“Why are you problematic?” – Director Steve Loveridge asks Maya

43-year-old pop star M.I.A. had nothing to do with the making of Stephen Loveridge’s film, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. which had its worldwide release last month, but she was very much a driving force throughout the creation process thanks to more than 700 hours of personal video footage she handed over to the director eight years ago.

“When I handed the tapes over in 2011, I wanted to make an in-depth documentary about the Maya album, just because I had so much visual content around it and I felt that it was misunderstood,” M.I.A said.

What was supposed to be a music documentary ended up being an in-depth, intimate look at M.I.A.’s journey from war-torn Sri Lanka to international stardom. For critics who have long questioned the motivation behind her activism, the film  provides clarity on why M.I.A. has refused to let her political voice be silenced.

At the beginning of the documentary, Loveridge jokingly asks M.I.A.: “Why are you problematic?”

From the moment she burst onto the music scene in 2004, M.I.A.’s voice has been unapologetically fierce and fiercely unapologetic. Stirring controversy with her lyrics and her music videos, that “problematic” persona took hold almost instantly.

Before M.I.A.’s first album was even released, MTV banned the video for her song Sunshowers because she refused to remove the lyrics “You wanna go? You wanna win a war? Like PLO, I don’t surrendo!”

That was essentially the first bell sounding off in M.I.A.’s long fight with the media over accusations of supporting terrorism.

Early years

Born Mathangi Arulpragasam, M.I.A. grew up as part of the ethnic minority Tamil community in northern Sri Lanka.

“I remember not being conscious of the fact that you’re Tamil and then suddenly being really conscious of it because the war just started,” said M.I.A., who was forced to flee Sri Lanka when she was just 10 years old.

She described “having to uproot yourself, get on a plane, go to the detention centre, get put in hostels — you know, wait to be housed for months and go through the whole refugee bureaucracy thing, and then setting up a new life in a different country.”

M.I.A. settled in London as a refugee in 1985.

“It was the first time England opened its borders to [Sri Lankan] refugees and I was like the first kind of batch,” she said.

M.I.A. still remembers the in-your-face racial tension that existed in the 1980s.

“It was just like learning that, ‘Oh you’re something else,’ and it’s not even the thing that you really are. You’re just sort of lumped in this category of brown,” she said.

“Then, it’s kind of each time you move, the boundaries change on the identity. I learned that pretty quickly from very young.”

The start of M.I.A.

In the U.K., Mathangi became Maya, a refugee with an ambition to become a documentary filmmaker. How Maya then became M.I.A. started with a phone call on the day she graduated from art school.

In the spring of 2001, M.I.A. returned to Sri Lanka to find her cousin, who had gone missing during the war.

“I didn’t like hearing the message that my cousin might be alive or he might be dead and nobody knew,” she said.

“I felt really guilty,” M.I.A. continued. “My favourite cousin had to make that decision to fight for his people and I was … just graduating with a fine art degree and I didn’t know what to do with it. I needed to go and investigate.

What started as a journey to reconnect with her family and find her cousin who went missing during the war became something much bigger.

“I think every day there was a new event. And I was learning new things and it kept expanding. And that was the first time I felt really connected to back home in Sri Lanka, and the concept of people like me and people my age and what they were doing there [during the war].”

That’s effectively the origin story of Arulpragasam’s stage name, M.I.A.

It’s a nod to the cousin she never found and the people she left behind.

Throughout her controversial career, what remains at the core of M.I.A.’s music and activism is her life as a Tamil refugee who grew up in London.

“People make it out that it’s a dirty word, and being a refugee or being an immigrant is like this thing that you shouldn’t speak about,” said M.I.A..

“I quite like speaking about it because I like the nature of what you can draw from. My thing is that I’m proud. You know, I’ve always been proud of it.… I’m an artist that draws on real life and real experiences.”


Story and pic courtesy –