The remarkable force of ‘Matangi / M.I.A. / Maya’

VFF documentary showcases activism, musical integrity, untarnished confidence of rap icon


"Matangi / M.I.A. / Maya" is a film account as vivid and interfering as M.I.A. herself.

Courtesy Interscope Records

“This is North, South, East, and Western... ” calls M.I.A. in her song “Borders” from her 2016 album “AIM,” with a taunting kind of assurance. She’s summarizing her constant influence as an immigrant artist to return to her “backhomeness,” a term she uses in the documentary “MATANGI / M.I.A. / MAYA,” titled for the names she goes by, each one encapsulating the Sri Lankan musician’s multi-dimensioned lifestyle as a refugee, immigrant, activist and international pop star. 

Stephen Loveridge, director of the film that showed at the Virginia Film Festival, creates an account as vivid and interfering as M.I.A. herself — highlighting the cruciality of the artist’s immigrant roots, stringing along a rhetoric that encourages reform and systemic change of the public damnation facing today’s immigrants and refugees. As M.I.A. puts it in the film, “You don’t know, that kid could access a 505 machine and a microphone and become Michael Jackson. You don’t know.” She stated this about her experience crafting her 2007 album “Kala” that took her to every continent where she recorded girls in developing nations playing hand games, boys beating on upturned cans, spinning the songs to match the sound of the places she was. The footage doesn’t show M.I.A. visiting this towns with an awkward sense of authority possessed by some famous outsiders — where they show up, take a few pictures, hand out expensive items, and leave, but rather a complete immersion of values occurs where M.I.A. listens to the voices of her hosts. She learns their dances first, and then she teaches them her own, eventually collecting such a rich capacity for what the world is calling for that she creates music with a bumping vibe translated anywhere. 

The film shows decades of footage of the artist, most of which she took herself on a large, shoulder-held video camera in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, revealing intimate moments from her life — spanning from conversations had in her family’s Sri Lankan bathroom where she visits 16 years after she left at the age of 25 to learn about this country she comes from and the civil war that rages on. There her grandmother yells “Matangi!” in greeting. The artist goes by Maya as a young film student in her dorm room in London, dancing without a sense of censorship or audience. These compulsions towards exposing the reality of herself, her family, and the reducing atmosphere that surrounds her constantly is what drives M.I.A.’s art and self purpose. Loveridge excels in coloring the controversies surrounding M.I.A.’s most recent public appearances, exposing the crucial intentions and highly thought-out actions that stimulated inattentive media responses that explained her activism with demeaning language partial to her race and sex. In 2010, when M.I.A. released the video for her song “Born Free,” she depicted a genocide of redheads where she uses the exact same, violently bloody narrative shown by real footage of the murders of young Sri Lankans, the work was taken off of YouTube for its graphic nature. She speaks of this continued censorship of her art and questions the priorities of the company for not removing the real and highly triggering video of those being killed, citing the color the skin of the victims as the reason. 

The most notable public appearance of M.I.A. in the last few years was her performance with Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl, where she used one of the most watched events of the year to say something more than her decked out cheerleading outfit did. She gave the camera the middle finger, which eventually caused such an uproar that the NFL sued the artist $16.6 million for the value lost during those two seconds where her mini protest was seen. One of the film’s most memorable moments is when M.I.A. responds to a question off camera about her statement on why she did it. She pushes against the question, responding that there wasn’t a statement behind it but she just felt incredibly fed up with the misogynistic discrediting she felt backstage with her fellow performers. She cites watching Madonna, this empowering icon she grew up admiring, being bossed around “by a bunch of cowboys,” being told opinions about her stylistic decisions and personal demeanor that made M.I.A. furious. She was fed up with all of it. 

In a confessional truth that characterizes the film, M.I.A. talks about her struggle to create music that stays true to her message and background, yet also reaches audiences enough for commercial success. “You can’t rap about being an immigrant, it’s too like embarrassing,” and although she says this was a semi-joking tone, she explains herself more later because she does in fact rap about being an immigrant, and often.

“I need to keep the immigrant story in all of my work always because that’s what I’m trying to make sense of,” she said. “We’re used as a scapegoats for Brexit, we’re used as scapegoats to build a wall. But people have always mixed and mingled and moved and interesting things happen because of it.” 

In this own search to shed greater self-awareness of her own immigrant status, the rapper continues to pursue a field of focus in her music that makes many mainstream listeners highly comfortable. But the film reveals that’s not who she’s making her music for — she’s making it for the kid on the playground in some country who may get a hold of a 505 machine and a microphone and become the next Michael Jackson, or M.I.A.    

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