Is there a contemporary artist whose creative output reflects the melting pot makeup of their existence as accurately as M.I.A’s? In Steve Loveridge’s Matangi/Maya/MIA, we find an inquisitive soul wrestling with her social conscience as she navigates the choppy waters of fame.
Born in Hounslow, M.I.A. (real name Maya Arulpragasam) spent her formative years seeking shelter from civil war in Sri Lanka. Aged 10, her family returned to the cosmopolitan hubbub of London to seek refuge. Of this transition, she starkly reflects, “One day in Sri Lanka, I was getting shot at for being a Tamil. Then I came to England and I was getting spat at for being a Paki.”
Loveridge has been a beneficiary of hours of personal archive footage accumulated by his charge. This includes pre-fame clips of time with close friend Justine Frischmann of Elastica and her own on-the-fly observations from a galling, life-changing return to a Sri Lanka still mired in conflict in 2001. This latter experience is an anchor point for Loveridge’s film. As he lays out the escalation of mainstream success, he returns to the horrifying violence that clearly casts a long shadow for M.I.A.
As Western pop culture seems to believe that levity, froth and frivolity is a panacea for all ills, M.I.A. is shown to be an awkward presence on this candyfloss landscape. With her popularity increasing so too does the criticism. She endures hatchet job journalism, mockery and spoofs – much of it propelled by an American media that is as confusing as it is all-pervasive. A media whipped into frenzied outrage over a fleeting middle finger flicked during a Super Bowl halftime show alongside Madonna, but also dismissive of any attempt to seriously discuss the issue of genocide and the plight of the Tamil people (as the shocking footage of her appearance on ‘Real Time With Bill Maher’ attests). Under those rules of engagement, it’s enough to make the most belligerent jaded, disillusioned and unwilling to play ball.
It is no wonder that, at the point this film emerged out of the editing suite, M.I.A. had hung up the microphone. It is rumoured that the process of taking the documentary out on the road has generated a reappraisal, with word coming out that she’s now embarking on a musical. We shall see.
Whether Loveridge employs hagiography is debatable. What is without debate, however, is the mercurial tenacity and full-blown vigour of Maya Arulpragasam. Part-scenester, part-genius, part-visionary: an intrepid aural explorer whose cross-pollination of sounds, styles, genres and aural motifs has ensured that this Bad Girl has remained an influential, prominent figure despite her absence.
From ‘ave it pop to agitprop: Matangi/Maya/MIA documents the outspoken rapper’s journey from refugee to bona fide star. In doing so, it provides a fascinating insight into a one-of-a-kind, fearless artist who has made her MO the unpredictable. It also sagely showcases the perils of the public platform as well as its good. Compelling.