by Mallika Rao, ‘Vulture,’ New York, October 2, 2018
The big revelation of the documentary titled MAYA / MATANGI / MIA, which hit U.S. theaters last weekend, is how it vindicates the singer at its heart. At The Guardian, Laura Snapes draws a connection between Christine Blasey Ford and Maya Arulpragasam — nom de guerre, M.I.A. — two women who some have treated as delusional attention seekers, but who may very well be telling their truth, a truth whose complexity the public doesn’t yet have the language or strength to make sense of. In the case of Arulpragasam, a documentary was needed to build a portrait that was already accessible, for anyone looking, via evidence scattered around the internet. An anecdote from her childhood, in an interview in The Telegraphmore than a decade ago, constructs a vision of her ideal, truthful self. When Maya was a new kid in England, a refugee from Sri Lanka (where she lived until 11), she raised her hand in math class because she knew the answer. The students laughed, she says, and the teacher patted her on the head and said she needn’t pretend. Because she didn’t know English, everyone presumed her ignorant. She didn’t have the words to fight back, but as she remembers it, she knew the right answer. Math education in Sri Lanka, she told the interviewer, was advanced compared to in the U.K. — not that her classmates seemed equipped with a vision of the world broad enough to entertain that thought.
In the years since, Arulpragasam has been presumed ignorant, time and again, by interviewers, culture critics, and newsroom pundits — many of whom parade through MAYA / MATANGI / MIA. That she often turns out in hindsight to have been not only onto something, but perhaps more astute than the Westerners who degraded her, sets her up as the iconic outsider, treated as an idiot because she doesn’t speak the right language.
In applying a light touch on this point where the singer more often pushes too hard, on the twin parochialism of right- and left-wing America, the doc has buoyed arguably the only positive wave of press to envelop the superstar since she first got famous in 2005, a gangly, striking, hard-to-classify artist out of London who rose through MySpace and defied the rules of industry to the degree some music journalists suggested her online rise be studied, for what it shows about the power of the internet to subvert institutional power structures. The documentary, pieced together from public and private footage (the latter from an extraordinary cache filmed by M.I.A. herself), by her frequent collaborator and art school croney Steve Loveridge, builds its case kaleidoscopically, jumping from London public housing to the Sri Lankan home where she and her family shared a bedroom, to the Super Bowl stage, where her middle finger led to a multi-million-dollar lawsuit from the NFL as well as one of the doc’s most Orwellian streams of footage, of white pundits on American TV who see in the singer’s entry into the country an end to Christian values.
Glowing reviews of the doc might to an M.I.A. stan read akin to corrections, a revenge fantasy, set as they are in publications whose scribes once dismissed the artist’s political views on the grounds of being “like um, you know, a bit inarticulate,” or compromised by her celebrity status. The most notorious, The New York Times Magazine profile with the infamous inclusion of truffle fries, haunts that same publication’s review, which notes the doc’s reflection on “self-righteous observers who suggest that [M.I.A.] renounce all worldly goods before speaking her mind.” Such reviews shoot a too-little-too-late glare, a sense that the West changes its opinion only when terms at home dictate a need to do so.
M.I.A.’s public story in MAYA / MATANGI / MIA comprises highlights, mostly of being -splained, her claim to space questioned, whether by a male cousin back in Sri Lanka, who said she hadn’t suffered enough from the region’s conflict to care — despite the fact that her dad remains largely absent due to the civil war that devastated that country, a resistance leader who abandoned the family when Maya was a toddler, walked out, as in the tales, for a glass of milk, just one more small and fantastical detail that makes an M.I.A. story feel suspect, to borrow the characterization of the novelist Gary Shteyngart, author of one of the most sweeping profiles of the artist available; by Bill Maher, who uses her British accent as ammunition to deflate her claim to care about Sri Lanka; or by Lynn Hirschberg, the Times Magazine contributor who produced perhaps the loudest laugh, via the profile, in which M.I.A.’s political fixations are framed as “radical chic” put-ons. As for the much-analyzed aside about a truffle fry, the singer later produced audio evidence to show that it was in fact ordered by the journalist, not the would-be radical. The doc also shows an empathic route to understanding the singer’s much-derided causiness in a scene between M.I.A. and her early mentor Justine Frischmann, lead singer of Elastica. When a young Maya finds Frischmann not political enough, the latter gives a sigh tinged with frustration and love: “You’re right, you’re much better than me.”
The Guardian article that namechecks Blasey Ford sees a link, in the visions of the world both women threaten. In Maya’s case, the vision she threatens is of Western cultural dominance, not only from those primed to see in her an evil omen — those white dudes on Fox News going on about Jesus — but the music reviewers and Times profilers, liberal wonks who seem unable to fathom that a woman who is “inarticulate” might know more about some aspects of the world than they, just as the British schoolkids perhaps couldn’t comprehend a superior math system unfurling in a Sri Lankan jungle. “The difficulty for M.I.A. is not that she’s lying,” begins Miranda Sawyer, in a 2010 Guardian interview, after arriving for the task full of mental noise on her subject (all those prior interviews that imply she’s a dolt). Sawyer discovers later, via the Times, a news bit that validates an assertion by Maya, that the Sri Lankan government was using Tamil Tigers as projected stand-ins for Tamil civilians, claiming to the world in official reports to kill only the former, so as to quietly wipe out the latter. The interviewer works out that M.I.A. isn’t lying, exactly: “It’s that the world doesn’t really care … if I’m honest, before researching for this piece, I wasn’t really aware of the details of the civil war in Sri Lanka, not least that it had ended with hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians being herded on to beaches and bombed. I’m just as guilty as Hirschberg,” she concludes.
Hirschberg is shown in the documentary effusing over the video for “Born Free,” a remake of Sri Lankan guerrilla videos with redheaded kids as the prisoners. In the profile, Hirschberg frames the video’s use of violence as naïve, a sign of M.I.A.’s surface grasp on politics, even as she exhibits within her analysis her own loose grip on Sri Lankan strife, or rather the topic’s Rashomon-like refusal to be understood. An expert on Sri Lanka quoted in the profile buoys Hirschberg’s point by calling Maya’s use of the word “genocide” inaccurate. Today, that “gotcha” is less valid, as the toll of the country’s civil war and the government’s continued role in violence is still being assessed.
Provocations can be necessary tools in the face of mass disinterest. Maya’s talk was never meant as a “coherent political program,” goes an entry in the Encyclopedia of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, so much as a rhetorical weapon in the lineage of hip-hop bombast. Only, unlike rappers, M.I.A. has no lineage discernable to the West to make sense of her. “No one has played a greater part in bringing the invisible war in Sri Lanka into popular cultural consciousness,” concludes the entry. In her book Staging Dissent, Lisa Weems cites a scholar who “likens [M.I.A.] to Scheherazade, the subject of 1001 Nights who concocts gripping tales to postpone her death at the hands of the despotic King Shahryar.” And “we need [such] figures,” Weems continues, “to tell better stories so that despotism might be overcome.” “People reckon that I need a political degree in order to go, ‘My school got bombed and I remember it cos I was ten years old,’” M.I.A. told U.K. magazine Clash in 2010, in an echo of the new school of thought ushered in by cell-phone videos and first-person testimony, that the personal matters when public information is shown to be compromised.
Maybe the loudest dissonance in M.I.A.’s career came out of the 2012 Super Bowl, when she flashed a middle finger at the camera during a performance alongside Madonna and Nicki Minaj. The documentary lavishes time on this rapid rise and fall from grace: from when a grinning M.I.A. tells her family that Madonna just called, to when she lies in bed under the covers, asking, “What have I done?” Interspersed are a parade of white people on American TV, chicken-littleing on end times and wondering why a foreigner was let onto the country’s iconic stage in the first place. At the time, Madonna called the finger flash “irrelevant,” the work of a teenager. But M.I.A. explains the move as born of respect for Madonna, whom she saw taking orders from brutish NFL commandants. Once again, the time feels suddenly ripe for the West to reassess her perspective anew, to see not irrelevance but foresight, the NFL having experienced its own fall from grace. She sent a middle finger to an organization that inspires written versions of the gesture on a regular basis these days — while displaying a knack for the sort of self-branding Americans demand of our superstars. That day, as she points out in the documentary, her video for the track “Bad Girls” came out, a visual spectacular of wheelies in race cars full of burqa-clad women in the desert. To flash a middle finger is both a bad girl move, and a good girl one: self-promotion, without losing oneself.
MAYA / MATANGI / MIA also unveils the widespread, popular misunderstanding of the only M.I.A. song everyone and their mother sang, “Paper Planes,” which wraps political commentary in the gauze of a perfect pop vehicle. So perfect, David Letterman booked M.I.A. to perform it on his show, in 2007, at the peak of the song’s worldwide ascent — the tune having gone average-bro-famous via the trailer for Pineapple Express. The song can sound at face value the ultimate M.I.A.-branded content, set to a more hummable tune than the rest. In the documentary though, M.I.A. explains via footage shot by Spike Jonze for Vice, that the now-iconic refrain is pointedly meant to subvert an age-old caricature of immigrants — a bloc stereotyped as stealing money and jobs. The revelation took center stage when she appeared on the Daily Show last week; Trevor Noah, himself an immigrant, shook his head at how obvious it is once you hear it: “All I wanna do is shot-shot-shot-shot … and take your money,” the song whirs, gunshots overlapping sonically with the ka-ching of a cash register, a sound censored out of the Letterman performance (another move the absurdity of which comes home when one considers a recent live talk, in which M.I.A. said her first album sold so poorly via Interscope that copies of it were sent to Jack Black in Nashville to use as target practice — her takeaway: that’s how common and backyard an American accessory are guns).
The satisfaction the documentary brings to the SuperBowl moment evades perhaps the only controversy that doesn’t benefit from a new bent in public consciousness. Asked her opinion of Beyoncé’s one-armed salute at another Super Bowl — the 2016 halftime performance — seen widely as recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement, M.I.A. drew a contrast to American disinterest in nondomestic causes. To advocate for black lives as a celebrity today takes no more chutzpah than “what Lauryn Hill was saying in the nineties,” she argued, even as superstars stay quiet on lives outside American borders that rely on American policy. She wondered which pop star might ever say that “Muslim Lives Matter.” The comment cut the last ties of M.I.A.’s career to the mainstream music industry, which began to unravel when she left management under Jay-Z’s Roc Nation (reportedly over a controversy on the early airing of a trailer for the doc itself). M.I.A. was already persona non grata with American authority figures, so to speak, having been barred from the country both in 2006 and 2016, when her visas weren’t granted, for unreported reasons. But the BLM comment changed her status underground, shifted her from a symbol of a pan-non-West, into a figure linked to the blind spots of individual communities, her comments seen not as pro-refugee, but “anti-black,” as the rapper Azealia Banks called her.
That same year she produced AIM, an album with lyrics that bleed from the refugee crisis to the condition of life for the immigrant who has arrived, in both senses of the word (“gonna make that shit trend, gonna be your foreign friend,” she croons). A video for the AIM track “Borders,” on the so-called “nightmare” scenario of young refugee men floating on rafts, stirred the internet (described as “topical” on this site). But little of late has given her press quite like the doc. As Miranda Sawyer, the journalist who fact-checked M.I.A. after her interview, only to feel shame, discovered: There’s nothing quite so jarring as wondering if you were wrong — about the world, a person — when you thought you were right.