Leadership Lessons: M.I.A

Leadership Lessons: M.I.A

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“I think we’re in awe of perfection, but it’s the imperfect that touches us and creates a connection.” – Aaron Bruno (Awolnation)

Hanging out the side of a white BMW, drifting on two wheels through the desert, wearing yellow fur and flanked by people in billowing hijab’s; M.I.A is liberated.

One of the most celebrated musicians of recent decades, M.I.A (born Matangi) has captured the attention of everyone from Electronic DJ, Diplo, to Indian Composer A. H. Rahman with who she collaborated on the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ soundtrack, to rapper T.I., who sampled her on ‘Swagga Like Us’, to Madonna.

bad girls m.i.a maya matangi musician

Her latest creative project, rather than an album, has been a documentary: Matangi, Maya, M.I.A. The documentary charts her unique journey from Sri Lanka to Hollywood, via London. A path that has shaped her, both as a creative and as a human being. You get the sense that she’s been preparing her whole life to make this film; the extensive footage starts from thirty years ago with Maya and her siblings dancing around a cramped London flat. For Maya it seems, telling stories through the camera was her first love.

“I quite like how difficult Steve has made the film. You have to be quite engaged to ‘get it’. He didn’t simplify things.” – M.I.A


Having grown up on a South London estate, arriving in the UK as a refugee, Maya later went to Hollywood in head to toe designer, shoplifted from Harvey Nicks: “I had the best clothes ‘cos I was coming from England and really good at shoplifting. I had Versace on before Lil’ Kim started rapping about it ‘cos the only place I could steal at was Harvey Nicks, where it was sooo easy.” Did she panic about being seen in stolen clothes? Nope. She was fearless when she started out. An amalgamation of cultures and environments, she fitted in everywhere and nowhere. Her style, from the way she dances, to the way she dresses reflects a freedom amongst the fusion of these cultures. Is she a good dancer? Not really but there is something very instinctive and liberating about the way she moves – just about in time to the beat.


Given the artist’s success there are undoubtedly lessons to learn from the characteristics Maya embodies and the way she’s pursued the world, as a human being.


“After I decided that I was an individual I think I got signed like six months after” – M.I.A



It isn’t simply her background which created such a unique person; it’s the way she’s used it. Her documentary is described as an intimate look at identity, and in a sense, it does this by showing how Maya has rejected many of the common ‘traits’ a majority of people tie their identity to. Her identity is largely about not being tied to societal brackets. Whether that’s other musicians, other refugees, other Tamils, other women. She knows she is all of those things but doesn’t exactly define herself by those descriptors: you can’t really pin yourself to the identity that you’re forced to create within a certain social environment that’s based on a geographical piece of land, you know, a country, and then gender on top of that”.


While most of us define who we are in direct relation to the people or environment we’re in, Maya sees ‘self’ differently:


“Everybody had an idea of what was gonna happen to me and you know, I listened to all of them… I just felt really fluid… there’s always a rigid structure in society in place that helps a human being form their position and this can be done though status of wealth or whatever, however you wanna divide this pie but I always thought everything is education and everything is useful to me and everything is a positive that I can… you know if something negative happens I can turn it around with my thoughts… you just have to remain as fluid as possible and you kind of have to go with it rather than resist.” – M.I.A

Taking meaning from experience

One of the moments which really struck me in her documentary was when Maya’s sister is struggling to accept the way their father has chosen to fight in Sri Lanka and left them to cope in his absence. The way Maya responds to this says a lot about her character and signals one of the reasons she’s become so successful. While her sister is understandably downbeat, Maya sees things differently: “I’m glad… he’s made us so strong for what he’s put us through”.



Whilst there’s a level of complexity in most arguments when it comes to politics and humanity, Maya doesn’t let that stop her from expressing the truth as she’s experienced it. It’s not that she gives “zero f*cks” as I think the media often like to present her, but more that she finds it so bizarre the things most people give so many f*cks about. And she has a point… after swearing at the camera during the SuperBowl half-time show, she was chastised and branded appalling, but take a step back and it’s a hand gesture at a football match. In contrast to the genocide and sexual assault she’s been campaigning against, it does seem quite remarkable that that’s the thing people think is truly offensive. What a strange world.


“You’ve got access to a microphone, please use it to say something” – M.I.A


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