During a recent TimesTalk with the New York Times , singer-rapper-pop provocateur M.I.A.—who had been embroiled in an infamous feud with the Times involving, among other things, truffle fries—was asked about the ten-plus years since her debut album, Arular, dropped. How had the iconoclastic child of the Internet influenced a decade’s worth of popular culture? “Everyone wanted to wear the leggings, the crazy neon prints, or listen to weird beats,” she says, with a just a hint of resentment, “but they didn’t want the politics. The struggle is that if your politics are the wrong politics, then you can’t be political.”
There have been plenty of rock stars more than willing to bend their identities around the concept of opposition. John Lennon’s politics came into sharp focus during the perils of Vietnam; Bono’s at the precise moment he discovered Africa was a real place. Mathangi Arulpragasam—known by friends and family as Maya, known by the rest of us as M.I.A— was electric from the jump; a pop-star for the globalized, post-9/11 world.
Her influence is stamped across the new film Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., directed by longtime friend Stephen Loveridge. Under her curation, she gave global synthesis in the Internet age an aesthetic: Lisa Frank by way of West Africa. The film is a traditional portrait of an untraditional artist, culled together from years of intimate footage, much of it recorded by M.I.A. herself, and crafted into just one of the many possible narratives that could have taken shape. Images from her childhood in South London, with its West Indian, South Asian, and West African populace, creates the tapestry of inspiration we see in her agitprop.
“I wanted to focus on one particular theme of cultural identity,” says Loveridge. “Suddenly you don’t often have a home to go back to...she was always going to appropriate something, being a mixture of art school, well-informed hipsterdom, a Sri Lankan past, the London urban music scene, and they’re all authentic.”
With the introduction of American hip-hop, which Maya recalls first hearing a neighbor play one evening after being forced to turn her own music off, the entire M.I.A. project seems initially to have coalesced into some great globalist fantasy.
Of course, her politics have always been central to her identity and artistry, and much of Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. takes that political history seriously. Loveridge successfully traces her origins and fills in the details of somebody who had, against all odds, already told us who she was, her backstory infamous, if potentially inflated: the child of a terrorist turned refugee turned rapper. But the film doesn’t interrogate the uniqueness of her arrival, its timing, its specific brand of provocation.
In March 2003, Country supergroup The Dixie Chicks faced controversy over comments made in M.I.A.’s own city of London, after their criticisms of the impending invasion of Iraq was reported by The Guardian, including their stating that the band was “ashamed the President of the United States [was] from Texas.” The statement was perceived, in a moment of post-9/11 jingoism, to be something akin to treason. Radio stations refused to play their music, fans hosted mass album burns, and the singers, still on tour, received multiple death threats. Just two years later comes Arular, named after her father, the architect of the Tamil independence movement in Sri Lanka, and, as M.I.A. herself would call him, a well-known terrorist.
Her politicization was frustrating for some. Journalists found her to be “naïve.” Sri Lankan historians and human rights activists found her outspokenness to be “doing more damage than good" in its simplification of a complex history. Her fascination with terrorism approached Manson levels of grey, in which repulsion and fascination exist in equal measure. “She first said ‘This is a film about how I failed,’” Loveridge recalls after an initial screening, “but even just her existing, representatively. You’re not going to get the U.N. to change policy with a three minute pop song.”
Yet M.I.A. was, even at her messiest, a prophetic representative of the schizophrenia that awaited the modern superstar. Today, political engagement is something between a moral imperative and an expected stop on the press tour. Stars will be grilled on feminism, on whether they ascribe to it, or know what it is, or if their latest film qualifies. Albums are trying too hard to be woke or they’re not woke enough. The Beyoncé apparatus has managed to become a totemic figure of black politics largely by orbiting the notion of radicalism, turning political imagery into a refined, montage of resistance or, depending on your level of cynicism, a conveniently open-ended one. Oprah can’t give a speech without people imposing a presidential run on her. And that dude from Orange Is The New Black literally looks like he just fucked his copy of The New Jim Crow.
Over the last ten years, this tightrope—once called “selling out,” later rebranded into “authenticity”—has been the albatross of many of her female contemporaries. Political activism has become, in a sense, a way to sell- in, to prove your worth in a culture that repeatedly gives you reason to show otherwise. The documentary never bothers to put the hypocrisy on display, even if just to say that capitalism inherently presents a false choice. Nobody can sell out in a system that’s already sold you out. Was M.I.A. flipping off the camera at the NFL really more offensive than her performing at the Super Bowl in the first place? An event that gestures to the American military industrial complex with about as much subtlety as a tidal wave?
M.I.A.’s mere existence was, itself, a challenge to the status quo, constantly darting between ironic appropriation and authentic intellectualism. And it’s part of the reason she felt so provocative, yet also curiously vapid to her critics—a dog-whistle more than a revolution. Yet her third-rail touching was most offensive to the public because of the way it treated politics largely politically, which is to say messily and without resolution. But how do you rebel in a system that sells your rebellion back to you. That tension is what Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is missing, but how could the film grapple with it if the culture at large and subject at its center have yet to? What seemed initially to be the bug in her project is actually, in retrospect, its most curious feature. M.I.A. was always focused on the business of her politics, but what catches you a decade later is the politics of her business.
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