09 Aug 2018

M.I.A. -- I’m not ashamed that I was poor

"When people say that they are going to fight for equality, for equal pay, with regard to color, that doesn’t apply to me. When people talk about race, it’s much easier to understand two skin colors than eight." 

Wysokie Obcasy
Karolina Domagalska Wysokie Obcasy, Global
M.I.A. -- I’m not ashamed that I was poor - NewsMavens
M.I.A., Youtube

The following selections from Karolina Domagalska’s interview with M.I.A. appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.

The documentary film MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. (dir. Steve Loveridge) has been making the festival rounds and is currently in theaters.

Things have worked out for Maya

Born in London, Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam arrived at the age of six months with her family in the neighborhood of Jaffna, the center of the Tamil struggle in the north of Sri Lanka. Her father, Arul, who was already engaged in political activism in London on behalf of Tamil independence, was helping to establish the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), which was largely absorbed by the Tamil Tigers during the 1990s. Her father disappeared while carrying out a secret mission but later visited the family three times, presenting himself to his children as an uncle for safety's sake.

Until she was eight years old, Maya thought her father was dead. She grew up with her siblings, grandmother, aunts, and cousins in Jaffna while the civil war waged around them. Sri Lankan soldiers attacked the Tamil revolutionaries, searched homes and even raided schools. In response, the children were taught how to behave during these raids. When the hunt for Arul intensified in 1986, Maya’s mother brought the children back to London.

“I recently spoke with Riz Ahmed [British actor and rapper] for Interview magazine,” Maya said. “Riz has Pakistani roots and asked me whether I wasn’t ashamed of where I’m from, who my parents are, and that I was poor.

On the contrary, I think I have to talk about it, about how multidimensional this experience is. It would be strange to give in to being put into some box, for instance, as a poor refugee.”

Missing in Action

Despite her difficult beginnings in a drab and racist neighborhood, and a childhood filled with numerous moves, and constant money problems -- her mother Kala worked as a seamstress -- Maya got into Saint Martin’s School of Art, which counts Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, and John Galliano among its graduates. Yet she didn’t pass her exams and was only accepted after the application deadline, when she told them that if she didn’t get into the school, she would become a prostitute or a drug addict.

Once at the school, Maya stood out from the white kids dressed in black, not only by the color of her skin but also due to her colorful style and her approach to art. She specialized in film. When she took material from the prison where her brother had been incarcerated for fighting, her classmates told her that her film wasn’t avant-garde enough. On the day she graduated, she found out that her cousin, whom she had been very close to as a child, had joined the Tamil Tigers and died in the fighting. That’s where she took her stage name from, M.I.A. (Missing in Action).

After school she worked as a waitress and sales clerk, while also making films and holding small exhibitions. Throughout this time she recorded her day to day life on film. So when film maker Steve Loveridge began his documentary project on Maya, he had at his disposal more than 700 hours of conversations, events, and introspection. He would use moments from this collection -- when Maya turned the camera on herself -- in the film.

Arular and Kala 

I'm a fighter, fighter god

I'm a soldier on that road

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

I got the bombs to make you blow

I got the beats to make you bang

--Pull Up The People, Arular, 2005, M.I.A. 

She rapped [these verses] on her first album, and it was a total “bang!” The album was filled with rap, dancehall, Tamil music, South London slang, and lots and lots of tigers. The whole visual layout of the cover was based on block prints of machine guns, bombs, tigers, helicopters and Molotov cocktails. “You wanna win the war? / Like P.L.O. I won't surrender” she raps in “Sunshowers,” referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which her father’s group collaborated with. On the cover of the single, one can see soldiers standing on and hanging from palm trees. In the video she lives with a gang of girls in the Indian jungle.

This combination of revolution and party music hit the ears of listeners around the world hard. M.I.A. conquered the charts and earned various titles -- discovery, prospect, and debut of the year.

The name of the record, Arular, comes from her father’s political pseudonym. She used it expecting that her father wouldn’t find out,“but that’s what happened. He called and asked, ‘Who’s stealing my name?’” Maya laughed. “He wanted me to change the title. Later, when I used my mother’s first name for my next album, he called, and wanted me to change that too, saying I could only use his name.”

Brown woman

Maya thinks of 2010 as the year she was silenced. “The reason the album was so popular was that I said, ‘here I am, a brown woman.’ It would be interesting to see what would have happened if I had been a white man. Or, for instance, what would happen if Edward Snowden had been a brown woman. Would his actions still have had the same effect?” she asks, looking into my eyes.

It’s a little hard to understand what she has in mind when she says she was silenced. Her album, Maya, was a commercial success; she signed a contract with Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation; and two years later, Madonna invited her to collaborate and open for her at the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl, the National Football League (NFL) American football championship, is sacred to Americans and during the half-time break, the country's biggest stars put on a show. But Maya made America angry. While singing the verse, “I don’t give a shit,” she put up her middle finger. The next day, the NFL imposed a $1.5 million fine, which was later increased to $16.6 million. The case continued in the courts for two years and ended in a confidential settlement.

“Janet Jackson, whose breast came out of her dress during the Super Bowl, was fined $250,000 dollars, though the NFL received 500,000 complaints. I got 200 complaints, but my penalty was over $16 million,” Maya told me.

“Well, what else did you expect?” I asked. “You find yourself on top, in a place where you very much want to be, and you give the finger to the whole world? And then you’re surprised that the world is pissed off? It was a little senseless. But one thing still bothers me,” I say. “What if Madonna had done it?”

“Well, exactly. You know how much I got for that appearance? $500,” she argues, “because I wasn’t white or black, and I was an outsider. So when people say that they are going to fight for equality, for equal pay with regard to color, that doesn’t apply to me. When people talk about race, it’s much easier to understand two skin colors than eight. It’s a bit disorienting. That’s how it is in the music industry.”

It sounds a little naïve, but on the other hand, M.I.A. is the only star from an Asian background in this business, and, in addition, is absolutely forthright and uncompromising in expressing her opinion. In the video to the song, “Borders,” from her last record, AIM (2016) she boards a boat full of refugees -- this is not a topic we often see in pop culture. Or, does the fact that she can afford an apartment in New York discredit her protests against society's indifference to the war in Syria?

“What experiences can we share, to make you feel comfortable? How the hell do we tell a story about the struggle without talking about the struggle?” Maya comments in Loveridge’s film, and you can hear the frustration in her voice.


M.I.A. – Mathangi (Maya for short) Arulpragasam (b. 1975), is a British performer of Tamil descent. She was nominated for an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, and also for the Grammy and Turner prizes.

--Translated by David A. Goldfarb

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