Pretty much all I knew about Matangi a.k.a. Maya Arulpragasm a.k.a. M.I.A. is the song Bad Girls. The anthem to girls doing whatever they want has a killer video clip of stunt drivers in the Middle East and M.I.A. resplendent in shades and gold chains. I now know there is so much more to her than this song and her Grammy and Oscar nominations.
Living in Sri Lanka for her first 11 years, Maya is the daughter of the founder of the Tamil resistance movement, Arul Pragasm. Her family, minus her father, fled to the UK when their lives were increasingly in danger due to her father’s activism. Maya studied art and film at college and developed a love for hip-hop music after hearing a neighbour’s stereo through her bedroom wall. Friendship with Elastica lead singer Justine Fleischman introduced her to the Roland MC-505 groovebox and, after making music videos for Elastica, she began to make her own music.
A trip to her family and Sri Lanka in her mid-20s reawakened Maya’s understanding of the Civil War and atrocities occurring to both Tamils and Sinhalese. This influenced the political and social content of her music and video clips and was at first embraced by the music industry for its ‘cultural diversity’. As she gained more fame, her outspoken condemnation of the Sri Lankan government and desire to highlight the apparent genocide to a western audience saw her increasingly criticised.
Due to her early days as a filmmaker, there is a lot of fascinating footage of her in her 20s, particularly when she is in Sri Lanka. It provides a clear context for her art and music and you can see exactly where the interest in her, by the media, as an ethnic novelty wore off. The furore around her Super Bowl performance and her comments on Madonna are fascinating.
At 43, Maya is no less politically strident, although she is no longer as feted. As she says, the industry doesn’t mind black or brown people being successful as long as they don’t talk about unpleasant things.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If you enjoyed it, I’d recommend watching Amy, the excellent documentary about Amy Winehouse.