By Edoardo Liotta
The first encounter I ever had with M.I.A. was during my time in high school, after drawing her attention with an art piece I made inspired by one of her songs. The inspiration came when I discovered her discography. I was obsessed with her genre-defying tracks, hypnotic beats, smart rhymes and catchy hooks. It blew my mind. The beats were Tamil or Jamaican, her accent was British and her lyrics referenced everything from the hip-hop scene in America to sweatshops in India.
In a rap scene in which artists often take up the task of trying to ‘represent’ where they come from, M.I.A.’s geography-transcending music was extremely refreshing. She was not trying to represent one neighbourhood or city; she was, rather, allowing all the mirrors that created her reflect light onto her work. And I identified with it. As an Italian who was born in the US and grew up in Singapore, it felt weirdly normal to listen to someone be so confidently confused.
The documentary about her life, Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. by Steven Loveridge, brings crucial moments of Maya’s life as a kid, teenager and adult to the silver screen. The film dissects her career, bringing back pivotal moments that allowed most people to discover her in the late 2000s. For anyone that knew her at the time, the film will be a trip back to the vibrant energy that drew you to her in the first place. To those who are not familiar with Maya, I recommend the documentary even more. It will show you everything from the ruckus she was raised in as the daughter of the founder of the Tamil resistance movement, to how a little refugee girl turned into a hipster art student in London and then into a global pop star. It will show you what M.I.A. stands for today, and how her mark on the creative industry will be felt tomorrow.
On top of the cultural concoction that comprises M.I.A.’s work, the documentary takes a dive into the politics in her art that was galvanising to many, to say the least. Her messages about the international Tamil identity and Sri Lankan civil war are carefully but loudly crafted into her music, videos, artworks and persona. Thanks to her, millions of people, including myself, learned about the extent to which a Tamil genocide was happening in Sri Lanka. When I was a student studying politics in university, I wrote a lot about this, with the help of Maya as well. For Tamils around the world, she helped bring unity and a voice to the community. One could argue that Maya brought a bigger platform to the issue than the UN itself, who failed to act on multiple counts. Conversely, the documentary makes the case that her politics brought her waves of backlash from powerful institutions, such as journalists and politicians alike trying to discredit her as a hoax.
With many of her controversial pieces, such as “Born Free”, being at the forefront of her career, and of the documentary as well, it can easily seem like Maya has only referenced Sri Lanka with regards to the civil war. However, in large part, Maya’s work refers to elements drawn from the rich Tamil history she comes from. She makes clear to me that “Matangi [her fourth studio album] was more than the current fate of Tamils. It’s about how the world has reduced these ancient people to mere modern day slaves. But that’s not who we are. Tamil is the oldest language in the world that’s survived”.
The way Maya draws from her life and politics as inspiration for her work results in an interplay of mix-and-match aesthetics and sounds. Similarly, the way Loveridge tries to bridge these complex layers of her life together in 95 minutes makes for a similar outcome. To say it has been done smoothly would be a lie, and that’s the same for Maya’s work. But that is because her story can’t be told smoothly, whether it is through a documentary or through music. It’s her loud presence seeping out of these works that make them so hard to unpack, in the most addicting way possible. It keeps you thinking and coming back for more, and Loveridge’s documentary is no different.
A highlight is when the documentary takes you through one of the most controversial moments in Maya’s career: flipping the finger on stage with Madonna at the Super Bowl. In these intimate moments behind the scenes, you truly discover the strength of Maya as a person, artist and woman. Maya reveals how Madonna was a woman she looked up to growing up, and that she saw her as a groundbreaking and liberating symbol. However, what she saw when rehearsing for the Super Bowl did not reflect this at all. Madonna was objectified, told to dance a certain way and even told to change her clothing to please the men in charge at the NFL. The only woman rehearsing that had a problem with this misogyny was Maya herself, and realising that, she was the only one willing to do something about it. Doing so on the palms of such forces takes strength, something Maya has.
Strength is knowing what you stand for to the point that it doesn’t matter if you can’t serve it to the world on a shiny platter. It has nothing to do with album sales or whether the Super Bowl wants you on their stage. A purpose or message is not materially quantifiable. Maya never had to compromise her image or message for anyone, and when she was asked to, she fought back. When interviewers wanted to know about what she was wearing, she would diverge the topic to the fact that innocent civilians were being killed in Sri Lanka. And when the media finally got around to giving artists space to talk about certain struggles, Maya saw the double standards and pushed that barrier further. Why was the media applauding artists for talking about certain struggles when she was being shoved for bringing up Muslim, Syrian or refugee rights? Maya rejected the institutions that could grow her platform more times than she accepted them. She found her own lane to share her story.
Want to see an impressive journey? Then this is one. Maya was a first-generation refugee that lived through a war and became a pop star. She made it all fit together. Madonna, the Super Bowl or the Grammys are minor details in the complex journey she is on. That is the journey you will get a glimpse of in Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. It’s the process of finding her story in a world that wants it silenced. Piecing together the elements that made her who she was. 95 minutes may not be enough time to solve the puzzle of ‘Who is M.I.A.’, but it lays out the pieces that allowed Matangi to become Maya, and that made Maya into M.I.A.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. will be screening at The Arts House for the Singapore Writers Festival 2018 from the 6th to the 10th November.
Tickets available at https://mmmia.peatix.com/