From refugee child to political artist: what makes M.I.A. so controversial?


They dismissed not just her and her message. They went on to label her a terrorist despite having zero grounds for doing this.

The year 2019 will mark a decade since the end of the deadly Sri Lankan civil war, which left up to 150,000 of the Tamil minority unaccounted for or ‘forcibly disappeared’. Nearly ten years on, Tamils are still fleeing human rights abuses and torture as they have done since the war began in 1983. One Tamil refugee was 9-year-old Mathangi Arulpragasam, known by her friends as Maya.

Today Maya goes by the stage name, MIA. In a new documentary, Matangi / Maya / M.I.A, we learn about all the Mayas: the rapper, global pop star, visual artist, activist, mum and immigrant.

Maya was raised in Sri Lanka and India with her two siblings, her mother and her father, a Tamil activist. During the civil war, Maya, her mum and siblings were forced to become refugees and fled to London.

As a teen, Maya documented her life on a London council estate, her family and anyone willing to talk to her video camera. A key theme emerges early in the film: You can’t talk about the struggle without talking about the struggle. Director Steve Loveridge’s mix of candid family discussions with the pop star’s relentless challenging of the media and the music industry, creates a lucid illustration of what has made Maya/MIA controversial as an artist.

Of the many controversies surrounding MIA, her biggest affront has been her existence as a Tamil voice in Western media who insists on talking about the Tamil struggle.

Her popularity increased. As it did, the war in Sri Lanka escalated further and further, to the point where massive loss of life was imminent. She worked her platform at every opportunity – on national TV, at the Grammys, in her music videos – to speak about the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Literally everyone dismissed her message that the mass murder of Tamil civilians was nearing the point of genocide. The media turned a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s war crimes, choosing to spill more ink on the demonisation of MIA. They dismissed not just her and her message. They went on to label her a terrorist despite having zero grounds for doing this.

The film doesn’t go so far as to question Britain’s role in the Sri Lankan civil war. The conflict followed 132 years of British colonial rule, in which British Ceylon replaced the Sinhalese monarchy. British colonialism worsened divisions between the high-caste Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. After Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, Sinhala legally became the official language of Sri Lanka, followed by anti-Tamil riots and land grabs of Tamil homelands.

MIA continues to advocate against the mistreatment and abuse of Sri Lankan Tamils, refugees and migrants. No one else has been doing this, suggests Radheyan Simonpillai of Now Toronto: ‘Name a popular musician who addresses refugee concerns – Syrian or Mexican, for example – in their songs. You end up right back at M.I.A.’

Ironically, Toronto-based critic Simonpillai forgets to mention K’Naan. Somali-Canadian rapper, K’Naan, settled in Toronto at age 13 with his mother and two siblings after fleeing civil war in Somalia. K’Naan became ‘Somalia’s loudest musical voice in the Western Hemisphere.’ However, he cut off his foray into pop stardom after being told to water down his lyrics: ‘I come with all the baggage of Somalia – of my grandfather’s poetry, of pounding rhythms, of the war, of being an immigrant, of being an artist, of needing to explain a few things.’

Yet both artists grew up on a US tradition of rap that bases a good part of its rhymes on the fight against oppression, violence and poverty. There’s a double standard here, because a refugee rapper in London or Toronto speaking about civil war in Sri Lanka or Somalia, and Tupac Shakur speaking about gang war in Los Angeles are the same.

‘If you come from the struggle, how the fuck do you talk about the struggle without talking about the struggle?’ Zoom out and MIA answers her own question in a striking passage from the film:

“The kid in a village in Coromandel where we shot the Bird Flu video, and the kid in Liberia playing on that playground is exactly the same. And they have nursery rhymes and they play games. They have an opinion about what kind of hairstyle they want and what t-shirt they’re going to put on in the morning. And they have dreams. And they have … an idea of what they want to be.”

People have always migrated. Children have always dreamed about what they want to be. And artists have always expressed themselves. When refugee children become artists, you better believe they will talk about the struggle.

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A is out now in the UK, and opens on 28 September in the US and on 5 October in Canada. For more locations, check:

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A Official Trailer

Borders. Video directed by MIA



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