By Marina Brafa
Do you need some energy, some inspiration or simply a musical track that kicks in and makes you feel empowered? Then you should watch MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A., the biopic about singer M.I.A. (best known for her hugely successful hit Paper Planes). We see her as a young girl, Matangi, her hair in braids, wearing a prissy white blouse and skirt, dancing at home with her family. We then see Maya, a flashily dressed young woman dancing in music videos. We finally see a grown woman, M.I.A., dressed as a cheerleader, dancing and singing along with Madonna and Nicki Minaj during the Super Bowl halftime show. She causes a scandal by flipping off the camera for a few seconds. That’s Matangi’s/Maya’s/M.I.A.’s life in a nutshell.
Director Steve Loveridge’s documentary MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. cracks open that nutshell, however, to showcase the life and work of an artist that now goes by the name of M.I.A. Personally, I only know the 43-year-old artist by that name. As I am writing this, I can hear her catchy lyrics in my head:
“All I wanna do is [bang] [bang] [bang]
And [click] [ka-ching]
And take your money…”
That would be the song Paper Planes, of course; her most successful hit to date and a perfect example of M.I.A.’s work. She combines various musical genres - rap, hip hop, electronic music - with her in your face style to get her political message across, which is that of equality and freedom. Sure those are two BIG words, but M.I.A. lives up to them through her art. How? Because she is telling her story the way she wants.
Mathangi Arulpragasam, Maya to her friends, was born in London on July 17, 1975 and is of Tamil origin. At the age of six months, she and her family moved to Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka. Tamils are an oppressed minority in the island country and have been facing violence for decades, which has gone mostly unnoticed by international media (sidenote: the civil war came to an “official” end in 2009 when state forces defeated the Tamil militia). Maya’s father was one of the founders of a revolutionary Tamil force that fought for independence. In 1986, after her father left and her family’s situation worsened due to the Sri Lankan civil war, Maya moved back to Britain. She lived in a poor neighborhood in West London where she would listen to mainstream radio and her neighbor’s hip hop music collection through the walls of their apartment.
Even though M.I.A. readily embraced British culture, life as a Tamil refugee in 1980s Britain proved difficult. M.I.A. had left the violence in Sri Lanka, only to face discrimination and to be confronted with her Tamil roots. She was supposed to remain in the shadows, to silently accept her marginalization. This is when she decided to raise her voice and create political art.
As a 21-year-old, M.I.A. went back to Sri Lanka to visit her family and to meet other 21-year-old women there. It was a way to regain and tell a story that could have been hers had she stayed in Sri Lanka. In Britain she worked with the British band Elastica and featured her graffiti art in exhibitions. In 2004 she started producing music and clips as means of political activist art. Throughout these years she was filming. Herself. Her family. Tamil relatives. Strangers.
The documentary is mostly based on this video footage that M.I.A. gave Loveridge in 2011, which he cut together with M.I.A.’s music videos and interviews. Viewers are thrown back and forth in time, crossing the borders between Britain, Sri Lanka and the U.S. and hear almost exclusively M.I.A.’s voice. There’s no voice-over commentary and new material shot by Loveridge. The finished product therefore shows young Maya’s transformation to M.I.A, which provides viewers with an immediate close-up of her life but is limited to her points of view. We witness her struggling with fame: Can an artist be politically relevant and commercially successful at the same time? Or is she just staging herself in a radical-chic manner (as NYT’s reporter Lynn Hirschberg claims in her 2010 profile of the artist)? Let’s review the Super Bowl scandal to answer that question.
During the Halftime Show it comes to a head. We see M.I.A. conflicted backstage. She followed her manager’s advice of teaming up with a more famous artist so she can gain exposure for her art. That’s how the music biz works, baby. Now she is about to perform in one of the most commercial events ever alongside her idol Madonna. As if that isn’t enough, M.I.A. shows her middle finger to the camera. Fox News cries. NFL sues her. M.I.A. (kind of) managed to stick to her activist principles. However, the following debates were about the act itself rather than its political impetus. Maybe at a certain point the question is no longer if a commercially successful artist can be politically relevant but how s/he can turn public attention away from the person to its message again.
M.I.A. has since done a 180°. She has returned to producing her own music and videos, such as the self-directed music clip Borders that thematizes the “refugee crisis.” Additionally, she is now engaging in activism outside the art sphere. She is active on social media using it as a channel to explain her opinions about what is going wrong in society. In a 2013 video statement responding to the NFL suit, she points out that she was only the scapegoat in a larger context: “What is offensive in America: Is my finger offensive or an underaged black girl with her legs wide open?” The scandalous “thing” was not her middle finger but that the NFL had a group of black under-16-year-old girls in tight dresses dance provocatively in the background. “Basically, the NFL want me to say that it's OK for me to promote being sexually exploited as a female, than to display empowerment, female empowerment, through being punk rock. That's what it boils down to, and I'm being sued for it.”
I’d meet ‘em, once you read ‘em
This one needs a brand new rhythm
We done the key.”
Compared to her former success she is not reaching as many people as she used to. But Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. has something to say and to advocate for. She is a refugee, a member of a jeopardized minority, a woman of color as well as an outspoken, talented and intelligent artist. The 97-minute full on M.I.A immersion is the ultimate tribute to her life so far. The biopic is also a huge middle finger to all of her critics and a way to say: Look where I came from and where I am now. You can do the same. Just focus what matters to you and stay true to it.
The film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival 2018 and at the Berlinale International Film Festival 2018.