More than almost any other star on the planet, M.I.A. has consistently refused to censor her beliefs or cater to the media – regardless of the impact on her career. From being accused of terrorism to flipping off an entire nation of Americans at the 2012 Super Bowl, the self-proclaimed “Bad Girl” has courted controversy ever since she first hit the spotlight, and it doesn’t look like she’s ready to relinquish her role as a “problematic popstar” anytime soon.
On “Borders,” the lead single from M.I.A.’s latest album AIM, the Sri Lankan-born rapper encourages listeners to question a wide range of institutions that most take for granted, including “freedom”, “politics”, and even “your families.” However, M.I.A.’s detractors have long argued that her stance on such issues is inherently hypocritical in nature, claiming that someone who’s found success on this scale is too busy eating truffle fries to fully understand the people who she supposedly speaks for.
Amidst all of the controversy, it can be hard to discern who the real M.I.A. is, but fans now finally have a chance to look beyond the fluorescent glare of her videos and get to know her like never before in the new documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. Directed by long-time friend Steve Loveridge, the film explores M.I.A.’s private life with more honesty than we’re already used to seeing from the outspoken star, and that’s probably because she had no say over the material used.
Cultivated from over 700 hours of footage that M.I.A. herself started shooting as a young teenager, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. was originally supposed to focus mainly on her music and feature interviews from collaborators like JAY-Z and Kanye West. However, Loveridge felt that it would be “a real disservice” to ignore the autobiographical nature of the footage and strove instead to objectively portray Mathangi Arulpragasam; the woman, rather than M.I.A.; the popstar. As a result, people searching for gossip surrounding the star’s relationship with Diplo should look elsewhere, but fans interested in what genuinely motivates the provocateur as a person will discover that Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is a fascinating watch from start to finish.
Highsnobiety Music caught up with M.I.A. and Loveridge at the film’s international premiere at the 68th Berlinale as part of a roundtable interview. Together, we discussed everything from “fashionable activism” and being labelled “gross” to a few choice words that Madonna’s manager shared with M.I.A. following the Super Bowl.
How did you feel the first time that you saw ‘Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.’?
M.I.A.: I was blank, I had no response, but the second time… I was crying my eyes out.
Steve Loveridge: You seemed really angry!
M.I.A.: I was just impressed that no one was outside the cinema trying to arrest me or put me in jail. That was the main thing for me… I was like, even if Steve made a film about me shopping for an hour, it would be controversial in America.
How do you think that people’s perception of you might change after seeing this film in America?
M.I.A.: I’m not sure. I think they need it in this time of Instagram and the shiny X-Factor type of people who are constantly in a public space. There’s certain bits with my family and my story which are really hard to watch, but you almost have to do it. It’s like doing it for culture… Maybe now people’s attention span can expand a bit from six seconds and actually sit through something for 90 minutes.
SL: I didn’t make [Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.] with the idea of winning people over or that people who didn’t like her would come out of the cinema and be like ‘That’s completely changed my mind.’ Making a film that’s open enough for people to make up their own mind was really important. [To M.I.A.] Why are you a problematic popstar? I think part of that comes from you and part of it comes from how culture and the music industry is set up. It’s not an easy place to be political anymore.
M.I.A.: Even though right now it’s the marketable thing – revolution. Everybody who spoke at the Grammys is like ‘OMG, so powerful’ about things that are still within a sphere of acceptableness, but when I said things like that before… it was like the biggest thing.
SL: There’s really strict rules about how to be an activist in America and how to talk about issues like race and feminism. I think M.I.A. is an explorer who goes to the edge of things and tests the boundaries. Sometimes, it doesn’t go down well.
M.I.A.: Also, I think there’s a cultural difference in the way you understand things. For Americans and American musicians, they just have to deal with [these issues] on one continent. The concept of problematic and the goalposts on problematic are defined in the West. They’re not defined on a global platform.
SL: Even having a major film by a white person about a brown person, the friendship and everything, the first reaction was like ‘Man making film about woman, white guy, brown woman… This doesn’t work. You can’t do that.’ The job was to stitch together things that M.I.A. had shot and was saying. It’s not like I’m going to tell this story from my point of view. It was more a curating of the material, finding a thread, a story, and honoring that story, rather than projecting my own opinions into it.
Why did you start shooting this footage of yourself?
M.I.A.: I was filming the Sri Lanka stuff to make a documentary… Before that, my family stuff, I was just filming because I got access to a camera and I was filming everything. I wanted to explore how to solve my family’s problems. My dad was absent, and my brother had gotten into trouble. He was in a young offenders institute at 16, so I was really using the camera to show him ‘him’ and to see how he understood himself.
I understood that when you brought a camera into a room, it changes things, but I did it so often that eventually everyone forgot about it. I think I was tricking them into therapy… I didn’t realize that was going to be in the film then because I felt that the creative stuff was what we were making a film about.
What did you learn about yourself while watching the film?
M.I.A.: I don’t know. I’m still processing. I learnt a lot about my friendship with Steve [Loveridge] actually… It’s not the film that I would have made, because mine would have been more about the art and less about the personal, but Steve was very kind about my early family stuff. It’s got the least amount of shots in it to get the point across because there was just hours and hours of that early stuff.
Before, in 2011, we thought we were making a documentary about the live shows, all the aesthetics of my artwork and stuff like that… When [Steve] got all my footage… he showed me ten minutes of it in 2013 and I was sick. I puked for four days. I got a fever, I was ill… I was in depression for so long and I was like ‘No, you can’t do that!’ It was just terrible.
Are you ever worried that you’ll lose the immense drive that we saw you display early on in ‘Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.’?
M.I.A.: I did think that when I watched it. What do you do after the bones of your life are kind of there? I think now maybe I can just be a creative without people judging me on all these complicated things that I was never very good at explaining without this film. I was always problematic because it’s too difficult to explain these things.
Music videos are a powerful form of expression for you, M.I.A.
M.I.A.: Yeah, when I was having that moment in America after the [Sri Lankan] civil war ended and “Born Free” came out, it was really just about trying to talk about the imagery and execution videos. This is on the same smartphone next to this video of Lady Gaga. I’m like this person, but also this person… These are the problems that I was dealing with at the time.
SL: We would bring in music videos [to art school] and say ‘This is important’ because it meant something to us. I’m gay, M.I.A.’s a Sri Lankan immigrant… Seeing people represented really did mean something to us. There’s power in pop culture. It was like food to make you feel better, and it was really important to have some icons to latch onto.
Do you have any regrets about your performance at the Super Bowl in 2012? And have you talked to Madonna since?
M.I.A.: I never regret anything. But no, we didn’t stay in touch. Guy Oseary [Madonna’s manager] called me and he said I was like ‘the drunk person at the wedding who crashed the wedding’ and we never spoke after that.
How do you continue to be politically active while also becoming more and more famous? Is it something that you’re better at dealing with now?
M.I.A.: That is the battle, and that’s a battle that’s not discussed in music right now today for some reason… I didn’t actually do anything bad or hurt somebody or shoot people or whatever. I just said stuff about what’s happening. I find the capitalist scale of achievement quite gross and yet because I didn’t do that, that’s why I was gross. The whole cultural system of entertainment was so grossed out by me.
When I was trying to settle down and be normal and get married and have a baby, they were like ‘WTF are you doing? Why are you in Beverly Hills?’ And then the year after when I’m just totally kicked out of that whole system and I’m poor, everybody says ‘You’re a shit artist and no one likes you because you’re not a billionaire… No one’s watching your videos and you haven’t got a sports brand and you don’t have your own fucking hair shampoo.’
You’ve failed as a person, so they’re never happy. I can never make them happy. Whether you make it and become successful on this side or be a complete activist on this side, no one’s going to be fucking happy. That’s the contradiction, you know? But at the same time, they say it’s totally cool to be like that in America right now. How do you not address this in an era where activism has become fashionable and it’s marketing the top brands in the world?
For more like this, read our interview with art-pop legends Fischerspooner about their bold new album ‘Sir’ right here.
- Words: David Opie
- Cover Image: Mike Coppola/Getty Images