the crowd was just roaring. Then they started chanting 'MIA, MIA,' and we had to put the stage back together. I had to track down some journalist hanging out with Diplo, who was my DJ at the time – hilarious, right? Just picture that chaos. And that's when (record executive) Jimmy Iovine showed up and said, 'You're the future.' He convinced me to sign with Interscope Records, and that moment, let me tell you, it was nuts. I had no idea people in America had even heard of MIA, beyond this tiny part I played. I think I'd done like three shows or something. Wild times.
After such a diverse and influential career, what does success mean to you now, compared to when you first started?
You know, some folks are just obsessed with power. They want to meet you, boost your influence, up your credibility – it's a game I've had to play along with. I guess, being considered on one side all the time makes them think rubbing your back is justified. But success, for me, is one day being vindicated. It's that moment when you can say, 'The universe works in mysterious ways.'
I remember when I made the Maya album, diving into the whole censorship of freedom and speech, internet ownership stuff, you know? They straight-up deleted me to push their agenda. They suppressed my voice, threw all sorts of labels at me in the press to create a different narrative. That's success, proving that even if they try to silence you, they can't erase the truth. Just because they delete you doesn't mean they delete what's real. The truth always finds its way back. You can't bury the truth, and to me, that's the ultimate success.