A documentary about the British-Tamil musician’s life is sparking difficult conversations about race and identity – and she isn’t afraid to get heated
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. directed by Steve Loveridge. 92 minutes. An Elevation Pictures release. Opens October 5 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (506 Bloor West). hotdocs.ca.
I got into a fight with M.I.A.
“You sound too comfortable,” she says, accusingly. “Why are you comfortable?!”
As our conversation about post-war Tamil identity reaches a boiling point, Maya’s manager and a film publicist watch from outside the glass walls, clueless about what’s being said but looking like they’re wondering at what point they should interrupt the heated exchange.
“You’re talking to me like a white person would talk to me,” says M.I.A.
That turns out to be a fair criticism.
The pointed remarks come at me after having spent the better part of two days in May with the Grammy- and Oscar-nominated recording artist, who was born Mathangi but goes by Maya Arulpragasam. The day before, I interviewed her for CTV and then onstage after the Hot Docs premiere of her new documentary, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.
On this day, I oversaw the NOW photo shoot with Maya before travelling with her entourage to the movie theatre at Scarborough Town Centre, where she participated in one last Q&A (moderated by Hot Docs programmer Ravi Srinivasan).
While the audience is watching the film upstairs, Maya and I are holed up in the party room, with concession treats scattered across the table for our last, longest, gloves-off interview.
She’s passionately explaining the systematic erasure of Tamil identity, violently in Sri Lanka during a 26-year civil war, and more insidiously everywhere else. Things get sour when I nervously try to defuse the conversation, applying her points about identity toward the documentary’s coming-of-age structure in an awkward attempt at rerouting to something more accessible for readers.
“I’m just trying to make it easy for white people to read this, too,” were my exact words. That didn’t go over so well.
“Doesn’t matter about them right now,” Maya responds, before assuring me that white audiences – her white audiences – will understand. “Write it for Tamils.”
“I connect you to somebody who has gone through the shit,” she says to me, referring to our refugee stories.
“Your parents had to learn new languages. They had to leave a country that was 35 degrees hot and move to ice-cold weather in the middle of fucking winter in Toronto. And fucking work shit jobs to put you through school. You know the reality of it and what are you doing with it?”
I make matters worse when I defensively dig in my heels.
“I’m on a national television show every week and I write at NOW Magazine,” I say, arguing that I do my part to represent by taking every opportunity to discuss Tamil matters whenever I feel the urge to do so. Hell, I put “I Am. Tamil” on NOW’s cover two years ago.
She knows this, of course. She was the first to take part.
But it’s not until I listen back to the recording that I realize the irony of my position and the root of this fight. I insist I have the freedom to discuss whatever I want, but I’m also trying to make hard topics more digestible for the broader public. So, after the fact, I understand her frustration.
If the outspoken Maya, the first Sri Lankan Tamil to break into popular culture, is feeling restricted in her conversation about Tamil identity politics with a Tamil journalist, where else could she say these things?
“They put you on television,” she says, “and I’m a pop star. But we can’t be specific with our problems.”
Speaking specifically to Tamil issues has been an ongoing struggle for Maya, which is covered in the documentary directed by her friend Steve Loveridge.
In Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., we get a glimpse of her childhood as a refugee living in a cramped London council flat while her absent father remained committed to the Tamil resistance movement. We witness a formative trip back to Sri Lanka and the rise of a very unique pop star.
A turning point in the film is the final stand between what is estimated to be 1,500 remaining Tamil Tigers and 50,000 front-line government soldiers, with approximately 350,000 civilians caught in the crossfire. The UN pegs the casualties somewhere between 50,000-70,000, but other reports suggest many more.
We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of what many refer to as a genocide that the international community allowed to happen over the pleas of politicians and the Tamil diaspora.
At that time, Maya’s career was riding high on her 2007 hit single, Paper Planes, but every time she tried to redirect media attention to war crimes and the humanitarian crisis she was shot down. The doc includes footage of Maya being brushed aside by red-carpet reporters and talk show host Bill Maher.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government spun their own narrative, labelling her – and any other Tamils speaking up about the massacre – as liars and terrorist sympathizers. They did this while the military shelled hospitals and refugee camps that were bearing red crosses and holding up white flags, an atrocity documented in the film No Fire Zone. (Watch it!)
Back in the party room, I raise a point that a former high-ranking Tamil Tiger once relayed to me. We made it easy for the Sri Lankan government to label us terrorists by lifting up the Tamil Tiger flag during protests, from the human chain on University Avenue to the storming of the Gardiner Expressway in May 2009. With that flag, we muddied the distinction between the Tamil civilians trapped on that beach and the Tamil militant group staging a last stand.
Maya counters that the Tamil community has no other flag.
“Don’t take it like that,” she retorts. “We got to be proud of that flag because that is the flag we’ve been fighting under. Because that is the only thing we had at that time.”
These are the conversations that put me on pins and needles, and that’s true for so many in the diaspora. We aligned ourselves with the cause, and perhaps even what’s perceived as the golden era for the Tamil Tigers, when they were a guerilla group controlling a de facto state in the Jaffna peninsula, winning the hearts and minds of their people. But it’s harder to embrace their iconography when the group became associated with forced recruitment of child soldiers and increasingly desperate violence.
But, as Maya points out, our options are limited to the Tigers or simply victims waiting for justice that will never come. That’s a point the film zeroes in on, when Maya recalls being sexually harassed by Sri Lankan police on a bus. Her mother advises her to keep quiet, which makes Maya think about who is out in the jungle fighting for her.
“Don’t take it to a place where they made you feel insecure or made you feel shit about holding that flag,” she continues. “Because the only alternative they gave us was a white flag. And when you held that up, they killed you. And when they killed you, nobody came to your fucking rescue. No one. And they still haven’t. So don’t let them do that.
“We can’t comply to their rules because we’re invisible in their space.”
The conversation surrounding the flag is wrapped up in Tamil identity. Maya admits the Tiger flag only represents 35 years in a struggle that dates back much further. Meanwhile, Tamil identity and history is far richer than just that struggle.
“We come from ancient civilizations,” says Maya. “We come from so much knowledge and skill in literature and poetry. We had kingdoms. They reduced us to this point where we’re seen as human-rights-violated petty people who can’t even speak for ourselves.”
In the Tamil community, there’s a conversation about self-affirmation in Sri Lanka. How can Tamils move forward when those who committed war crimes, from former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa on down, have never been brought to justice? How can the community strengthen themselves when they’re still subject to racial oppression in Sri Lanka? When will the women staging roadside protests for their loved ones, among the approximately 60,000-100,000 people who have been disappeared, finally get answers?
And who is going to raise these issues when even Maya can’t?
She has never stopped speaking, and her career is constantly made to suffer for it, from being sued by the NFL for flashing the middle finger during a Super Bowl performance with Madonna in 2012 or being hit with labels like “terrorist sympathizer” by Sri Lankan media or someone who “thrives on conflict, real or imagined,” by U.S. media.
“That’s what that Lynn Hirschberg article is,” says Maya, referencing the notorious New York Times Magazine hit piece that painted her as a hypocritical activist who dines on truffle fries (that Hirschberg ordered). No one has ever criticized Beyoncé for what’s on her plate.
“It’s like, ‘Shut up talking about Tamils and we’ll make you into a pop star,’” says Maya of the industry response to her politics. “I’m not fighting for the space to gentrify myself and then fit in. I’ve had that offered to me every year. I could have been the brown one of them and not say anything about where I come from and who I am.”
The irony is that Maya feels like she can’t be outspoken at a time when being an outspoken activist has become something not just cool, but marketable – protests are the stuff to sell Pepsi and Nike.
“One minute everybody is completely happy giving up all their privacy and buying the biggest and the best and being a completely docile society,” says Maya. “And then overnight” – she snaps her fingers – “they start protesting about everything.”
She isn’t annoyed about protests. She’s annoyed by how limited they are. “Woke” pop culture doesn’t make room for someone like Maya, an issue she tried to address when she made her infamous “Muslim Lives Matter” comments in the Evening Standard in April 2016.
The journalist had asked her what she thought about Beyoncé’s Black Power salute at the 2016 Super Bowl. After all, Maya’s music was political long before Bey’s, and she had already upset the NFL with a one-finger salute.
Maya’s off-the-cuff response sounded glib toward the Black Lives Matter movement. But Maya’s only safe response to those questions might have been to celebrate one cause while keeping quiet about her own.
What else did people expect from the artist who continues to wonder when the U.S. (and the global pop culture scene it dominates) will pay attention to all the people who are not Black or white fighting for security and dealing with racial issues?
Yes, saying Black Lives Matter is a way to make sure all lives matter, yet it’s so rare for anyone who isn’t Black or white to enter that conversation, at least as far as pop music is concerned. 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.
“If you think about what constitutes controversial [issues] now, it still leaves out 80 per cent of the planet’s population,” says Maya, who believes she will only be accepted in this new woke terrain if she fights for more generalized causes like women and race, without bringing her own specificity to the fore.
“If your feminism doesn’t include me, that’s not real feminism. If your racial issue doesn’t include me, then it’s not about race.”
In the midst of all of this, she also feels erased as an individual. Her influence on other artists has been largely ignored.
During our interview, Maya whips out her phone and shows me Harper’s Bazaar’s March cover of Jennifer Lopez swinging over a city skyline. The image is clearly ripped off from the photo of Maya swinging over Manhattan, a concept she cooked up with Ryan McGinley for the New York Times Magazine cover.
“If that were anybody else,” says Maya, “that would be an issue. But because it’s exploiting me, it’s okay. Because I’m a Tamil woman, it’s okay. You can shit on her. You can steal her shit. Like fuck. Who cares.”
Even the Hirschberg article recognized Maya’s unique creativity, her hands-on, DIY culture fusing in music, videos and wardrobe. Maya’s songs keep popping up in movie trailers and ads. Marketers like her work, but not what she stands for.
“When artists take from your inspiration, that’s not a bad thing,” she continues. “But now we need them to actually say, ‘This girl inspired us.’ We need it. Tamil girls and boys who come after me need to know that a Tamil can inspire these people.
“[The industry is] not going to let another Tamil in very easily. [Other musicians] can’t stay quiet when I’m being gunned down by the media, shut out and blackballed. And I’m not allowed to say, ‘My people need this because this is the only thing that is representing them out there.’ There isn’t another Tamil blah blah.”
While Maya’s feeling silenced by the music industry, she’s also noticing crickets from the Tamil community, who haven’t exactly jumped to her defense.
Perhaps they simply aren’t paying attention, but that only irks Maya more. She presumes young Tamils in the diaspora are too busy shouting out “the 6ix” and singing along to Drake and Rihanna, eating up what’s dished out from a music industry that won’t make space for them. That’s something I would be guilty of as well.
“We want you to give up all of your struggle,” says Maya, about the relationship between pop culture and Tamil consumers. “[Give up] your reality, your parents’ suffering and sacrifice and people dying in your family – all the things you feel. We want you to erase that and spend all your money on our shit. But when it comes to including you or talking about you or representing you, we don’t give a fuck about you.”
She brings this conversation back to current activism, describing how the younger generation in the Tamil diaspora are willing to take up generalized causes related to race and gender, but are too nervous to apply it back to their own specific cause.
She reminds me that Sri Lankan soldiers would regularly use rape as a weapon. Meanwhile women would enlist in the Tamil Tigers, fighting in their own separate but equal female-run squadrons.
“Tamil women were wearing uniforms, carrying guns and dying for their cause, for their people. And that’s not considered feminism in this world. When we talk about feminism, those things should be considered. That shit ain’t even picked up by young Tamil women in Toronto.
“A thousand celebrities are talking about equal pay in Hollywood,” she continues. “And you want to jump on that bandwagon but you can’t fucking talk about that. It’s bullshit!
“If you’re going to jump on all these bandwagon revolutions in the west, fight for your space!”
Around this point, Maya’s manager nervously interrupts, reminding us that the Q&A is about to begin. I’m lost for words considering how volatile the conversation has become and where we have to end it.
Maya takes a breath before we head to the auditorium. This final Hot Docs screening was booked in Scarborough the day after the downtown premiere so the film could be accessible to Tamil-Canadians. Maya’s aunt is in the crowd.
I watch from the side as a young man in the audience, an aspiring filmmaker named Nimi Atma, asks for Maya’s thoughts on the future generation of Tamils and their place in this industry.
“I just got into a fight about this with someone outside,” Maya answers, looking at me with a smirk.
“He’s probably going to delete the whole thing.”
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