by a 1rst generation Tamil American, September 6, 2018
I recently had the privilege to see the documentary of the British rapper, producer, and activist M.I.A. at an advance screening hosted by Cinereach, the studio that produced the film. I’ve long been a big fan of her music, often revisiting her albums Kala and Matangi, in which she blends banging beats with inventively chopped-up samples of popular Tamil songs and then delivers swaggering raps over them to create a sound that’s wholly her own. Her self-confident, punk-rock attitude can be heard through the speakers, and I came to admire her as a musician and fashion icon, and felt proud having her as perhaps the only representative of the Tamil diaspora in popular media.
Despite sharing common ethnic roots, my fandom didn’t extend far beyond her music into the political aspects of her career, a realization that came to me only after watching the film. I was surprised to learn from the film that her biggest hit song to-date, ‘Paper Planes’, which is still endlessly listenable, is a satire of the xenophobic perception that refugees are hustlers and thieves. This is only one insight of many that the film provides into the life and work of an eminently singular and inspirational artist.
The documentary, titled Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., gives an intimate account of how her personal politics developed and informed her music, which subsequently caused various media firestorms and continues to today. As I learned from the film, M.I.A. began her early career as a self-described ‘experimental filmmaker’, and the emotional impact of the documentary is achieved largely due to the use of troves of footage she shot of herself, her family, and her visit to Sri Lanka to reconnect with her roots in her early adult years. Once she had seen – and even experienced first-hand, in one moving account of harassment by government soldiers on a bus – the plight of the Tamils back home, her artistic vision coalesced immediately when she returned to London, or so the story is told. She seemingly resolved to pursue a music career, translated her urban influences and Tamil roots into a singular musical aesthetic, and was swiftly propelled to meteoric success. This account may sound unbelievable, but after having heard her early demos, seen footage of her perform a demo on-the-spot at the record label she had showed up at unannounced, and witnessed one of her live shows, it’s obvious to me that she’s a gifted musician and was a natural from the start. Aside from some fascinating footage of traveling to record music from Africa and Sri Lanka for her fantastic globetrotting album Kala, not much runtime is dedicated to her creative process.
The focus is instead on M.I.A.’s human rights activism, both in her music’s content and public appearances, which will remain relevant and controversial as long as refugee crises apply pressure on Western nations and genocides are allowed to occur without any meaningful reaction. The film does an excellent job showing how M.I.A., following her rise to stardom, has tried to leverage her platform to bring visibility to the human rights atrocities committed against the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. It shows how she was either dismissed, joked at, criticized, and even literally labeled a terrorist in various scenarios of increasing hypocrisy and absurdity. One illustrative example: she posted to Twitter a real, graphic photo of dead Tamil children, victims of execution, to which the public’s reaction was mild, then shortly thereafter she released the music video for ‘Born Free’, an allegory for ethnic cleansing that features white, red-headed children being rounded up and executed, eliciting outrage from viewers and the media. M.I.A. had proven her point, and in an interview she pointed out how none of the executions or blood in the music video were even real; the racial implications didn’t need to be explained to us in the audience.
I expect this film will reignite the media’s conversation around M.I.A. and the Sri Lankan Civil War, which never was recognized on the scale it deserved. With the looming 10-year memorial of the Sri Lankan government’s artillery shelling of a designated ‘No-Fire Zone’ in May 2009 which, by U.N. estimates, left 70,000 Tamil civilians unaccounted for, it’s a timely moment to draw attention back to those events. I’m deeply hopeful that using M.I.A.’s emotionally-resonant personal history as the conduit for telling the larger history of the Tamil people will strike a chord in viewers around the world.
Speaking for myself, M.I.A.’s personal history was deeply felt and inspiring. I now have an even greater appreciation for her music because I’ve seen what drove her to create it. There’s a moment toward the end of the film (mild spoiler alert) where the still-then ‘Mathangi’, who is visiting her family in Sri Lanka and has not yet begun her music career, asks her grandmother for her advice in life. Her grandmother, sitting next to Mathangi in the handheld video camera’s frame, is carefree and singing a Tamil folk song. She pauses her song and replies that Mathangi should keep singing for the rest of her life, and she will be happy. After the documentary’s screening, one of the film’s producers told me that M.I.A. always cries when she watches that.
M.I.A. discusses her film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeOjpN9Rnkw
In US theaters Sept. 28. Find/request a screening at M.I.A.ondemand