M.I.A tackles gentrification amid Woodstock concert controversy

In a room full of youngsters, some still wearing their school uniform, British-Sri Lankan musician and activist M.I.A. was asked a bold question by a fan which seemingly caught her off guard: “Why are you performing at the Biscuit Mill?”

The artist — whose real name is Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam — seemed momentarily taken aback by the question. It was getting into the later hours of Wednesday night, and there was a giddiness inside the Bertha Movie House in Khayelitsha. 

M.I.A. had arrived a few minutes earlier, joining the audience to watch the remaining scenes of a documentary on her life, called Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.

The documentary, which was directed by Stephen Loveridge and made without M.I.A.’s involvement, aired as part of the annual Encounters South African International Documentary Festival. The artist was there to attend the question and answer session after the screening.

As M.I.A. walked into the movie house, the air was thick with excitement from the audience, first staring in her direction and then quickly turning its gaze back to the screen.

But even in their admiration of her, the young South African audience murmured its support for the woman who questioned M.I.A. on her performance at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock.

The artist is known for her anti-capitalist stance, and the mill has become a symbol of gentrification in Woodstock. It was among the first buildings in the area to be redeveloped. Soon there was a domino effect as more wealth was poured into Woodstock and its original inhabitants began to fear eviction.

In response to the question asked about her choice of concert venue, M.I.A. made the audience an offer.

“Everyone keeps asking me this. I didn’t know too much about it — that there was an issue — until I got booked there. Now, I found out that that’s a massive situation but somebody yesterday asked the same question and they said what do you feel about gentrification because that’s what that is,” she said.

“If you want to make some point heard, then you need to come to my show and we’ll make it a thing. We’ll stop the show and we’ll address it and then you have to get them to bend to what your needs are. As much as getting people to go to areas like that and be a part of it and claim it. We shouldn’t make it into a hostile thing but use my show to have that conversation,” she said.

It was an answer which seemed to satisfy the audience. Rumours have already started circulating that activists in the Cape will be protesting outside the concert in solidarity with longtime Woodstock residents.

For many in the audience at the movie house, gentrification is a no-no, making M.I.A.’s concert a highly-anticipated event albeit tinged with guilt.

M.I.A. has been known as both a rapper and pop artist. Her international hit song “Paper Planes” accelerated her to megastar status in 2007 and she has used her celebrity to raise awareness on the plight of Tamil people who have been persecuted for decades by the Sri Lankan regime in an ethnic civil war. Her views have gained support and criticism alike, with some calling her a “terrorist”.

When she was 10-years-old, her family, who are Tamil, fled Sri Lanka to live in London. Her father founded a Tamil resistance movement in Sri Lanka, putting the family’s life in danger. Her story as a refugee child who has become an international sensation has inspired fans across the world. And her activism, her brazenness to say what she wants, has made her even more admired, and at times more reviled, by those who hear her music.

Later, as she discussed a moment when the Mantangi / Maya / M.I.A. trailer was leaked, M.I.A. described her relationship with Sri Lanka in her youth as being tied to gentrification in itself.

“When I was young, I myself was gentrified. At 20, I am like ‘my dad’s a terrorist’ without knowing or having gone to Sri Lanka and seeing how complicated the struggle was. I really needed that explained but the trailer doesn’t explain that so it really sets up my dad as the bad guy,” she said.

M.I.A.’s first show in Cape Town is at the Old Biscuit Mill on Thursday evening, the second will be at the Newtown Music Factory in Johannesburg on Saturday. 

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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