Lynn Hirschberg in NYT:
On the Grammy Awards in 2009, Maya Arulpragasam, also known as M.I.A., performed her biggest hit, “Paper Planes,” a rap song that infuses rebellious, defiant lyrics with the sounds of her native Sri Lanka, a riff lifted from the Clash, the bang-bang of a gun and the ka-ching of a cash register. Maya, as she is called, was nine months pregnant (to the day), and while she was onstage rapping about “some some some I some I murder, some I some I let go” — in a black skintight, body-stocking dress, transparent except for polka-dot patches that strategically covered her belly, breasts and derrière — she began to experience contractions. As the pain hit, Maya was performing with the male titans of rap (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, T.I.) and she later told me that she thought all the free-floating testosterone caused her to go into labor. While American rappers today tend to celebrate sex, wealth and status, Maya, who grew up listening to the politicized rhymes of Public Enemy, takes international dance beats and meshes them with the very un-American voice of the militant rebel. In contrast to, say, Bono or John Lennon, with their peacenik messages, Maya taps into her rage at the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka to espouse violence: while you’re under the sway of the beat, she’s rapping, “You wanna win a war?/Like P.L.O. I don’t surrender.”
Although her publicist had a wheelchair ready and a midwife on call, Maya, who has a deep and instinctive affinity for the provocative, knew that this Grammy moment was not to be missed. It had everything: artistic credibility, high drama, a massive audience. The baby would just have to wait. The combination of being nearly naked, hugely pregnant, singing incendiary lyrics and having the eyes of the world upon her was too much to resist. And she was riveting, upstaging the four much more famous guys and dominating the stage. “That’s gangsta,” said Queen Latifah, one of the show’s presenters.
Three days later, her son, Ikhyd (pronounced I-kid) Edgar Arular Bronfman, was born. His father is Maya’s fiancé, Ben Bronfman, son of the Warner Music Group chief executive and Seagram’s heir Edgar Bronfman Jr. In one of many contradictions that seem to provide the narrative for Maya’s life and art, Ikhyd was not, as she had repeatedly announced he would be, born at home in a pool of water. As usual, she wanted to transform her personal life into a political statement. “You gotta embrace the pain, embrace the struggle,” she proclaimed weeks before Ikhyd was born. “And my giving birth is nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp.”
As it happened, Maya, who is 34, gave birth in a private room in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Ben’s family insisted,” she told me a year later, when we met in March for drinks at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in nearby Beverly Hills. Before the Grammys, Maya and Bronfman moved to Los Angeles from New York, buying a house in very white, very wealthy Brentwood, an isolated and bucolic section of the city with a minimal history of trauma and violent uprisings. “L.A. is a lovely place to have a baby,” Maya said. She’s surprisingly petite and ladylike, with beautiful almond-shaped dark brown eyes and full lips that she painted a deep red the day we met. Maya has a unique tomboy-meets-ghetto-fabulous-meets-exotic-princess look that, like her music, manages to combine sexy elements (lingerie peeks out from under her see-through tops) with individual flourishes (she designs elaborate patterns for her nails) and ethnic accents (the bright, rich prints of Africa are her wardrobe staple). Like all style originals, Maya wears her clothes with great confidence — she knows how to edit her presentation for maximum effect. At the Beverly Wilshire, she was wearing high-heeled pumps with leggings under a hip-length, sheer white tunic woven with gold threads and an outsize black jacket that looked as if it might be on loan from her boyfriend. Her only jewelry was a simple diamond engagement ring.
“We went to the Grammys, we had the baby and we bought the house,” Maya said as she studied the menu, deciding on a glass of wine and French fries. “A month later, all this stuff was happening in Sri Lanka” — the Tamil insurgency was being defeated amid reports of thousands of civilian casualties — “and I started speaking up against it. And then, within a month, I found out my house was being bugged, my phones were being tapped and my e-mails were being hacked into. I was getting death threats, like ‘hope your baby dies.’ The biggest Sinhalese community is in Santa Monica, people who are sworn enemies of the Tamils, which is me.” She paused. “I live around the corner from Beverly Hills, and I feel semiprotected by Ben and, if anything happens to me, then Ben’s family will not take it. Jimmy Iovine, who runs Interscope, my record company, said, ‘Pick your battles carefully — don’t put your life at risk,’ but at the end of the day, I don’t see how you can shut up and just enjoy success when other people who don’t have the fame or the luxury to rent security guards are suffering. What the hell do they do? They just die.”
Maya’s tirade, typical in the way it moved from the political to the personal and back again, was interrupted by a waiter, who offered her a variety of rolls. She chose the olive bread. Maya’s political fervor stems from her upbringing. Although she was born in London, her family moved back to Sri Lanka when she was 6 months old, to a country torn by fighting between the Tamil Hindu minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. In the ’70s, her father, Arular, helped found the Tamil militant group EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students), trained with the P.L.O. in Lebanon and spearheaded a movement to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country. EROS was eventually overwhelmed by a stronger and more vicious militant group, the Tamil Tigers. In their struggle for political control, the Tigers not only went after government troops and Sinhalese civilians but also their own people, including Tamil women and children. “The Tigers ruled the people under them with an iron fist,” Ahilan Kadirgamar at Sri Lanka Democracy Forum told me. “They used mafialike tactics, and they would forcefully recruit child soldiers. Maya’s father was never with the Tigers. He stayed away.”
Her rhetoric rankles Sri Lankan experts and human rights organizations, who are engaged in the difficult task of helping to forge a viable model for national unity after decades of bitter fighting. “Maya is a talented artist,” Kadirgamar told me, echoing the sentiments of others, “but she only made the situation worse. What happened in Sri Lanka was not a genocide. To not be honest about that or the Tigers does more damage than good. When Maya does a polarizing interview, it doesn’t help the cause of justice.”
Unity holds no allure for Maya — she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. “I kind of want to be an outsider,” she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. “I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.”
When she was a child, Maya sat under the table while her mother sewed and caught fabric scraps as they fell. “The first thing I made was a bra,” Maya said. “Two circles in pinky red, blue straps.” Her father remained in Sri Lanka (whenever they saw each other, he was introduced to Maya as her uncle, so that the children wouldn’t inadvertently reveal his identity). Maya claims that she has not seen him in years. Diplo told me a different story. “I met her dad in London with her,” he said. “He was very interested in sustainable living and was teaching in London. But he wasn’t a good father.” Whatever the truth is, Maya has gone from trumpeting her father’s revolutionary past in order to claim that lineage to playing down his politics to support a separate narrative. “He was with the Sri Lankan government,” she now maintained, when I saw her in Los Angeles. “He’s been with them for 20 years. They just made up the fact that he is a Tiger so they can talk crap about me.” (Her father could not be reached for comment.)
Chris Matyszczyk at Cnet:
M.I.A., the Carrie Bradshaw of the Planet Subversive, seems to be a little upset.
The rapper acceded to an interview with The New York Times and was not best pleased with the results. So she tweeted: “CALL ME IF YOU WANNA TALK TO ME ABOUT THE N Y T TRUTH ISSUE, ill b taking calls all day bitches ;)”
Personally, I was not aware that The New York Times was printing a special edition that included only the truth. However, I admit I have omitted the first part of her tweet. You see, M.I.A. decided to adorn this tweet with the phone number of Lynn Hirschberg, the journalist.
I know you will be able to judge for yourselves whether Hirschberg’s profile had feather-ruffling qualities. She certainly seemed to suggest that there were some uncomfortable contradictions in M.I.A.’s life. She contrasted, for example, the rapper’s insistence that she would give birth in a pool of water at home “in order to embrace the pain” to the ultimate result: a birth in the relatively pain-free LA cocoon of Cedars-Sinai hospital.
Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:
Following the publication of an ego-bruising profile in this week’s New York Times Magazine, the attention-seeing singer M.I.A. has published the writer’s phone number on her Twitter. (The journalist, Lynn Hirschberg, is a Vanity Fair alumna famous for inciting the ire of another tempestuous pop star: Courtney Love. Hirschberg reported that Love had used heroin while pregnant with daughter Frances Bean, inspiring a barrage of furious faxes—the Tweets of their day.) Touré, who first tipped us off to M.I.A.’s petulant prank, wrote, “I don’t think vengefully posting a writer’s cell on Twitter is gangsta or even ouch. It’s a childish & weak retort.”
In the case of M.I.A., it’s unclear what specific objections the singer has to the piece. However, a quick Google Image investigation reveals that Hirschberg is a ginger! Has M.I.A. taken her anti-redhead blitzkrieg too far?
Joe Coscarelli at The Village Voice:
Like Courtney Love before her, M.I.A. has responded to a less than kind Lynn Hirschberg profile — Love’s in Vanity Fair and M.I.A.’s in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine — the only way she knows how: angry music. Love’s band Hole had the bootleg “Bring Me the Head of Lynn Hirschberg,” and now, via her blog, Maya comes with “I’m a Singer.” (Sample lyric: “Why the hell would journalists be thick as shit/ Cause lies equals power equals politics” and later, “You’re a racist/ I wouldn’t trust you one bit.”)
But this isn’t just about politics; it’s about honor. And french fries.
Along with the track — which kind of bangs — M.I.A. also supplies two audio clips of an interview between herself and the New York Times reporter, under the headline “here’s the TRUFF,” just to set the record straight:
In her piece, Hirschberg writes that M.I.A. “studied the menu, deciding on a glass of wine and French fries,” and then quotes the singer: “‘I kind of want to be an outsider,’ she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.” But if M.I.A.’s own secret audio is to be believed, it was the reporter who insisted on ordering the bourgie fries, which we hear are gross anyway.
Lisa Horowitz at The Wrap:
It’s not the first time she has gone after the Times in a song: She previously expressed her anger over a Times report on Sri Lanka, where she grew up, criticizing the paper for glossing over the political violence there.
She sounds like someone who might hold a grudge.
Erin Polgreen at Spencer Ackerman’s place:
M.I.A. is a political artist and she is rightfully outraged by the inhumanity of the situation in Sri Lanka. Whether she’s effective or not is an interesting question, but I don’t know if Hirschman’s article is particularly revelatory in that regard. I’m not sure the fact that she eats fancy french fries means that she does more harm than good. What worries me is whether M.I.A. is just lashing out blindly instead of trying to deescalate a vicious situation (See the video for “Born Free” as an example).
In the end, I don’t think the wool has been pulled over anyone’s eyes, as Hirschman would have readers believe. M.I.A is a human being and is contradictory and flawed by nature. As the lyrics M.I.A. samples in the new song go: “I am a sinner. Never said anything else. I didn’t lie to you. Thinking of somebody else.”
Hamilton Nolan at Gawker:
The latest on the M.I.A. vs. NYT slapfight: The paper has appended an editor’s note to Lynn Hirschberg’s profile. But the note only addresses the fact that Hirschberg cobbled together separate quotes into one longer quote without noting that fact. Which is actually a very bad thing to do! Left unaddressed, however: the case of the truffled french fry. So the war shall continue!