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Misunderstood in America

A deep dive on M.I.A’s history of being outspoken and how her new documentary aims to explain her motives.

MIA
Illustration by Lisa Case, Photo by Emily Korn

In 2005, when the infectious tunes of M.I.A’s breakout hit “Galang” from her debut dance album Arular made their way to America, it seemed like a natural progression for any artist from London to make. “M.I.A is making a concerted effort to crack America,” the Guardian declared. At the time, the blossoming Sri Lankan–British hip-hop artist, whose homemade album showed promise by marrying dancehall music with native (Tamil) beats, needed America, the quintessential pop-culture mecca, to launch her career that would eventually result in global fame. The Village Voice singled out the album for its “nursery rhyme tunefulness [that] breathed female principle.” But what’s even more intriguing about the review is that the writer, Robert Christgau, provided a lowdown on the Sri Lankan civil war between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese, to put some context into why there were lyrics like “I got the bombs to make you blow” in the song.

M.I.A’s backstory — a radical Sri Lankan refugee artist with zero qualms singing about bombs — made her immediately noteworthy. Her political baggage arrived in America right alongside her music. Soon as it did, her troubles began. The video for “Sunshowers,” a single off Arular, was banned by MTV owing to its provocative lyrics ("You wanna go? You wanna winna war? Like PLO, I don’t surrendo,” PLO being the Palestine Liberation Organization) and her refusal to remove them from the video. Not long after, in 2006, she was refused a US work visa. In a way, her relationship with America soured before it even started.

Naturally, things grew increasingly fraught: her unfettered outspokenness and politicized lyrics alluding to the civil war in Sri Lanka, an island most Americans are unfamiliar with (much less in 2005), were always in direct conflict with the commercial goals of the music industry. Besides, in the eyes of the industry, M.I.A’s politics were simply unmarketable. They provided no impetus to the success of her albums, a crucial benchmark in the industry; they sold on the power of their inventive rhythms and catchy beats, much more than for their lyrics.

But M.I.A, whose full name is Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, wanted to be more than just a chart-topping artist, and she wanted nothing to interfere with her advocacy. She repeatedly steered interviews toward politics in her early career, keen to outplay her standing as a mere entertainer to make a case about the war crimes against civilians in Sri Lanka. She beseeched Oprah on her MySpace blog, after meeting her at the 2009 Time 100 party, to speak about the refugee camps in Sri Lanka for war-displaced Tamils. In all caps, it said: “OPRAH CAN YOU DO SOMETHING BOUT THESE CAMPS PLEEEEEEEEEEASE?”

If none of these actions were provocative enough, her decision to further amplify her activism with the video for “Born Free” in 2010 proved to be a pivotal moment. Its fake execution of ginger-haired children, modeled after the real executions of Tamil children in Sri Lanka (the horrific videos of which, she claimed, were freely circulating on the Internet), alluded to ethnic cleansing. Blowback to the video, directed by Romain Gavras, was swift, forcing YouTube to ban it briefly. Again, her message was lost in the din, and the shocking video only brought her more infamy.

It’s little surprise, then, that a documentary that provides critical insight into her life is all but needed to unpack her complicated relationship with the world, mainly America. Directed by her longtime friend Steve Loveridge and sifted from taped vignettes (700 hours’ worth) often captured by M.I.A herself, it holds a mirror up to her rocky childhood, shaped by an absent militant father and a family upended by civil war. MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A is a character study that goes into all the previously unscrutinized nooks and crannies of her life. She still seems to have a pressing need to tell the world her side of the story. “You want to see my story? I’m gonna show you my fucking story,” she declared with rightful contempt, looking into the camera at the opening of the documentary.

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Of all the moments in her life the documentary attempts to unpack, one thing stands out: her immigrant’s sense of rootlessness. Back in 2001, when the war was at its peak, M.I.A as an awkward youngster went back to the conflict zone in the north of Sri Lanka, armed with a video camera to record the lives of her relatives. By then a British citizen living in London, she received only patronizing dismissal from them. “You never had the war-zone experience,” says one of her relatives to her, perhaps refusing to make sense of her urge to connect with her roots.

While she viewed the world’s apathy as unbothered complicity, her sense of rootlessness coupled with her need for belonging further fueled her need for activism. (See her refusal to dismiss her sense of identity inherited from her Tamil revolutionary father, who was once associated with training soldiers and building bombs to fight in the war.) When her father makes a rare appearance in the documentary while visiting his family in London, the siblings are conflicted. Dismissing her brother’s less-than-favorable view of her father, Arular, she says: “He’s made us damn interesting. He’s given us a bloody background!” Indeed. It might appear she desperately wanted her father’s wartime baggage to carry her personality forward and perhaps to inform her work as an artist — without which she may have believed and even feared that her life and work would lack the seriousness they needed and be reduced to the work of just another brown immigrant.

In another revealing scene from the documentary, she says: “If I shut up and not talk, I’ll become a drug addict.” It's just one of those self-recorded-video moments, of which there are numerous instances in the film, that show a rare glimpse into her personality and her pressing need to articulate her strong notions without being fearful of consequences.

Today, the Sri Lankan war that strongly informed her work is effectively over. At the face of it, perhaps the symbiosis that existed between her political activism and her music is over, too. But there are still other wars to be fought. When asked by the London Evening Standard about Black Lives Matter, she replied acerbically: “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question.” The statement was loaded and her way of stressing the need for inclusive activism, but it cost her a headlining act at the Afropunk festival in 2016.

The same year, she announced that her politically subdued fifth album, AIM, will be her final one. She has been ambivalent about whether her activism helped initiate better understanding between the Tamil minorities and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, admitting that “meaningful reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka is not happening.”

In response to a question about whether she cared to win the Mercury Prize for Arular, way back in 2005, she said: “What happens to an artist if they are relevant, if they do bridge the gap between England and America and the rest of the world, if they do explore new music? What happens to that artist?” She didn’t win the prize.

In saying that, she revealed the vision of her music career: to bridge the gap between England and America. More than a decade and several albums later, overtly colored by her politics, that vision may have wavered off course. But doubtlessly, she stayed relevant in speaking out on issues like immigrant rights and open borders. That perhaps is a proof to the extent of her success.

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To study M.I.A’s life, purged of her political background, is to undermine her firebrand activism. But is it possible for her music career to exist, uncolored by her political activism, at least in some parts of the world? A Polish-German graphic-designer fan who watched her documentary at the Berlinale screening told me: “I had no idea her career was so controversial, much less about the conflict in Sri Lanka. I feel a little embarrassed for not knowing it.” For the rest of us, it’s the knowing that makes M.I.A one of the most important contemporary cultural forces to reckon with.

Prathap Nair is a freelance writer based in Stuttgart, Germany. @thesunlitwindow

MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A debuts in theaters September 21 (UK) and September 28 (USA).