“It’s an interesting time for a Brown person to turn up in America and say, ‘Look, there’s truth in Christianity.’”
Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam isn’t giving an understatement. The hip-hop icon known as M.I.A.’s reflections are unspooling at a pace you might call slow and steady. She chooses her language carefully, owning her own discomfort a number of times.
While she’s known for her high tempo, energetic delivery as M.I.A., in conversation she’s precise, open, vulnerable and a little cautious. There are moments when she takes so long in choosing the right word that I almost wonder if our connection got lost.
But her carefulness is understandable. She’s still a little new at being a Christian, and she hasn’t talked about it on the record very much. Until now.
“When I’m confused about it, I’ll share my confusion,” she says. “But if I’m clear about it, and you catch me on a clear day, then I will be more clear.
“And right now I think the only clear thing I can say is that even when I had no belief in Jesus Christ and Christianity, and even when I was 100 percent comfortable in Hinduism, it was a Christian God that turned up to save me,” she says. “And I think there is truth in that.”
This is something she comes back to again and again during our conversation: the truth. M.I.A. cares about speaking the truth, no matter how unpopular. To her fans, this is pretty unsurprising. She has always been willing to push buttons and speak about issues dear to heart even if they’re not exactly popular in the mainstream circles that seem all too happy to embrace her music but less interested in wrestling with the issues she champions. And now, she’s speaking a new truth, and one that is deeply personal: Jesus saved her.
A Citizen of the World
M.I.A. was born in London, the daughter of a Sri Lankan Tamil activist and a seamstress. Her family moved back to northern Sri Lanka when she was still a baby. Her father grew heavily involved in the fight against Tamil oppression while her mother stayed with the family, moving from Jaffra to Madras in India before fleeing to London with 10-year-old M.I.A. as refugees.
It was there in England that her mother became a Christian. Her father was an atheist, who believed religion “was a form of control.” He had his reasons.
“The way we have it in Sri Lanka, the Catholics came and the Portuguese came and our last king of Jaffna Kingdom was executed, and the entire monarchy, the Royal family of Jaffna Kingdom was converted to Catholicism,” she says. “So obviously I was like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense. It’s not true.’”
She named her first two albums after her parents, who she calls her whole “world,” and that world was made up of two halves: “50 percent is Hindu and 50 percent is Christian.”
She fostered an “academic” interest in Hinduism, but said that her mother’s Christian faith never interested her at all.
As her star rose on the strength of songs like “Bad Girls,” “Borders” and her era-defining, pro-refugee anthem “Paper Planes,” the woman herself was gaining a new understanding of who she was in the immensely strange context she’d found herself in.
As a Tamil woman, an activist and an artist, it took time to strip the various “illusions” others had placed on her and figure out who she was. And that was true of her spiritual beliefs at the time.
“I really was into a larger concept of being a citizen of the world and your religion is to do good,” she says. “But it wasn’t really specific.”
“And then this thing happened.”
A Place of Need
“I was in a place of need,” she says.
The year was 2016, and though M.I.A. doesn’t go into great detail about exactly what happened, she says that she “was in the middle of nowhere. No cell phone service, et cetera” and “someone did something to me” that had put her in a place where she needed help. And that’s when she says she had a vision. It was a vision of Jesus.
“I wasn’t asleep,” she says. “It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t a hallucination.”
Her recollection of the vision is concrete, but hard to explain. She doesn’t struggle for words, but is aware that words don’t really lend themselves to the experience. She says she has a hard time describing it, but there is no doubt in her mind that it happened.
“My first reaction was to laugh,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that’s what was happening. I just couldn’t believe it was real. I didn’t believe Jesus was real. I always thought he was made up, or not even made up, but I just always thought it was a silly story.”
She says this vision didn’t last long and the two didn’t exchange words. She remembers wondering if he had shown up as a favor to her mother, and feeling apologetic that Jesus had to take time out of a very busy schedule to deal with her issues. But “within a split second” she quickly went from a mindset of disbelief to belief.
“I literally got saved in a very physical sense,” she says. “And I think that’s what it is. When you need saving, the person who turns up — no matter who you are and no matter what religion or no matter what status or what you are — if you are in need and you need saving, the person who turns out to save you is Jesus. That is what he’s known for.”
The incident put M.I.A. in a bit of a tailspin. She hasn’t released any new music for five years while she attempts to process what it all means. She’s a Tamil woman, and she feels what she calls a “deep affiliation” to her culture. So trying to “understand the concept of Tamil within Christianity has been an interesting thing that’s taken me five years to process,” she says. “I still haven’t got to it.”
There’s a lot of things she hasn’t got yet. “I’m so new to it,” she says. “It’s not like I can recite all the verses of the Bible and stuff like that.”
She’s taking time to sort through it all, and that sorting hasn’t been helped by Christianity’s American reputation, which she feels like comes with a load of other assumptions.
“If you say you’re a Christian, I feel like you have to be this person who’s against this thing, who’s against this president, who’s against that thing, who’s against Twitter,’’ she says. “It’s so crazy.”
But when she studies actual Christian thought, she doesn’t see any of that there.
“The concept of Christianity is very much based in being there for the needy or helping the needy and saving people and giving people a clearer path to God,” she says. This all dovetails with her own passion for marginalized and oppressed people groups.
“When people are in need, they’re in need. If people are suffering, people are suffering, it doesn’t matter where they are. It doesn’t matter what race you are, what geological country you come from, what your status is, it just does not matter.”
Some of this is dealt with in MATA, her new album that grapples with the last few years of her soul searching. “With a Christian outlook, I want things to be more simplified and clear,” she says. “And for things to have more clarity, and your message is to have more clarity,” she says.
“We live in a world where understanding has to be simplified because our attention span is smaller, our ability to think deeply about things is going, tolerance is going. So many of these qualities are going and I think that’s why we need something that is a simplified form of understanding.”
She thinks that might be part of why Christianity is particularly, well, relevant to our current situation.
“The more I understand the complexities of the world, the simpler I find things really are,” she says. “And funny enough, Christianity is very simple; it’s because those things are really simple. The world is really simple.”
The message of MATA is also very simple, at least by the standards of her previous music. But she is still trying to figure out what exactly all this will mean for her future artistic output. “It’s not like I’m going to be (rapper-turned-minister) Mase and become a pastor or preacher,” she says. “I know that it’s important for me to carry on making work.”
“In my time of need, the God that turned up to save me was not Shiva. It was Jesus,” she says. “That is the truth, and I have to say that.”
She’s aware of what a major life development she’s talking about, and she repeatedly cautions against anyone taking for granted that she’s got it all figured out.
“I’m still very much even working out what this all means,” she admits. “At the moment, I feel like I have to stick to who I’ve always been, which is to tell the truth. This experience happened. And I have to tell the truth about it.”
She seems to understand that all of this will come with a lot of expectation and assumptions, and those aren’t things she’s interested in entertaining. She’s still very much M.I.A. But she also feels compelled to tell people what happened to her, and what it means for her.
“I feel like I got shown something, which now I cannot censor in my life and be like, ‘Christianity is fake or Christianity is social control. It’s made up to colonize people,’ whatever the thing is,” she says. “I can never say that because I actually know the truth.”
“But in terms of me loving every aspect of humanity and every person,” she continues, “no matter what they believe in and where they come from, that’s still exactly the same.”
“And that’s the basic message in what I would like to say.”