m.i.a on why being socially engaged isn't a choice

On the heels of her partnership with H&M for Global Recycle Week, M.I.A talks changing the narrative of sustainability to make a difference.

by Lynette Nylander
25 April 2016, 1:50pm

Mathangi Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A, has spent the last 16 years being one of the most outspoken pop stars the world has ever seen. Politics has been ever present in her lyrics, her videos, and her image; she's someone you can bank on saying what they mean and meaning what they say. Her latest endeavor saw her lend her voice to H&M's Global Recycle Week, which called for the public to donate their unwanted garments to create recycled textile fibers for new products. We even got a new song and video, entitled "Rewear It," written to inspire people to take part in the initiative. In a rare interview, M.I.A told us more about the responsibility she feels as a musician to promote more sustainable ways of thinking and why being socially engaged isn't a choice, it's a duty.

Why was the issue of sustainability particularly interesting to you?
I haven't really done anything to do with it before, though I think I am constantly straddling the two worlds. On the one hand, I exist in a world that promotes fast fashion, a quick turn-around and supply and demand by even being a musician. I think we promote the idea of fashion and a mentality to wear it once and throw it away and I think it's all too fast and not sustainable. When I go to places like India for work, when I shoot videos there, I've met the companies and factories and talked to them about a sustainable way of producing clothes. With all the young people creating their own e-commerce sites, we really need to get them to set them up sustainable from the beginning. So I saw the positive in H&M trying to sort of change the way they're doing things. I think now is a really good time to get involved and to inspire those kids coming out of India or Africa or China.

Were you really shocked to learn about the environmental impact of sending all of our old clothes to landfill and the direct effect of that on the environment?
It's something I already knew about but it hadn't necessarily been my battle. Our needs aren't slowing down. What you buy, how you throw it away, how it's made and the water used, at this point every detail needs to be transparent. Everybody wants to be at the top of the pyramid and that way of thinking is still really strong in corporations. I was interested in getting more detailed information in how the process works. I think it's just a small step and but we are at the beginning.

What you think the most important issue that faces the globe today?
I read something like 65% of factories in India are not even declared. They're not even registered in any books so none of their waste disposal is monitored, their waste water is so polluted, it's really affecting the environment. Different countries face different problems. I think on the continent of Africa there are issues to do with mining; India and China's issues are definitely pollution.

At the same time, a capitalist mentality is infiltrating all those places now. They are using the capitalist handbook that the West created but they're like 15 years behind. That's a very dangerous thing, there's a battle of who's gonna be the superpower, but everybody's using the same handbook. We need to reinvent the handbook!

Do you think partnering with H&M offers a way to change that narrative?
I think so. I think in order to really affect change, you've got to bridge the gap. The fact is if I'm in a H&M commercial, a 20-year-old kid wherever they may be, who may be about to set something up on their own, is going to see it and they are the future. It's not considered very cool to talk about but if you inject it into their psyche that it is important to care about the environment then it is more likely they'll grow into sustainable businesses. You are also opening up the debate to H&M. We have to get these companies to swing round to the right side and H&M has got enough experience of dealing with various issues that they can make a difference.

Do you think it's easier than ever before to be socially or politically engaged?
I think people have to be. The environmental issue, whether we like it or not, is a massive money maker, which is why it exists. We've had the oil market, we've had wars over it for decades and the next issue will be carbon and where and how we distribute pollution and how we collect and sell waste and how we manage our environmental footprint. In 20 years, everyone is going to have to pay tax on their carbon footprint, affecting how things are manufactured and how things are sold, so these issues, that have been only been the concern of a few are going to be everyday discussions for every person in every company whatever trade you're in, fashion, music, whatever.

Something that you can't choose to opt out of, almost...
You can't, it's going to happen whether you like it or not, because of money. We don't know about it as much as we should but I feel companies are going to be held responsible so it's important that everybody does actually start making a difference. You're either conscious or you're not conscious, you think this is right or this is wrong, or you care about it and you don't, but it's going to happen.

What do you think being a global citizen in 2016 means to you?
It's really hard because I think being a global citizen now is a really difficult thing. When I first came out that's all I talked a lot about being a citizen of the world and your religion was to do good. I feel like now it has way more barriers now. There's been more segregation, more racism and, more social and class divisions. I feel like back in the day even if you were poor you could make it on talent. Now I think a global citizen just means somebody who's more aware of what is going on and is strong enough to overcome it. 


Text Lynette Nylander

global recycle week
mia interview