M.I.A. on Crypto, Assange and Her New Album

“Babylon” is the first solo M.I.A. track in over a year.

Nov 13, 2021
CoinDesk Insights

As a musician and video artist, M.I.A. has always made expressly political work. Throughout a bracing, eclectic catalogue she’s tackled colonialism, immigration crises and other forms of systemic oppression head-on. Even when the sounds are chaotic, or the message isn’t quite clear, there’s always a current of radical energy in the music.

That was the spirit of her 2010 mixtape “Vicki Leekx” – a riff on the activist Julian Assange’s whistleblower project WikiLeaks. Released for free in the wake of her third studio album, “Maya,” the tape is now available to purchase for the first time, in non-fungible token (NFT) form.

Rather than attaching the full mixtape audio to a single token, M.I.A. is selling each track individually, along with a psychedelic GIF of a spinning globe (the one exception is “Bad Girls,” the biggest hit from the tape, and the only song that made it onto M.I.A.’s next studio album, “Matangi”). The first 10 tracks are currently up for auction. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Courage Foundation, which offers legal support to whistleblowers.

She’s also released a new song, “Babylon.” Recorded in mid-October, it’s M.I.A.’s first solo track in over a year.

M.I.A. has been mostly quiet throughout the coronavirus pandemic, save for a brief flirtation with anti-vax ideology last April and a feature on a Travis Scott song later in the year. Speaking with CoinDesk over the phone earlier this month, she explained part of what interests her about crypto and tried to address some of the backlash – the idea of whether Web 3 is actually compatible with a revolutionary politics.

Our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Why do NFTs for “Vicki Leekx”?

I always saw the “Vicki Leekx” mixtape as a piece of art rather than a piece of music, just because it was very serendipitous, of everything and events that was going on in the world. It basically just happened. Also, I made the “Maya” album and it got really badly reviewed by everyone, and everyone’s like, “Oh, my God, this is the worst album she’s ever made, she’s completely lost it.” And then I made “Vicki Leekx,” and everyone was like, “Oh my God, this should have been the album, it’s the best thing ever, this is the magnum opus of music at the time.” And I think, to me, it was more to do with the fact that it was part of a collective experience of what was going on in the world.

Do you feel vindicated at all, that the sound and ideas on “Maya” have come back in a way?

Not really, but if I put on the “Vicki Leekx” mixtape, I still get the same feeling from it. It gives me the same feeling. It’s not that I think about whether I get vindicated or not. When I listen to music I go, “Does it still make me feel good?” And to me, “Vicki Leekx” and “Maya,” it’s like twins – they kind of go together. But this piece of work had nowhere to exist, because it was something else. To even put it on YouTube was wrong. On YouTube it was censored and buried or, you know, whatever the algorithm thing was. So no one really listened to it. And when I gave it away for free on vickileekx.com, 100,000 people downloaded it instantly. It was really successful as a mixtape. Even as an album, when it was a free download for a month or something, it had a lot of traffic. It gave people what they wanted for me at the time, in the club sense.

And this is also about that crypto world. It got made [at] the same time as a whole bunch of people came up with new ideas, whether it’s bitcoin, or just stuff on the internet – also the conventional stuff, like social media, Twitter, or even the dark web. All of these people were trying new things, of what the future would look like. And I think “Vicki Leekx” is more to do with that.

Is that what attracts you to crypto now?

Well, the spirit of “Vicki Leekx” was that. It was never put out for money, it lived for free on the internet for the past 10 years. People have had access to it. Nobody made money off the songs. That challenge of putting out a song – say, for example, a song by me and Diplo – as an NFT, it just explores a new existence for it, of a piece of whatever it is, whether it’s a piece of art or music or sound and image together as an NFT; how this can live, and how it can be owned, how it can be distributed.

The first thing is to say, “Can one person own it?” And we can fairly deal with the back end, and the royalties and splits. In this case, I’m donating a lot of the proceeds to Courage Foundation. And then the remaining will be worked out with artists’ royalties and stuff. So this is my very new way to dip into this space with music, and how music is going to get dealt with.

I was inspired to do this for other artists, and up-and-coming artists or young artists. But I wasn’t really thinking about a business model as such. We’re just seeing [whether] something like this can exist. I think the art itself, the aesthetic of the mixtape and how it came together, and the inspiration for the mixtape, it kind of comes from the internet world and the crypto world and hackers and people who were considered terrible people in society when they were actually trying to do a lot in that time. This mixtape was really about this era of time, where people were doing amazing, interesting things but were criminalized. That turning point is exactly the place where this mixtape got made.

Crypto and NFTs are sometimes written off, thanks to the climate impact – there’s a narrative that it’s harming the world and a certain culture that can make it difficult to approach. What would you say to people who don’t want to engage?

If you think about what’s happening in America right now, with millions of people resigning from work, and millions of people have been out of work, and the changes that’s come from COVID-19, and all of these things – it’s sort of debatable what’s destroying the world and what’s not destroying the world. It doesn’t seem like production has stopped. Consumption and production and overusing our resources can all still be questioned. And also, the promotion of the military and warfare is still prevalent, which is the number one destroyer of the planet in terms of pollution levels. The military-industrial complex, the consumption of beef and the fashion industry are the top three polluters of this planet. So for us to be against NFTs, we also have to be against these things. It’s such a confusing area because it’s, like, shifting your priorities and your values to adjust to the time.

To talk about Julian Assange being a criminal, and the fact that America wants to extradite him, put him in jail, sentence him into 175 years, contradicts the progressive thought which thinks, “The NFT is gonna cause pollution.” How can you support the act of war and then be against NFTs? That sort of confusion, it makes me think: Well, everything we do is having some sort of effect.

I like and appreciate technology, but to counteract the technological advancement of our time, I also read a lot of ancient stuff that teaches us to live within our means, and with respect for each other and our environment. Technology and things like the crypto boom have freed some people financially, and helped people, especially people that have been outcasts of society and have been out of the system. Suddenly there are some people who are empowered who weren’t empowered before. The newness of their thinking and what they’re gonna contribute and how they’re going to define these times, is kind of exciting. I have quite a romanticized idea about who these people are.

It’s true that people who historically haven’t been empowered are being empowered through this stuff, but crypto has the potential to really exacerbate wealth inequality, too – that idea of the romanticized hacker is going up against institutions and wealthy people trying to get in early. Does that play into your take on this space?

Well, you’re talking to me – I have rapped about bankers, and this and that. In 2010, when I was actually writing “Vicki Leekx,” crypto, I thought, was like 20 little basement kids coming up with code. It’s not like Goldman Sachs owning it. But I know that now it’s blown up. It’s the same cycle in music. You make some sort of cool sound, and you’re like, “Yeah, I made this in the garage!” And then suddenly somebody comes and steals it. And the most commercially successful one gets all the glory. And this happens in fashion and happens in everything. So it’s the same in the banking world, it’s the same what’s happening to crypto. It’s just important that those who know what it’s like, don’t forget what it was like.

Tesla became a trillion-dollar thing, and it’s just like, what is the point? Right now I feel like the playing field is leveled in the sense that we don’t know how things are gonna affect different countries in the future, where you could be in the best place in America, you could be in the best place in England, but what is freedom? And what is having the freedom of money if you’re up against various other anomalies?

Do you feel like Elon and Grimes have come to embody that new paradigm?

She’s a futurist, isn’t she? She’s always gonna support the concept of us pushing things forward and forward and forward. It’s a bit like success for the sake of success and just, like, being at the top of the tree, being the first to do something and getting that thing – those feel slightly meaningless. I just believe that everybody should be working together at this point, in this time. There’s no other way of doing it.

I feel I thought everything through – even what happens if you go to Mars – and I just feel like there’s just no other way. [If] you go to Mars, we are going to do the same thing as human beings, which is build another system that is centralized, and have a pyramid and one person at the top. And not everyone’s gonna like it and we’re gonna have to start all over again. And greed and power and control [are] going to get out of hand. This is all being made very transparent now. And dotted around this time that’s led us to this point are a handful of people that have been brave and shown us what is going on.

We need those people that have fully got their feet on the ground, and are trying to figure [stuff] out for people on Earth. Not everyone’s gonna afford to go to Mars. No matter how many NFTs I sell, I’m not going to be able to go to Mars. A lot of us are gonna be left on Earth, trying to figure it out here.

Where does this line of thinking leave you now, with your current projects?

I have an album coming out. And I really am trying to get past the political into a spiritual space, which was kind of happening to me even before politics got a bit crazy. I know that everything is sort of political. But after writing the last two albums, I was already in a different space. And I just never thought I’d write an album again.

Why?

I think I just sort of learned the curve in music as an artist, and I wanted to go and explore something else. I’m not an entertainer, I’m more like an artist. So sometimes when things come to you, you want to go and spend time in that, and explore that and see how everything feels before you articulate that. I worked on a book. After the documentary I thought about film, video, that sort of stuff. Generally just trying new things. Because it was tiring – because music was becoming centralized. It was getting boring.

What brought you back?

It just kind of happened. I made one song and the one turned to two and the two turned to three, and before you knew it I had about five. And then someone was like, “A couple more and it’ll be an album.” And then by then I sort of got the bug. Also, I didn’t have a deal, I was out of all of my contracts. That was really exciting, to make music because you just liked it and you were just entertained. Just being completely free as a person out there, thinking about whatever you wanted to think about. And even in that state, I couldn’t fully give up music. I always found myself making music.

Do you feel you need to make music?

I think I will always make music. It’s too fun to not. I don’t want the pressure of doing the rest of it. I just want to be able to communicate with music. Because it’s not the fame aspect that gets me, anyway. It’s the fact that you can communicate. If it’s to do with communication, I will always do that. There are just moments where I do take time and spend in silence. And what aids silence, they say, is music.

Are you thinking about some kind of crypto release for the album?

I would love to do something like that.

DISCLOSURE

The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

Will Gottsegen is CoinDesk's media and culture reporter. He holds less than $300 in ETH, and two NFTs above CoinDesk's disclosure threshold of $1000, which you can find at smush.eth.