M.I.A. won't be tied down

Nearly everyone likes to travel, but no one likes being called a tourist-a term that calls to mind the kind of ignorant jetsetters who run roughshod over foreign lands, unwilling (or unable) to engage in meaningful contact with the locals and their culture.

Like most world travellers, Maya Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A.) has come in for her share of catty scorn, derided in some critical quarters as a fashion-first novice with no regard for cultural authenticity. But in choosing to rap and sing over a restless medley of today's hottest street beats-including Jamaican dancehall, Puerto Rican reggaeton, and Brazilian ghetto-funk-the photogenic Londoner has expressly rejected the notion of ethnic purity, and done so in such tuneful and idiosyncratic ways that even the staunchest critics of her purported illegitimacy (like the Village Voice's Simon Reynolds) have expressed grudging admiration for her pop sensibilities.

If M.I.A.'s cultural hopscotching is troubling for Reynolds and some of his colleagues, that's perhaps because it offers a painful reminder of their lives as pop critics, skimming off the top of several styles but never allowing themselves to delve so deep that they lose sight of the next big thing. As invigorating as this cultural sampling can be, there is something inarguably hollow about it; in romantic terms, it's like choosing a string of one-night stands over a single lifelong partner.

For trendsetters unencumbered by such suggestions of guilt, the genius of M.I.A.'s music rests in its ability to valorize their dilettantism. But for the artist herself, that perpetual genre-hopping can be traced back to her migratory upbringing, which was split between Sri Lanka and England. In Commonwealth literature, that between-worlds alienation has given rise to reams of tedious prose, but M.I.A. places that same experience under a bright new light, using it as a launching pad for her risky formal experiments.

"I think those kind of leaps just represent the modern state of being," she argues, reached just outside Washington, D.C. "I don't know if it's possible anymore with the speed of information to deny that kind of diversity. I could never tie myself down to one thing because that's just not the sort of life that I've had."

That lifestyle has proceeded roughly as follows: born in London, Arulpragasam moved to Sri Lanka with her parents as an infant in the late 1970s. Her father, an engineer by trade, was at that time (and for years thereafter) involved in a rebel separatist movement representing the country's Tamil minority. In 1985, after divorcing her husband, Arulpragasam's mother moved back to England with her two children, taking up residence in a South London council estate.

in + out

M.I.A. sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On why she chose to appear on Missy Elliott's The Cookbook instead of Kanye West's Late Registration: "All the offers came to me at once, so I had to choose between Kanye, Missy, and doing a remix for Gwen Stefani, and I had to make the decision in 24 hours. It was too intense. In the end, I had to make the most obvious choice. Missy has been so important to me; I've lived with her music for so long and I name-checked her on my album, so it seemed like the natural thing to do."

On going back to Sri Lanka as an adult: "I went back thinking it was going to be great, but it was beyond anything I could comprehend. It's been 20 years since the war started and it didn't feel like anyone knew or remembered what peace or hope was."

On why she's no longer touring with her boyfriend Diplo: "In the beginning, we had optimistic ideas about what we wanted to do because we felt like we were bringing something new to the table. But touring together turned out to be really difficult because our schedules were clashing and he felt like he just wanted to do his own thing. We're still fighting the same fight, but we're just doing it separately."

On preferring rough sketches to polished masterworks: "I don't like conclusions-that's all. I like the roughness because ultimately when you're putting stuff out there, you want to inspire people. So if you give people a bunch of sketches that can inspire them, that's almost better than making a classic album where everything has been perfectly chiselled."

While a student at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, M.I.A. garnered acclaim for her wildly expressive tableaux, which rendered war images in candy-coloured tones. Those pieces earned the attention of Elastica's Justine Frischmann, who asked the spray-can artist to design the cover for that band's 2000 release, The Menace, and film the subsequent U.S. tour. Within months, Arulpragasam was trading notes with folks like Peaches and Pulp's Steve Mackey, two mentors who would prove instrumental in her decision to start making music. For a young woman struggling with the absence of her father and the harsh realities of displacement, those chance meetings with older artists offered necessary salvation.

"It's not like I have a completely stable family life-everybody knows that now," she offers. "And as a refugee, I've never really had a stable community around me, either. The only thing that I've found stability in is creativity, and that's all I can give myself to until I start learning how to live the rest of my life."

Armed with an all-in-one keyboard and drum machine, M.I.A. started banging out tracks like "Galang", a loose-limbed ragga-pop confection that soon became a worldwide hipster favourite. That track is emblematic of this year's Arular, which sets the singer's suggestive gibberish against a neon-lit ghetto backdrop. Given the album's constant references to warfare and activism, the Londoner has been accused of indulging in radical chic, a charge she's had to confront in almost every interview.

"I don't think people expected me to come up with a degree in politics," she maintains. "My whole aim is to describe how politics can affect the average person. People always say never to talk about politics and religion, so we don't, and we end up killing each other over it because we don't really know what anyone thinks."

Truth be told, it's hard to know exactly what M.I.A. thinks about Sri Lanka's Tamil separatists, whom she has alternately referred to as terrorists and freedom fighters. If Arular has no fixed viewpoint, that's got as much to do with its author's nonsensical lyrics as with its patchwork musical fabric. According to the singer, developing a coherent platform is not something she feels capable of doing.

"That's a huge challenge for me, more than people actually realize," she allows. "For me to sit down and be that introspective is probably the hardest thing to do. Even now, when I got a big record deal, people would say, 'Oh, what are you going to buy?' And I'm like, 'I have no fucking idea!' I've never thought about what I wanted, let alone how to express all the feelings I have."

Whether or not she finds meaningful ways to articulate her inner life, M.I.A. will probably remain most valuable as a cultural signpost, pointing the way toward whatever's hottest on the musical horizon. In this respect, it is fair to call her a tourist, but a crucial tourist whose music catalyzes interest in little-heard underground forms. Think of M.I.A. as a sort of Lonely Planet guide, rescuing novice travellers from total ignorance as they navigate the globe. Plus it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it.

M.I.A. plays the Commodore on Friday (October 7).