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M.I.A. gets stopped at border, reveals 1990s incident behind delay

En route to Hot Docs in Toronto, the veteran performer was detained for several hours

En route to Hot Docs in Toronto, the veteran performer was detained for several hours

British-Sri Lankan musician M.I.A. was held for several hours at the Canadian border, then spoke with q host Tom Power. (Facebook/MIA)

She finally made it to Toronto, but for several hours on Wednesday, musician M.I.A. stayed true to her stage name after being stopped first at an airport in London, then at the U.S.-Canadian border at Fort Erie.

The veteran British-Sri Lankan performer, whose real name is Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam, is attending Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival for the Canadian premiere of the documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., a biographical film made from more than 10 years of personal footage.

Originally the musician was scheduled to fly direct from London, England to Toronto, but was stopped from boarding. Arulpragasam secured a temporary visa that allowed her to fly to the U.S. then enter Canada by land, but when she and her assistant arrived at the border at Fort Erie, they were detained for several hours.

"I am very sleepy. I am so tired," said Arulpragasam in an interview with q host Tom Power shortly after her safe arrival in Toronto. "I did what my fans told me on Instagram which is to fly to New York and Buffalo and drive in through the border which is what I did."

Arulpragasam is no stranger to immigration problems. In fact, for a time visa complications prevented the star from recording and touring in the U.S. Many pointed to the outspoken singer's controversial political views, and her family ties to Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, but in a q interview recorded today, M.I.A. said the problems are at least partly to do with a Los Angeles theft two decades ago.

Arulpragasam says she was in her early 20s and driving with her cousin when they were invited to a record label party.

"During the early stages of my life when I was very very poor, there was an incident in L.A. where I was driving with my cousin down the street and I got invited to a Death Row party," she recounts.

"It was like 1997 or something, and me and my cousin had pyjamas on when we were in a convertible car and somebody threw the invite with the address on it. And they were like, 'Come to the party.' So we were like, 'Cool,' but because we were in pyjamas and we didn't really have any money, we didn't know what to do," said Arulpragasam. "So we went into a massive department store and we just put a dress on and we walked out." 

Soon after, Arulpragasam and her cousin were caught and returned the dresses, and she didn't think about it again — until she became a touring musician.

"When I first tried to get into the U.S. to go and sign with Interscope Records and to come to do the show at Coachella, they flagged it. And they were like, 'You didn't tell us you had a criminal record in America.' But I didn't realize I had one."

Famed British-Sri Lankan performer M.I.A. is doing Q&As at Thursday's screenings of the acclaimed new biographical documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. — but she almost didn't make it to Hot Docs. (Hot Docs)

Arulpragasam said she tried to get the incident removed from her record in 2010, but to no avail.

"I was like, 'Listen, I've paid millions of dollars in taxes in America now, you can let me off. And I've proven myself. I've made it.' You'd think they would be like, 'Ok, we we can excuse it.' I mean [the dress] must have cost about $40. So it's kind of crazy," said Arulpragasam. "But they haven't wiped off and it's still on my record, and that's what they brought up today.

"They were like, 'America's got a problem with this record that you had back in 1995 or something and that keeps popping up.' This is silly, they need to get it off."

Created by director Stephen Loveridge from more than 700 hours of footage, the documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. traces some of Arulpragasam's most formative years. Along the way the audience gets deeply personal glimpses into her immigration to the U.K. at 11 years old, when she first fell in love with hip-hop, through her family's complicated relationship with her father — who co-founded a group that was a precursor to the Tamil Tigers — to her years as an emerging musician. The film won a standing ovation when it premiered at Sundance, and has earned glowing reviews at several other festivals.

You can hear Tom Power's full interview with M.I.A. hereMatangi/Maya/M.I.A. is screening at Hot Docs in Toronto Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. M.I.A. is doing Q&As at Thursday's 4 p.m. screening, as well as at Thursday's Docs for Schools screening.

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