We’ve all got a "Paper Planes" memory. For most of us, it involves rapping along to those M.I.A lyrics, finger guns waving and mimicking "kerching" sounds as we swung around sticky nightclubs in the late '00s. But there’s actually a conscientious meaning to this anthem that’s worth revisiting.
"The stereotype that’s attached to immigrants is that they come and take the jobs and take the money," M.I.A, born Mathangi Arulpragasam and nicknamed Maya, explains. It’s 2007, and she’s being interviewed by VBS creative director Spike Jonze. "So it was like a funny, spoofy song about that," she adds.
In this snippet of footage, the two are on their way to visit up-and-coming MC Afrikan Boy, who Arulpragasam met on MySpace before eventually collaborating with him on her second album Kala. This interview is just one of many video clips candidly recorded over the course of her career, now featuring in Arulpragasam’s new documentary, MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. "These new immigrant cultures that have settled in the West are so deep and strong, and it’s part of the fabric of any city, but people feel really threatened and scared about it, or it’s like a dirty word," she continues to explain to Jonze. "You can’t rap about being an immigrant." But as demonstrated by her 15-year career, you can.
At 11 years old, Arulpragasam fled the civil war in Sri Lanka. She moved to the UK with her mother (Kala), sister and brother. Her father, who describes himself as one of the founding forces of the Tamil resistance, the Tamil Tigers, remained behind. "This is what happened to a kid whose dad went off and became a terrorist," a young Arulpragasam tells her video camera, in one of the documentary’s early archival clips.
We learn that Arulpragasam originally wanted to be a filmmaker. As a kid and well into adulthood, much of her time was spent filming anything from conversations about identity with her siblings to herself experimenting with new dance moves at home, recording with ex-boyfriend Diplo and, eventually, 16 years after leaving, returning to her childhood home of Sri Lanka. In the documentary she explains wanting to explore what life is like for her remaining family, and what her life might've looked like had she never left.
Directed by long-time friend Stephen Loveridge, the documentary is peppered with memorable footage of her 2005 Coachella set, a performance on the Grammys stage in 2009 and life on the road with former Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann. But at the film's core, and the fierce driving force behind the music, is Arulpragasam's personal connection to the Tamil narrative and an urge to tell the immigrant story to a world that wasn't ready to hear it. "Being the only Tamil in Western media I have a really great opportunity to bring forward what’s going on in Sri Lanka," she explains in a clip of an old American TV interview. "The more successful I’m getting, the direr the situation in Sri Lanka is getting. I think the simple thing to explain it as under the guise of fighting terrorism, there’s a genocide going on."
As we come to understand, her concern for the turmoil in Sri Lanka was often dismissed by '00s media outlets as a convenient, faux-empathetic gimmick. Her resolve to bring the tragedy to the forefront of mainstream attention was met with international accusations of terrorism by those who saw her as too aligned with the Tamil Tigers.
Where M.I.A went, controversy wasn't far behind. And though her forthrightness and rebellious "bad girl" image was readily received by fans (you might remember when she performed at the Super Bowl half-time show with Madonna and Nicki Minaj in 2012, and flippantly gave the camera the middle finger), it was swiftly criticised as sacrilegious when her behaviour didn't fit the Western agenda driven by powers that be. (Footage of a reporter complaining that the incident wouldn't have happened if an American had been performing with Madonna quickly followed. That middle finger almost cost her $16.6 million in damages when the NFL tried to sue her.)
Unsurprisingly, the stories within the music and behind the controversy get lost in the noise. Through this cleverly assembled anthology of Arulpragasam's life, however, we finally get an insight into how the immigrant story – her immigrant story – was pursued so persistently throughout her career. And in this exclusive clip from the documentary, Arulpragasam explains why that's so important.
"I need to keep the immigrant story in my work, always, because that's what I'm trying to make sense of," she explains. "We're used as scapegoats for Brexit, we're used as scapegoats to build a wall. But people have always mixed and mingled and moved and interesting things have happened because of it." Watch the full clip below: