M.I.A. has always represented, to me, the best of what hiphop that exists outside of black diasporic cultures can be. The British-Sri Lankan rapper, best known for her viral hit “Paper Planes,” burst onto the international stage in the early '00s. Drawing inspiration from sounds and instruments from across the world, she never shies away from putting political messages in her songs, covering issues from unregulated gun markets in Liberia to women’s rights to drive in Saudi Arabia. This results in a strange urge to dance your fucking face off while also wanting to open and read any book about politics in developing nations. And it often gets her in trouble.
MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A., Steve Loveridge's long-awaited documentary on M.I.A., charts the controversial artist's “rise” from living on a council estate in London to dominating the international music stage to becoming a maligned political figure in pop culture. The documentary skirts around some of M.I.A.'s unsubstantiated remarks—like when asked what she thought of Beyonce giving the Black Power salute at the 2016 Super Bowl she responded, “Is Beyonce or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter?” As if black Muslims don’t exist, foolishly falling for the belief that when we say “Black Lives Matter” we’re also saying everyone else’s lives don't. But as a black fan of literally anything will tell you, we’re all well prepared for our non-black faves to, at some point, say something shitty and uninformed about the black community. And Loveridge's film is perhaps the best look we have into M.I.A.'s life, which is something to celebrate.
As the daughter of one of the founding members of the Sri Lankan guerrilla group the Tamil Tigers, M.I.A., born Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, and her family fled Sri Lanka in the mid-80s, going to the United Kingdom as political refugees while her father remained behind. The film's title tries to tie together all parts of Arulpragasam's identity: Matangi, the potential soldier in Sri Lanka; Maya, the talented art student in London; M.I.A., the world-famous rapper that’s not afraid to flip off Middle America. The film makes a compelling case for the existence of all three women, pushing against the idea M.I.A. embodies only one experience, one identity.
Relying on a mixture of media footage and extensive home videos that she shot herself over the past 20 years, it’s clear that the rapper struggles to reconcile her expansive and contradictory history. In a voiceover, she tells us, “As a first generation person, I’ve lived through a war, came as a refugee, that is now a pop star: what are the goalposts? It’s amazing that in one lifetime you have to come and figure out so many things, but I’ve made it all fit together.”
The story careens between delving to Arulpragasam’s pre-fame past and exposing the ways in which she was treated unfairly by the media—whether accusing her of supporting terrorism, making a big deal about her eating truffle fries, or condemning her over a two-second gesture at the Super Bowl. Arulpragasam doesn’t come off as self-righteous or a poser, but completely substantiated in her claims, using her platform to do what she could. She recognized the importance of being the first Tamil to be given significant international media exposure and it’s completely frustrating to watch her not be taken seriously.
If the documentary is unsatisfying, it’s because it gives us no definite answers about identity, about a reconciliation of self, about how to live in this world as many contradictions, belonging everywhere and nowhere. While watching it, my mind did dwell on that Sarah Miller article that’s been floating around the internet this week, about how not following your artist instinct can lead you to a spiritual death of sorts. Arulpragasam expresses as much in the film, saying that if she shuts up about being a refugee, an immigrant, a citizen of the world, “I would have to become a drug addict and overdose or meet a very bad ending to the story because that’s what happens when you don’t express the shit you need to express.”
There was really no precedent for her arrival on the global music stage. MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. explores what happens when a pop star embraces the complexity of what it means to be a person, a woman, an immigrant, a mother, a refugee, an outsider that the world just isn’t quite ready for.