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15 Years Into Her Career, M.I.A. Is Still Telling Hard Truths

We spoke to the iconic British-Sri Lankan rapper about her new documentary 'Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.' and the uphill battle she's faced in America.

Across her 16-year career, M.I.A.—the Sri Lankan-born, British-raised rapper and pop star Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam—has been fighting to have her voice heard. From the opening moments of her first record, Arular, she’s been telling her story: that of a young Tamil refugee trying to find(and make) her place in the world, as a popstar but also, more importantly, as a voice for political change.

At the time, most of us didn’t listen. Arular and its follow up Kala were met with large success, and just as much controversy: critics viewed Arulpragasam as a phony who was fabricating her story of fleeing state-sanctioned violence in order to achieve fame. The Sri Lankan government labeled her a liar; international publications asked whether she was a terrorist. Across follow-up records MAYA, Matangi and A.I.M., Arulpragasam stayed vigilant and vocal in the face of critics.


Last year, with the release of Steve Loveridge’s documentary Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., Arulpragasam’s true focus finally came into view: in a film built from both Arulpragasam’s archives (M.I.A. studied film at Central St. Martins and filmed her entire early life) and footage of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Loveridge exposes Arulpragasam’s fight for Americans to acknowledge the genocide of her people and the racially-charged opposition to her cause.

Earlier this month, Noisey hosted a Q&A with Arulpragasam after a screening of Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova. Read Arulpragasam’s galvanising and insightful discussion on her life, career and documentary below.

NOISEY: The vast majority of the film is made up of footage you shot or footage that you got from your family. When you were first documenting your life was there any specific intent behind it?
M.I.A.: I just filmed everything. I was kind of lucky when I could get hold of a camera, because when you’re poor [you can’t afford a camera.] In school they’d lend it to me every 10 days in the term. So, when you have the camera, you just film everything, you know? It was kind of before normal people even had camcorders and it just became a habit.

How do you feel about the response to the documentary, considering it’s almost the first time you’ve gotten to really speak about your art on your own terms, without media and journalists involved?
It’s kind of weird because on one hand, it covers so much for a music documentary, but on the other hand it’s a very small section of exactly what happened. There’s so much that’s not in it.


So, for me, the reactions are seeing [my story] from the American point of view… on that level, I think it’s a cute film. If it was made somewhere else, I wonder what other stuff would be in it, you know? So I guess I’m still learning… because you know, my fans love it. They got it from day one, and they’ve been supportive, so it’s not like they criticised me for any of the stuff in the first place. In terms of American media, it’s weird—they’re like “we’re ready for you now.” It’s like how do I step back in and be cool about everything?

Some journalists have been good, and I think sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But I just always felt that it wasn’t about me. Especially in America, it’s so much about that culture of like, ‘Something’s going on over there, look over there.’

It’s weird having a film where you have to show your own personal story to explain why you said things you said 10 years ago when it all happened. The need to tell that story through a personal journey is the only way to tell that story in America and I was just lucky I had that footage because so many people slandered my story and got away with because it because I was just a ‘middle class wannabe’. [The media said] ‘She’s a terrorist and a racist’ and I was sort of not interested in having to prove who I was.

There was a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding. There was no before and after, even. There’s so much room to paint different pictures of who you are, that it needed to be caught on tape for people to believe it.


If you’d directed the film, how do you think it would’ve looked?
Well I would’ve definitely had a lot of Julian Assange in it. [laughs] I definitely would’ve, because it just did make sense with the story. I mean there’s no way you can talk about the Tamil genocide and not talk about WikiLeaks. But they left it out because it was made in America, post-election. If it had come out before, I think it would’ve been in there. So, I think in terms of a documentary that sheds light on the Tamil genocide, WikiLeaks was an important piece of the puzzle that is not in there. I think that would’ve led to talking about the internet and the world that we live in now, and how activism truly is today. It’s sort of a difficult thing to talk about without that in there.

Do you think that if effectively conveys the message you want to send through your music and through your art?
It’s not really about the music and the art, this film.

At this point in time, popstars are almost expected to be political. What do you think has changed from when you started? From when they wanted you to shut up and play the hits to now, where you kinda have to talk about politics?
This is really interesting because the footage [for the documentary] has been in America since 2014, right? And from 2014 onwards, their political landscape changed. Before then, it was completely not the right thing to do—you know, talk about activism or stand up for anything. Since the 700 hours of footage has been in New York City, the landscape of media, pop culture, fashion has changed and activism has become cool.


Then they put the film out in 2018. So for four years, the stuff was just sitting there. Steve gave me the hard drive a couple of months ago and so now I have it. When I look through the footage—because I’ve never really looked through it, you know even the stuff from 25 years ago, that I’d just shoot and then throw it in a box, and because technology changes throughout the years, through inconvenience I’ve never watched the tapes—so, going through the film now it’s been digitised, it’s really interesting to see some of the stuff on there and see that so much good stuff is not in the film.

There was a process of editing and when I talked to Steve he was like “Well, it’s 90 minutes, so you need to shut the fuck up and be grateful!” [laughs] but I’m always like now; it would’ve been great to see this, this and this [in the film.] but it’s interesting I do think about that; like who would’ve been in the editing room and what was their take on presenting activism in a certain way, to make it sort of… cute. There’s so much more footage in there that I think is more shocking… but that will come in the sequel.

Why do you think, in America especially, people didn’t understand you talking about collective struggle opposed to individual struggle?
I think for the same reason why you could never find a popstar in America that would say no to fame. It is about individualism there, and the ‘I’, and success and fame is the ultimate goal for everything. I think that is so ingrained into your way of life, that it is difficult to understand why someone would want to jeopardise that by talking about a collective struggle from somewhere else or somewhere they came from that they no longer have a direct connection with at that moment. The American dream is about “I” not “we”.


You’ve spoken about stepping away from your music career. Do you think that since you started making music, it’s been effectively creating political change?
Hmm. I don’t know. It’s weird because obviously I’ve seen other changes like… people wearing neon leggings, or even if you listen to mainstream music like Diplo being a worldwide DJ—you can see where he came from—and I feel like I’ve affected him and that now the music that’s out or the way people digest popular culture, maybe I affected some people in Silicon Valley that invented Instagram or something, from Myspace. It’s hard to see, because it’s still happening. I feel like with Sri Lanka, it’s like I knew at that time that if we didn’t really stop it and there wasn’t a solution there wouldn’t be one. I think that we’re still waiting. In terms of people being more politically aware and not being embarrassed by it, the younger generation being more confident—maybe I affected that.

[Audience question] Considering the immigration laws in the States and our own intense border control policies in Australia, I was wondering whether you could say a few words?
Well, tomorrow I was going to head to [Uluru] for the first time. Uluru is also a Tamil word. And I just feel like the story is that people were connected and people travelled and people exchanged cultures. You know, you can go all around the world and even just my name, Matangi, there’s presence of it as far down as New Zealand. In terms of people moving, it’s a natural thing and it’s kind of ridiculous that the US government is shut down about it because it’s just part of being a human being. Like as we speak there’s some fucker that’s building a space ship to go to Mars—you know, it makes no sense.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is out now via Madman Entertainment. American viewers can watch the film on iTunes.

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