Back with a definitive, life-spanning documentary, pop polemicist M.I.A. reveals why now is the time to lay her painfully personal politics bare
As the title of Steve Loveridge’s documentary MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. indicates, the British-Tamil pop star better known as M.I.A. goes by several names. Birth name Mathangi; nickname Maya; “Ms. Arulpragasam”, according to The New York Times. And, apparently, Simran – like me. “It’s my alias name – don’t tell everyone,” she says, already too trusting, in the library of a London hotel.
It’s two weeks until her headline show at Bestival when we meet, and the singer is excitedly making plans. “I need some really crazy Indian girls to bring out, like, bags of pearls that they can slash with a sword and throw out into the crowd. Weird shit like that. I mean, it could be flowers. It doesn’t have to be pearls. I might order in, like, a truckload of jasmine flowers and shoot them off with cannons – like confetti cannons. I would have the best smelling show. It’s a record I’d like to set.” Best selling show? “No. Best smelling show.”
Dressed today in a patterned Fendi shirt and a bridal-style gold choker, Arulpragasam only seems to take one breath to consider our surroundings: pointing out the Renaissance paintings “staring” at us; a gilded mirror “straight from an old, ancient temple”; a chair whose upholstery fabric “would have been bought from Indian tradesmen back in the day.” “Very colonial,” she notes.
Speaking into her VCR camera lens, in one of MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.’s early scenes, a teenage Arulpragasam says, “This is what happened to a kid whose dad went off and became a terrorist.” From 2010’s “Bad Girls” video, which depicted Arab women driving dangerously (it would take Saudi Arabia another eight years to lift their ban on female drivers) to her refugee anthem “Borders” in 2016, her projects have always spoken up for those who, like her, are from the global South. But despite its glossy premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Loveridge’s fascinating film is no straightforward celebration of an artist’s advocacy. It’s a friend’s attempt to relearn the woman behind the headlines and audiovisual manifestos that have marked M.I.A.’s career to date. Arulpragasam and Loveridge met as art students at Central Saint Martins in 1997; 20-odd years later, the film feels like a test to see if, and how, her values have changed.
“I feel like I’m one of the people,” she declares, reflecting on her journey. “My work has always been like that – or, my life has always been like that.”
Born in west London’s Hounslow but raised in Jaffna, Arulpragasam moved back to the UK at the age of 11, fleeing Sri Lanka’s civil war with her mother (after whom her second album Kala is named), brother and sister. Her father, Arular, a major instigator of the Tamil resistance movement, and her debut’s namesake, remained. It was 2003 when the then-20-something blew into XL Recordings’ HQ and the public’s consciousness, presenting a demo track and vibrant handmade artwork. The swaggering rap of first single, “Galang”, confronted the vilification of London’s ‘good’ immigrants long before they were considered a bestselling hot topic. (“Work is gonna save you / Pray and you will pull through / Suck a dick’ll help you / Don’t let ’em get to you”). But as the documentary details, it was through the walls of her family’s council flat in her teens that she fell in love with Public Enemy and the hip-hop basslines that would first influence her sound.
A self-described tomboy, politico, and art-school weirdo, Arulpragasam spent her adolescence reading Frantz Fanon and videotaping her siblings. A would-be documentarian, she’d ask them questions about their identity from her bedroom floor, splashing whiskey into a plastic cup, and complaining about the fact that in the 50 years since its translation into English, only one page’s worth of people had checked Black Skin, White Masks out of the local library.
“I was going to be a filmmaker,” she insists. “I just sort of fell into music, and Steve kind of saw it happen. But I tried so hard to be a filmmaker.”
“She almost got there,” says Loveridge over the phone, recalling Arulpragasam’s fascination with the Dogme 95 collective started by Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. “She got so into that because it unlocked the potential to actually make a proper film that got taken seriously, but on an incredibly shoestring budget. She really came alive and got obsessed with that scene.”
Though Loveridge is credited as the film’s director, MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. is a collaborative project, compiled from 700 hours of footage – much of it shot by Arulpragasam herself, with a narrative that pivots around the documentary footage she filmed in her native Sri Lanka in 2001. She describes its lack of vanity as “not scared of Instagram”, talking about the roughness of the images, lovingly, as a kind of “anti-aesthetics aesthetics”. “There’s no filter. It’s shaky, it’s badly lit. The tape I would have chucked away is the one he chose.”
“When I first made it... it was the MTV reality TV era. At that point I had that much chaos in my life, I was like, ‘I am the perfect crazy story to document’” — M.I.A.
Suddenly, a basket of warm pastries arrives. Arulpragasam chooses a croissant, spreading it with butter and jam; a sticky blob of strawberry lands on her bare knee. “I should only eat truffle fries with journalists,” she says, not missing a beat. Lynn Hirschberg’s infamous 2010 New York Times profile sneered at the singer, suggesting she was a hypocrite for wanting to be considered ‘an outsider’ while consuming a snack connoting wealth and luxury (in fact, it was Hirschberg who ordered the fries). The film documents the interview and its aftermath in unflinching, clear-eyed detail. “She eats croissants? Oh my God! Croissants at 7pm!” she mocks. “I wanna introduce my mum to truffle fries as well and just make it like a family thing. Maybe I’m gonna hand out truffle fries at the premiere. That’s a good idea. I’m gonna put that on the rider from now on,” she laughs.
For better or worse, Arulpragasam is not one to check herself in the moment, her lack of self-consciousness resulting in several memorable run-ins with institutions such as the Times and the NFL. “There was so much miscommunication,” she says. “I’ve had people (deliberately) misquote and misrepresent me, you know what I mean?” Her Super Bowl gaffe for example, which saw her playfully flip the bird on live television during the 2012 half-time show, caused more damage to her reputation than she could have ever imagined, with the NFL attempting to sue her for $16 million. Loveridge manages to locate the comedy that comes with hindsight, editing the event and its fallout as if to suggest she wished she’d had the idea beforehand and had done it on purpose. “He’s witnessed how wrong I go sometimes,” she grins.
“In the film, when I go ‘Yeah, I’m just waiting for my manager, then you can come back in to chat with us’ – that amazed me. I completely lied on the spot. I was like, shit, I don’t have a manager. I was there with one person, when say Nicki Minaj’s team has got 30, Madonna’s team has 100. I had one person, and then I had hair and make-up, who Madonna booked, and it was us four that had to get away in a golf cart, chased by security.”
“Why are you a problematic pop star?” Loveridge asks in the film’s opening scene, only half-joking. Though it was funded by independent, not-for-profit production company Cinereach, the money needed to finish the film was supposed to come from Interscope, the singer’s label. As Loveridge explains, her management team sat on it for a year. “I got really frustrated and ended up leaking the teaser, and having a fight with them online,” he says, suggesting that the two have more in common than first impressions might imply.
According to Arulpragasam, she and Loveridge met at a house party on Parfett Street in Whitechapel. “I was just like, ‘What am I doing here, this is not my peoples’. There was no one that was black or Asian or brown,” she recalls. She describes Loveridge as “very good at analysing people”. “He had a different way of interacting with each girl in class based on the shit they were into. He nurtured all the girls.” The young Loveridge “hung out with all the pretty ones – and he wasn’t trying to hang out with me!” she laughs.
“She was very attractive – really pretty, and really noticeable. She dressed with a sense of humour,” Loveridge says, indicating the contrary. “If you took her at face value, you’d think she was a good-time, have-a-party-all-the-time club kid out there on the London scene. But she wasn’t confident in the classroom. She wasn’t confident to put her hand up and talk. I didn’t realise that she wasn’t shy. She was being quiet because she was sussing the thing.”
“You’d think Maya was a good-time club kid, but (at school) she wasn’t confident to talk. I didn’t realise she wasn’t shy – she was being quiet because she was sussing the thing” — Steve Loveridge
Though she herself admits that “we live in an era where the camera’s always on, and the microphone’s always on,” Arulpragasam was documenting herself and her life well before the age of Instagram Stories. “My family keep saying that to me. They’re like, ‘Why were you filming yourself so much?’ I wanted to be a filmmaker – when you have access to the camera you’ve just got to make the most of it, because I borrowed cameras, you know. It’s not like I had my own.”
“When I first made it – when I got ‘Galang’ in the charts – it was the MTV reality TV era,” she continues. “Post-Cribs, but before the Kardashians. At that point I had that much chaos in my life, I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’d be so good at this thing.’ Like, ‘I am the perfect crazy story to document,’ and also, ‘I need them’, because it’s the only way I could possibly go back into Sri Lanka and not get killed – because I would have an MTV crew with me. And I was so close to just being like, ‘OK, I’m just going do the whole thing as a reality TV show.’ But it’s not really about that. It was never about being this unattainable, precious thing.”
As much as she might resist it, a pedestal from which to fall seems an inevitable place to perch for an artist like Arulpragasam. A provocateur, perhaps, but she’s more vulnerable than she appears – and, as the documentary demonstrates, more accidental loudmouth than someone who actually takes pleasure in pissing people off. There’s a tension between M.I.A.’s message and the mass medium of pop; her stance is anti-colonial, and her stake in big-picture conversations about race and identity geographically specific. Yet she speaks in broad strokes that are frequently incompatible with, and insensitive to, the precise language and identity politics of the current moment. Loveridge does a particularly smart job of questioning his friend’s inconsistencies, and needling at the idea that commercially successful artists can be – or indeed, should be – successful activists.
It’s surprising, and satisfying, to note that the spirit of the documentary is always curious, but never resolved. Not many artists would accept a film that captured them from unflattering angles, but Loveridge challenges her impulsiveness, her stubbornness, and her ego, with love. In behind-the-scenes tour footage from the late-1990s, her friend Justine Frischmann, the artist and former frontwoman of Elastica, comments that Arulpragasam “just can’t take not being the centre of attention”.
Still, being the first prominent south Asian woman in mainstream music – and, 15 years later, still the only one – is a unique burden to bear. “I tried to write a song about it recently,” she says, “but it felt wrong.”
She raps the following bars:
Can’t give me credit
Can’t admit it
Get with the fact that a brown girl can get it
“But it’s not about ego, and questioning why you’re the only one. I say that all the time – if you have a problem with me, fine, let another ten through. And I’ve tried to have that conversation but it doesn’t happen, so after 15 years I’ve given up. You just have to do it, you know? Even if you think, Oh you’re a brown girl, like, even within that thing...”
Being Tamil means you’re even more marginalised, right? I offer.
“Exactly, because I’m totally different to Priyanka Chopra, do you know what I mean? She’s a beauty queen, Miss Universe or whatever. And then she’s a Bollywood actress, and even that – it’s nothing to do with my world. Just having gone through the washing machine of you’re a terrorist, you’re a this, you’re a that, and all the history, the politics that India and Sri Lanka have, that the Tamil and Sri Lanka have – it’s not that simple.”
“(It’s) what the documentary represents.... there’s stuff that I haven’t worked out. You have to look at yourself” — M.I.A.
Of course, politics never are. M.I.A.’s cut-and-paste party tracks have been seen as a response to Bush-era America, though I’ve always thought of her agit-pop early work as an embrace of the multiculturalism that came out of the end of Tony Blair’s New Labour government. “Me and Steve always fight about this, about what this moment was,” she says. “Steve’s like, ‘It’s the Tony Blair time’, where a million people wanted not to go to war and protested, but (the UK government) went to war anyway and said ‘Fuck you, we’re not listening to you.’ And that was the beginning of the end.” I wonder if she sees it that way, too.
“I sound really depressing when I say ‘beginning of the end’. But sometimes you have to destroy the old thing to build a new thing. And I feel like there’s some change of consciousness and something good happening right now, but it is coming out of this total loss of hope and detachment with politics, and giving up on it. I feel like I...” She pauses, carefully formulating her answer. “Everyone pressurises me now, like you need to make another record now, it’s the perfect time. Talk about Donald Trump, or be angry about this – it’s OK, we’re happy with you being angry this time, we get it. But I’m already over it, you know? I don’t feel so mad any more. I used to feel a bit lonely in it, but now everybody feels the same. But before you can have that change, you have to address what happened and be real about it.”
“And even in my life, and personal life, that’s also what the documentary represents. And there’s stuff that I haven’t worked out – you know, you have to look at yourself. If you’re a country you have to look at yourself; if you’re a civilisation you have to look at yourself.”
M.I.A.’s story has been one of an underdog. In a conversation that traces how pop culture has changed since she was coming up, pinballing from the “golden era of woke feminism” to the levelling power of social media, I want to know if she still sees herself that way. Given everything she’s done, made and achieved, if she feels powerful. Her eyes flash, and I realise I’ve set her off. “Malcolm X – to me that’s the concept of power, you know? A real person that was born in a real time in a real city to a real mum who ate food and went to school. The real Black Panther came out of a human who wasn’t a superhero. That is power. You know?”
“Sometimes you have to destroy the old thing to build a new thing... something good (is) happening right now, but it is coming out of this total loss of hope and detachment with politics” — M.I.A.
“It really depends how you understand the word,” she continues. “And if you’re talking in terms of financial power or superpower, political power, power by numbers – that’s one thing. But in terms of the essence of what you are, and what you’re able to achieve, and how you can evolve, or help people – those are all different types of power that we don’t really celebrate in the world or in the media.” I’m reminded of her outfit at the Super Bowl, cheerleader crossed with Wonder Woman, wielding pom-poms in a pleated leather miniskirt and Cleopatra headdress. At the end of that performance, the phrase ‘WORLD PEACE’ was visible from the sky. Later in the documentary, sitting on her bed, she reflects on how it felt to play alongside Madonna. “Twirl around, bend over,” she lists, reeling off the instructions barked at her childhood heroine. Even for a pop star, power is always relative.
“You can buy your clicks, you can buy your Instagram followers – everything is buyable,” Arulpragasam concludes. “But I like the idea of still believing in an old world where it just takes one person to think differently. I find those things really powerful as well.”
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. is in UK cinemas from September 21
Hair Alex Brownsell at Streeters using BLEACH London, make-up Nami Yoshida at Bryant Artists using Bobbi Brown, set design Thomas Petherick at CLM, photography assistant Emma Gibney, styling assistants Clémence Rose, Julie Velut, hair assistant Freddie Leubner, make-up assistant Tadashi Kimura, set design assistant Josh Thompson, printing Labyrinth, special thanks ACE Hotel