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21 September 2018

MIA may think she’s a “terrible pop star” but it’s her causes that have driven her art

The new documentary follows the life of the outspoken pop artist, chronicling her journey from Sri Lankan refugee to the heady heights of stardom.

By Sam Forsdick

“I’m a terrible pop star,” says MIA after the premier of a new documentary about her life. “I’m sorry for that… I should’ve been getting different colour hair every week.” To many the view of a “perfect pop star” is someone who is uncontroversial, shies away from political topics and leads a happy, idealistic life.

“If you remove the politics and emotions and personal stuff and just walked the line of a pop star as a vessel, being a platform and being marketable you become a corporation,” says MIA. As Matangi/Maya/MIA proves, she can never be accused of that.

The film opens with director, Steve loveridge asking MIA a question: “Why are you a problematic pop star?” It’s a question that many people have shied away from instead opting to simplify MIA as a trouble-maker and pop-provocateur. This new documentary sheds light on the person behind the headlines.

The title Matangi/Maya/MIA reflects three stages of her life. The first as Matangi – the daughter of Tamil revolutionary Arul Pragasam – who grew up in Sri Lanka in the midst of civil war; the second as Maya, the refugee who moved to the UK at the age of ten and the last as MIA, the platinum-selling rapper.  

Loveridge, who first befriended MIA when they were students at Central St Martin’s, London, addresses her multiple identities: “She’s been through so many different lives and identities since I’ve known her, and she always says to me, ‘think how many I done before I even met you.’”

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The many identities have made the real MIA hard to pin down. Many are left scratching their heads when tasked with trying to sum up a Grammy-nominated pop artist, political activist and refugee. Portrayals in the media have normally focused on a single aspect – for the most part either making her the artist who penned Paper Planes or a nuisance activist.

It is impossible to separate politics from MIA’s art. Whether it’s calling out tired tropes about immigrants on Paper Planes, highlighting the migrant crisis on the song Borders or using people with ginger hair to reference the plight of persecuted ethnic minorities in the video for Born Free, a political message has always been part of her music.

For many, her direct connection to the Tamil Tigers – the independence movement who fought a 25-year civil war with the Sri Lankan government – was an easy calling card to undermine the message she was trying to portray. She was branded as a terrorist sympathiser with others claiming “she should stick to what she does best and sing”. Early on in the film a young MIA says: “some kids know what it feels like to have a banker as a father… I know what it feels like to be the daughter of a terrorist.”

When talking to Bill Maher about the situation in Sri Lanka, Maher asks whether every person from Sri Lanka sounds like Mick Jagger. “No, but we’ll never know because they keep killing them all,” says MIA. Maher replies dismissively: “Really, they could all have Cockney accents in Sri Lanka, that’s interesting.”

“When I watch it back I feel I should’ve done more,” MIA says, ”When I was on Bill Maher I wish I was more aggressive.”

As the only Tamil in the Western media spotlight, MIA says she has felt a duty to raise the topic in interviews and her art. As her own fame grew the situation in Sri Lanka became more severe. The film doesn’t shy away from this fact and in many ways is as much a documentary about Sri Lanka during the war as it is about MIA.

For a music documentary there are only a few clips of her playing music on stage. One from music festival Coachella, one when she performed whilst nine months pregnant at the Grammys and another when she put her middle finger up to every Super Bowl fan. Instead, we see more intimate moments, such as MIA discussing her father with her sister over a bottle of alcohol or another where her son says he doesn’t like the Super Bowl, “that’s my boy” replies MIA.

Loveridge claims that it took him three months, working full time to watch all the raw footage collected from MIA’s camcorders. Condensed down into a 90 minute runtime, the film gives a portrait of an often misunderstood artist who can never be asked to conform.

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