'It Never Existed Before': M.I.A. On Changing Pop And Documenting Her Story

Sep 30, 2018
Originally published on September 30, 2018 4:04 pm

Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., has made her name in music melding pop and hip-hop with bold visual art and political commentary. In the process, she's crafted a successful career with early 2000s hits like "Bucky Done Gun," and "Paper Planes."

That career has been punctuated by moments of controversy and misunderstanding. She's clashed with other artists, music labels and the media. As M.I.A. explains, "When constantly people are like, 'Oh, you're nothing, you're this, you're not authentic you're a racist you are a terrorist...,' it understandably makes a lot of people fold.

But fold she did not. As a Tamil refugee, M.I.A. has been particularly outspoken through her music and dialogue about the treatment of that ethnic minority in Sri Lanka. The bloody civil war there came to an end in 2009 when the Tamil rebels were defeated by the government.

These highs and the lows are all fodder for the new documentary about her life, MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. The new film, out now in the United States, is an intimate look at M.I.A.'s journey. The doc draws on personal videos that M.I.A. recorded herself over 22 years — from her childhood to rise to fame and more. M.I.A. handed that trove over to Steve Loveridge, her longtime art school friend and the film's director. Loveridge says the footage was like a documentary maker's dream.

"I had like 700 hours of stuff to plow through that had amazing coverage," Loveridge says. "She interviewed her family and the people that she worked with and went back to Sri Lanka talked to the family there ... so it was amazing stuff."

M.I.A. and Loveridge spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about themes of the documentary, being political in music before is was fashionable. Listen to their conversation at the audio link and read interview highlights below.

Interview Highlights

On being a refugee and a pop star

M.I.A.: It never sort of existed before, where a musician comes from where they come from, and becomes a pop star in that timeline within 15 years of landing as a refugee. And then having to also speak about a war, a civil war, that was coming to an end in real time, at the moment you get nominated for a Grammy. And because that's never happened, it was really difficult for the media or the public to get their head around. And I had to constantly make choices.

On receiving backlash during the course of her career

Loveridge: I just think for all artists, there's a natural cynicism around what their motives are when they bring activism into pop culture, whether it's just another exercise in a different way of marketing yourself. But, in Maya's case, I think it's so unusual to have someone that's been on that A to B journey, of being a displaced person coming to a new culture, learning a new language, getting on your feet, and then to actually get a platform ...

M.I.A.: It's not just a displaced person. My family ... like my dad started the resistance movement. ... There were really denying my own family identity, like you really had to whitewash yourself to be like, "Oh I didn't even come from this family." That was really difficult because you named your album after your mom and dad. So, it was very difficult to draw from that creatively, but then edit out what that actually is.

On musicians getting political in their music now without punishment

M.I.A.: I don't know a lot of women that did stick their neck out during that time and get slapped down. Before I came out, it was Dixie Chicks. And then after I came out, you had like Kesha, maybe, who was talking about sexual assault. But a lot of women in music didn't raise their voice. I mean, now it's changing. But during the time I was doing that, it just seemed like ... yeah, I can't really think of somebody who is constantly being punished for it, year after year after year, with a different group of people that was punishing you.

Loveridge: I think when you talk about that unique and special kind of punishment that women face in the music industry, the sort of dismissal of Maya when she talked about politics and was trying to raise awareness for what was going on in Sri Lanka, there's a weird tone to the condescension that you get from old, male music critics, and that voice coming from who it was coming from was a problem for some people.

Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to the digital version of this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

M.I.A. has made her name melding rap, pop and political commentary. And in the process, she's crafted an incredibly successful music career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GALANG")

M.I.A.: (Rapping) London calling. Speak the slang now. Boys says wha' gwan. Girls say wha' what.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER PLANES")

M.I.A.: (Singing) I fly like paper, get high like planes. If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD GIRLS")

M.I.A.: (Singing) Live fast, die young. Bad girls do it well. My chain hits my chest when I'm banging on the dashboard. My chain hits my...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That career has been punctuated by moments of controversy and misunderstanding. She's clashed with other artists, music labels, the media.

M.I.A.: When constantly, people are like, oh, you're nothing. You're this. You're not authentic. You're a racist. You're a terrorist and every name you can possibly think of, which makes a lot of people fold.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But fold she did not. As a Tamil refugee, she's been particularly outspoken about the treatment of that ethnic minority in Sri Lanka. The bloody civil war there came to an end in 2009 when the Tamil rebels were defeated by the government. The highs and the lows are all fodder for the new documentary about her life, "Matangi/Maya/M.I.A." It's an intimate look at M.I.A.'s journey, drawing on personal videos that M.I.A. herself recorded over the past 20-plus years. She handed over that trove to the film's director, a friend she's known since art school in London, Steve Loveridge.

STEVE LOVERIDGE: I had, like, 700 hours of stuff to plow through that had amazing coverage. And, you know, she interviewed her family, interviewed the people that she worked with and went back to Sri Lanka, talked to the family there. So it was really amazing stuff, like a documentary maker's dream.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They both came to our New York bureau to talk about the documentary.

M.I.A.: It had never sort of existed before, where a musician comes from where they come from and becomes a pop star in that timeline, you know, within 15 years of landing as a refugee. And then having to also speak about a war that was - a civil war that was coming to an end in real time, at the moment you get nominated for a Grammy. And because that's never happened, it was really difficult for the media or, you know, the public to get their head around. And I had to constantly make choices, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Steve, when you highlighted this, I mean, you know, Maya's endured a lot of negative media attention, specifically, she says, when she's spoken out about political issues. Why do you think so many people didn't want to take her seriously?

LOVERIDGE: I think lots of people did. I just think there's - for all artists, there's a natural cynicism around what their motives are when they bring activism into pop culture, whether it's just a kind of another exercise in a different way of marketing yourself. But in Maya's case, I think it's so unusual to have someone that's been on that A to B journey of being a displaced person, coming to a new culture, learning a new language, getting on your feet and then to actually get...

M.I.A.: Yeah, but...

LOVERIDGE: ...A platform.

M.I.A.: ...It's not just a displaced person. My family - like, dad - started the resistance movement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Your father was a Sri Lankan Tamil leader.

M.I.A.: They were really denying my own family identity. Like, you really had to whitewash yourself to be like, oh, I didn't even come from this family, or I didn't even - you know, and that was really difficult because you named your album after your mom and dad. So it was very difficult to draw from that creatively but then edit out what that actually is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a question for you both. As you know, this is a moment when women's voices are being sort of heard and reassessed in new ways. And in a Guardian article about this documentary, it says that the film raises questions about what is expected of famous women and the punishment that awaits them if they don't conform.

M.I.A.: I don't know a lot of women that did stick their neck out during that time and get slapped down. It was before I came out. It was Dixie Chicks. And then after I came out, you know, you had, like, Kesha, maybe, who was talking about sexual assault. But a lot of women in music didn't raise their voice because, you know, a lot of - I mean, now it's changing. But during the time I was doing that, it just seemed like, yeah, I can't really think of somebody who is constantly being punished for it, like, year after year after year, with a different group of people that was punishing you, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, either music critics or just in culture generally. And Steve, I mean, what do you think about that? I mean, I think what the author means is that because Maya was unique in many respects and was out of the mainstream of what was expected of a female pop star, she got a lot of hate.

LOVERIDGE: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you talk about that unique and special kind of punishment that women face in the music industry, the sort of dismissal of Maya when she talked about politics and was trying to raise awareness for what was going on in Sri Lanka - there's a weird tone to the condescension that you get from old, male music critics. And that voice coming from who it was coming from was a problem for some people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You guys were friends. So I want to ask you this last question. Would you advise making a documentary or - with a close friend? I mean, was the process bringing you closer together or not?

LOVERIDGE: Yeah, yeah. I think we've got quite a robust friendship. And we're still friends and always will be. It hasn't kind of caused a strain on that sort of level. But in some of the reviews - dismissive sometimes. And I get to see what it was like for her and have a little insight and a small inkling of what it feels like because of the documentary. So actually, yeah. I would recommend to friends do a bit of film. It's...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If you happen to know...

LOVERIDGE: ...An interesting thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Somebody really famous with an incredible history.

LOVERIDGE: Yeah. It is a really interesting way to spend a little bit of time walking in someone's shoes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Maya?

M.I.A.: Yes. I think if you've got a smart friend, it can't hurt. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: M.I.A. and Steve Loveridge, thank you so very much.

LOVERIDGE: Thank you.

M.I.A.: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINALLY")

M.I.A.: (Singing) What haters say about me don't worry me. I keep it moving forward to what's ahead of me. You're gonna see...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The new documentary "Matangi/Maya/M.I.A." is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINALLY")

M.I.A.: (Singing) Cause I'm free, and I'm a freak. All the people I love I try to keep. We get deep. Keep it street. And we're never gonna stay asleep. Finally. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.