How did M.I.A.’s father, an early leader of the Tamil resistance movement, react to the documentary about the trailblazing pop star, out today? “My dad watched it yesterday for the first time,” the musician-activist told those at NYU Skirball Center this morning. “But everybody else loves it.”
After a bit of laughter from the crowd, which had arrived bright and early for the launch of a new Activist Mornings series, M.I.A. (born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam) clarified that her father, Arular, is a man of few words, and that he did laconically acknowledge that Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., eight years in the making, was “very good.” Even if it took longer to come out than M.I.A. would have wanted.
“If I’d done [the film], it would’ve been out in 2011,” she said, D.I.Y. as ever.
Much has happened in the years since director Steve Loveridge— who met M.I.A. when she was a fellow student at Central Saint Martins in London, studying film and video—began filming her. At the time, she intrigued him because she was one of the only people of color in his class, and the sense of M.I.A. as an outsider ends up being a theme of the film as it follows her through the explosive start and the ups and downs of her music career.
The film starts with M.I.A., who came of age in London as a refugee of the Sri Lankan civil war, describing how she grew up listening to Madonna and other pop artists, and it culminates in her performance with Madge at the Super Bowl in 2012. The dream-come-true quickly becomes a nightmare when M.I.A. flips the middle finger on live TV and the NFL sues her for over $16 million.
The media firestorm over the gesture is redolent of today’s Colin Kaepernick controversy. At the time, Dana Perino of Fox News wondered why Madonna chose M.I.A. to sing with her when she’s “not even an American.” She goes on: “Why can’t we have some America in our football?”
You’d think M.I.A. had murdered someone, the musician notes in the film: “A brown person standing out there who’s not sucking dick is more offensive than murdering someone. They want me like Aziz Ansari.”
Okay, let’s put aside the irony of the Aziz Ansari reference (this was back in 2012, when he was mostly known for his goofy Parks and Rec character) and note that Fox News personalities aren’t the only ones who’ve picked up on M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” attitude. She told the crowd at Skirball this morning that she watched the film with her nine-year-old son next to her and his reaction was: “Oh my god, you swear so much. And then you’re smoking?” She said: “It did make me realize it’s not a film for children.”
But if M.I.A. is worked up, she has good reason to be. She explains in the film that she flicked off the Super Bowl cameras in response to the “sexist, misogynist, racist” things she saw while men prepared Madonna for the half-time show. At Skirball, she recalled being raised in a “really racist” public housing complex during a “really racist time” in mid-80s Britain, when “Paki” was a common slur and punk rockers were flirting with Nazism.
“When you come over as a refugee, it’s a dirty word,” she said, explaining that she “found people that were like-minded through music.”
While London did eventually become more of a melting pot, the aughts presented a challenge of their own. “Bling was the word that defined that era,” M.I.A. said, and nobody wanted to hear a pop star hold forth about the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war. (You may recall the infamous truffle fry incident.) Still, M.I.A. couldn’t ignore it. “The struggle is not a distant thing,” she said. “It’s in my family.”
With its home video footage going back 22 years and its intimate, confessional-booth moments, Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. shows just how close her family was to the struggle, even if some of her relatives tease her for never having been in the thick of the fight (her mother and two siblings left for London when M.I.A. was ten, though her father stayed behind). During a visit to Sri Lanka, M.I.A. describes being groped by soldiers while riding a bus with her mother, who advises her to keep quiet lest the soldiers drag them into the jungle and kill them.
Though it meant being accused of supporting terrorists, M.I.A. didn’t hesitate to show sympathy for the Tamil Tigers through songs like “Born Free,” the video to which shows redheaded white boys being summarily executed just as Tamils were by Sinhalese forces.
Explaining to the Skirball crowd why she didn’t want to make antiseptic music though it might have led to even better sales, she said, “I didn’t want to take part in a system that dumbs people down.” The film shows how, for her 2007 album Kala, M.I.A. recorded the sounds of her home country—from barnyard animals, to children at play, to folk musicians— so she could spin them into beats. She describes “Paper Planes,” the album’s massive hit, as a mockery of the idea that immigrants are all out to commit crimes and steal jobs.
As this morning’s conversation wound down, M.I.A. noted that Trump’s presidency has made it easy for activists to band together in a common cause, but she reminded the crowd that “true activism”—which was “a very isolating thing” in the time of Bush and Obama— “means you go against the grain at that moment when the status quo is going against you.”
“When you watch the film,” M.I.A. said, “I hope you learn about the power of saying no and being okay with it.”