'SA seems like a success story when it comes to race': rapper M.I.A.

Controversial rapper M.I.A chats to Atiyyah Khan about playing South Africa & being an inspiration for outsiders everywhere

03 June 2018 - 00:01 By Atiyyah Khan
M.I.A. performs at The Royal Festival Hall on June 18 2017 in London, England.
M.I.A. performs at The Royal Festival Hall on June 18 2017 in London, England.
Image: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

South Africa has a fairly conservative Indian community. For most of us, the only music heroes (or heroines) we knew growing up were picture-perfect Bollywood stars, backed by pitch-perfect singers. That was the only brown representation in popular culture here - and to a large extent still is.

Globally, there was no alternative music culture representing people of Indian descent. That is why, when M.I.A. appeared on the music landscape in 2005, she was a complete anomaly.

As young Indian women, we had not seen any Indian woman producing beats, sound-clashing a myriad cultures from the global south and creating artwork that included her own music videos.

M.I.A. wants to represent people who feel like outsiders, and let them know that they belong.
M.I.A. wants to represent people who feel like outsiders, and let them know that they belong.
Image: Supplied

She was an instant inspiration; ahead of her time but also arriving right on time, helping to fuel the creativity bubbling inside me and so many other young women. She looked and felt like us and we could instantly relate. It was a rare kind of encouragement.

Speaking about her influence as a musician, M.I.A. tells me over the phone: "I didn't realise what it meant at the time. We had the Bhangra scene here but there weren't any women and the movie industry in India doesn't really create individualist pop stars ... I just never really thought about it. If I thought about it, I don't think I would have even tried. I would've been way too scared."

She continues: "I made music completely from my own life experience. That was a unified life experience in London, which I've always championed as a very multicultural town. Because I was an outsider everywhere, I actually had so much experience - I had gone to raves, I had been to dancehalls, parties, and I had been to the Bhangra scene. All of it was important to me musically and it's that multiculturalism that I always wanted to carry forward in my music.

"It's not like I was trying to represent any particular group. It was more like 'I'm just going to represent everybody who comes from places like me.'"

M.I.A. is Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam - a Sri Lanka-born, British-based singer, rapper, producer, activist and visual artist.

She will tour South Africa for the first time next week, with performances in Cape Town
and Johannesburg. The tour coincides with the screening of Matangi /Maya/ M.I.A. at the Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival this month. It is directed by her good friend Steve Loveridge.

"I can't believe I've never been to South Africa," she says, her voice sounding friendly and familiar.

"Where I come from, the Dravidian Tamils have a story that goes back thousands of years where they talk about a drowned continent that connects India, Africa and Australia together. It's called Lemuria. I find South Africa could be the closest thing to that place. It reminds me of that lost continent where we all could have been part of this thing from a long time ago. It also seems like a success story when it comes to race and it's exciting in terms of music and culture. I just feel excited to get there."

WATCH | The trailer for Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. 

M.I.A. came onto the scene with her debut album Arular, and has since released four studio albums. Her music incorporates a mash-up of languages, influences and sounds.

From the start, she was outspoken about being the daughter of one of the founding members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Resistance Movement, taking the opportunity to highlight the ongoing war. Over the years, she has grown into an unlikely pop icon, but this has not taken away from her artistic vision.

Ten-year-old M.I.A. arrived in the UK in 1985 as a refugee (her father's political involvement meant it was no longer safe for her family to live in Sri Lanka). The Matangi documentary brings together hours of footage from her youth that connects the experiences of London in the '90s with the diaspora community and revisiting Sri Lanka.

Asked about the astounding amount of footage she videotaped of herself, she laughs. "Was I a complete and utter narcissist?"

She continues: "The answer is I think it came from a complete necessity that when we moved from Sri Lanka, the entire family split up. It was literally like an explosion. Everyone went to so many different parts of the world.

"I'd come from a massive family where my dad had nine brothers and sisters and my mom had 13 and each one of them had lots of kids because that's what Indian people did back in the day. When the war started and everyone scattered all across the globe, filming became the way we all stayed connected because there was no Skype, there were no cellphones.

"We could hardly afford phone bills, so filming became a necessity where we stayed connected and people checked in with each other. I grew up with that, where my relatives documented us as everybody was settling into their new lives."

M.I.A. was ill-fitted to the Western pop machine. She regularly used her role as an artist to raise awareness about Syrian refugees, women's rights, immigrants, border politics and the war in Sri Lanka. Matangi focuses on her outspoken activism and the role the media played in misunderstanding her and essentially isolating her from mainstream narratives.

WATCH | The music video for M.I.A.'s track Finally

She says: "There were times during each step of my career when people were like, 'You should be media trained'. And I completely walked out of there like, 'You can never
media train me!' What's the point? If I don't mention the Tamils or the war, there's no point in me doing this ... I was like, 'I would much rather give up my career than give up talking about it'.

"There was that time where I did leave after making the [2010] track Born Free and didn't do anything until the [2012] Super Bowl. In those two years that was the option that was open to me: 'Either shut up, or go away'. So I chose go to away."

M.I.A's humility shines through our conversation, as does her ability to effortlessly inspire.

"I fell out the gutter and I wasn't embarrassed by it. I'm proud of my family. I'm not embarrassed about where I come from. For me, it was about representing so many people and making all of those people feel OK and that means whether you're dark-skinned or whether you've got no money, or whether you don't have an education but you're still really talented, I want to represent all of those things.

"It's about including so many other cultures. It's about exploring new territories, new ideas, creating new jobs and it's about celebrating those things."

M.I.A. will be performing at Cape Town on Thursday, 7 June, and in Joburg on Friday, 8 June. Tickets from