With a new documentary out this month, musician M.I.A. talks to film-maker Deeyah Khan about art, controversy and the meaning of wokeness
‘It’s nice to talk to somebody who’s also complicated, and I have a feeling you are,’ says M.I.A. (otherwise known as Maya, opposite) to the film-maker Deeyah Khan (left). Complicated is one way to describe M.I.A.’s own journey from Sri Lankan refugee living on a London council estate to one of the most provocative and genre-busting artists of her generation. Khan, meanwhile, is the daughter of Afghan and Pakistani immigrants to Norway and a celebrated film-maker and human rights activist (her latest film, White Right: Meeting The Enemy just scored an Emmy nomination). But the two women share more than their multicultural backgrounds. While Khan started out as a musician before becoming a film-maker, M.I.A. wanted to be a documentary-maker, studying film at art school before music took over. In her new documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., we’re given a glimpse of this original ambition, as a vast archive of footage shot on her own handheld camera is unearthed and edited by director Stephen Loveridge into a fascinating fly-on the-wall journey through her early life and rise to global stardom. ‘I believe I could talk to you for hours,’ says Khan at the beginning of their chat. Over an hour later, they’re still going...
Deeyah: I’m sure people have asked you the question, ‘Are you an artist who happens to reflect the times we’re living in or are you a political artist?’
M.I.A.: I like to be a walking question mark. It’s important for me never to be in a box because that box constantly changes, and it literally pulls the rug from under your feet when you least expect it. As soon as I was comfortable being a Tamil girl living in a village in Sri Lanka, I was thrust into a new situation [and] a different box. I was the underprivileged refugee with no money, and a single parent. People constantly try to find those labels, ‘Be like this, you’re this’. Even with this documentary, it could be, ‘Oh, you’re just the representative for refugees’, but people forget within that box there are so many types…
DK: It’s tiring to embody other people’s perceptions and limitations. What I admire is that you seem to have become comfortable in your own skin quite early on. For me, that’s one thing I struggled with.
M.I.A.: So many girls struggle with that.
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