Inside M.I.A.’s Complicated, Contentious Pop Stardom
Of all the criticisms made against her, the suggestion that M.I.A. is a terrorist sympathizer is the most damning. A new documentary about her provides a more sympathetic portrait.
Through her career, Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, the rapper and pop star known as M.I.A., has frequently courted controversy.
Some of the greatest hits of the artist’s scandals feature her beef with writer Lynn Hirschberg—whose 2010 interview with M.I.A. in The New York Times provoked the artist to tweet out Hirschberg’s phone number—to the NFL suing her for $16.6 million for flipping the middle finger during her Super Bowl halftime performance with Madonna.
But of all these criticisms, the suggestion that M.I.A. is a terrorist sympathizer is the most damning leveled against her.
For over a decade now, M.I.A. has crusaded for the rights of the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka and the legitimacy of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)—labeled a terrorist organization—both during the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) and in its aftermath.
Her father was affiliated with the beginnings of the Tamil resistance against the injustices of the Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka. But dire guerrilla tactics and unchecked violence became a mainstay of the insurgency led by the LTTE. The legacy of the LTTE is plagued by its initiation of a new order of oppression within Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, victimizing civilians as human shields and recruiting child soldiers.
Today, the Sri Lankan government stands accused of war crimes carried out during the final chapter of the conflict.
Now a documentary, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., made by Stephen Loveridge, M.I.A.’s old friend from film school, seeks to animate a rounded portrait of M.I.A., featuring a rich archive of footage shot by the artist herself.
Through the documentary, which hits U.S. theaters this month, audiences get a better sense of the Tamil-Sri Lankan artist’s backstory. The film follows the journey of M.I.A. as a young refugee in London. M.I.A. fled Sri Lanka with her mother and siblings at the age of nine in 1985, right before the conflict intensified, to seek refuge in London.
M.I.A.’s categorical support for the LTTE, and Manichean view of the civil war, have rightly been criticized. But these attacks have often lacked a nuanced understanding of the artist’s experience. The obscurity of Sri Lanka’s civil war—let alone cognizance of its Tamil-Hindu minority in the Western consciousness—has in some way precluded a considered appreciation of M.I.A.
Speaking about the documentary in a recent interview with The Atlantic, the artist expressed frustration at being dismissed as an opportunistic pop star. “When I was met with pushback back then, it was by people who had optimism toward state oppression. [They believed] that there would be an effort to change. But after 10 years of waiting for justice, Tamils not being heard… hopefully people are understanding and won’t see me as a flippant pop star who is using this for fame,” she said.
“A million diasporic Tamil people abroad were silenced when the war ended. They were called terrorists. They were told not to be proud of who they are and their flag.”
The British-Sri Lankan rapper’s status as a former refugee starkly defines her identity politics and art. M.I.A. has earned a significant place in pop culture’s progressive narrative in terms of race, the immigrant experience, and feminism. The artist has a unique talent for combining the avant-garde and the mainstream, with songs that double as club hits and mutinous anthems.
M.I.A.’s disruptive tendencies aside, her activism—as reflected in her last album, AIM (2016)—finds renewed urgency given the current refugee crisis and the anti-immigrant political narratives in so many countries.
During her time at film school, and her tentative engagement with the post-punk, Brit-indie scene—essentially by way of her close friendship with Justine Frischmann (frontwoman of now defunct band Elastica)—M.I.A. felt like an outsider.
In her visits to the homeland and interactions with her grandmother and extended family she is culturally fluent and speaks in Tamil. But she is separated from them by their lived experience of imminent danger, surveillance and persecution.
In the documentary, she credits music with helping her embrace her first bit of Western identity. “You learn the language of the West and First World and then you articulate the Third World,” she says.
The footage capturing M.I.A.’s adolescence reveals a precocious teen who is invested in storytelling, alert to the creative cachet of having an interesting—even if deprived—childhood over a comfortable one.
Racism further complicated her otherness while living in a council flat in a neighborhood of London that is home to many immigrants.
“One day I was in Sri Lanka being shot at for being a Tamil, the next day I was in England being spat at for being a Paki,” she says. M.I.A.’s emotional attachment to her father is vaguely addressed in the film. Unlike her siblings, who lament his absence from their lives, she is in thrall to his ideology.
In a very telling scene, her father casually describes smuggling explosives and ammunition—using toys and clothes for the kids as cover—into Sri Lanka. He displays a bold callousness toward his children. A young M.I.A. prods him to search deeper for his motivation for the resistance. “Self-identity,” he says. (Her father quit the movement and moved to London soon after.)
The aestheticization of violence—as with the militant churn of “Born Free”—in M.I.A.’s videos, music and lyrics, while not unprecedented is controversial because of its very real implications. In her view it’s art imitating life.
At their most distinctive, M.I.A.’s songs inspire frisson. She is masterful at curating and harmonizing seemingly dissonant elements of sound to drive an arresting, restive pulse in her music. In the tradition of bands like The Clash and Public Enemy—both of which, M.I.A. has sampled or referenced in her music—her art has always been explicitly political.
In some way, the documentary unwittingly assumes the form of a self-portrait. Loveridge’s storytelling and edits allow for a measured response to M.I.A.’s detractors, as opposed to the artist’s more combative attitude.
The artist is presented as equal parts vulnerable and fierce, but nary in the wrong or as a sometimes glib advocate for human rights. The narrative drive of the documentary is trained to undercut the criticisms and controversies, from Hirschberg to the NFL.
In recalling her inspiration for the music video of her first single, “Galang,” M.I.A. speaks about the need to captivate audiences with fervency: “Whatever it was, it was going to pop because I was desperate.”
The video, made on a DIY-budget, uses a backdrop of stop motion stencil art inspired by guerrilla-esque imagery—like grenades, tanks and the proud visage of an LTTE female soldier (evocative of the ubiquitous Che Guevara screen-prints).
Studying the artist through these vignettes of her life, allows, in part, for a sympathetic appreciation of a perennial contention: reconciling the privilege of celebrity with unrelenting advocacy for the oppressed. In the case of M.I.A. the privilege is discounted by the consistency and perhaps, honesty, of her intent.
This document verifies her commitment to the resistance and investment in themes of otherness well before she had any certainty of stardom: a girl who was, more than anything else, looking to be heard and seen, with a sincere bid for representation. At its core, Loveridge’s documentary attempts to secure the premature legacy of a complicated pop-star.