Updated: Jan 3, 2019
“I don’t want to be a politician, I just want to encourage people to be themselves and question shit,” says British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. in a trailer for the new documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.
Born Mathangi Arulpragasam and nicknamed Maya, her family fled Sri Lanka for London amidst civil war in the 1980s, minus her father, a political activist whom she claims was affiliated with militant Sri Lankan Tamil groups at this time. Maya spent most of her childhood in London, where she studied fine art and film at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design and began developing her M.I.A. persona. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is directed by Steve Loveridge, one of her classmates at Central Saint Martins.
While the documentary is currently premiering on the film festival circuit, it’s a retrospective that spans throughout the controversial artist’s career. M.I.A., who studied to become a filmmaker before turning to music, shot much of the personal footage included in the documentary.
Throughout her career, details of M.I.A.’s biography—her supposed family ties to terrorism and controversial, and sometimes contradictory, politics—have been inseparable from her persona as one of the unlikeliest pop stars of the past decade.
Her debut album Arular, released in 2005, was named after her father’s code name within Sri Lankan activist networks. The follow up, Kala, named after her mother, was released in 2007, and included the song “Paper Planes,” which became a Billboard Top 10 hit after being featured in Pineapple Express and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire.
It’s hard to forget how odd “Paper Planes” sounded on pop radio at the time. A song about an immigrant faking passports, smoking weed, and built around a chorus of four blaring gunshots and a cash register ring, one couldn’t mistake “Paper Planes” for anything else on Top 40.
M.I.A.’s pop moment with “Paper Planes,” however, was well-warranted. M.I.A. and producer Diplo synthesized American hip-hop, a sample of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” and Western anxieties about immigrants from the Third World into something playful, catchy, and perhaps even politically subversive. I distinctly remember hearing the song’s gunshot chorus while roller skating at the YMCA in seventh grade, probably between Flo Rida’s “Low” and a Jonas Brothers song. It still bangs.
The strangest sight during M.I.A.’s pop crossover moment, however, was probably at the following year’s Grammys. M.I.A., nine-months pregnant and just days ahead of giving birth, came onstage to perform “Paper Planes” wearing a see-through polka-dot bodysuit.
She was followed by Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I. performing “Swagga Like Us,” which samples the song. In this moment, M.I.A. seemed unstoppable—an outsider establishing her place in some of pop music’s most exclusive corners.
In subsequent years, however, M.I.A.’s music and public image have grown at once more confrontational and politically muddled.
With Maya (stylized /\/\ /\ Y /\), the 2010 follow up to M.I.A.’s breakthrough success with Kala, M.I.A. effectively alienated herself from the casual “Paper Planes” fans but never quite reached the full scale of her ambitions. Maya had less to say about the surveillance state than its garish YouTube-inspired cover or the allegorical redhead genocide depicted in the music video for its lead single “Born Free” would suggest. On the spectrum of “difficult” follow up albums, Maya ranks closer to admirable flops like MGMT’s Congratulations or Christina Aguilera’s Bionic (both released that same year, both underappreciated but deeply flawed; M.I.A. co-wrote “Elastic Love” for the Aguilera album) than to a successful reinvention like Radiohead’s OK Computer.
To the album’s credit, with songs like “Born Free” or the underrated “Teqkilla”, M.I.A. reached for the intersection of industrial punk, electronic, and hip-hop long before Travis Scott or Kanye West’s Yeezus got around to the sound. And while “iPhone connected to the Internet/Connected to the Google/Connected to the government” might sound a bit simplistic, her paranoia is perhaps justifiable to more Americans post-Snowden revelations and post-Cambridge Analytica.
Still, the album flopped, and its follow ups, 2013’s Matangi and 2016’s AIM, were neither as culturally resonant as M.I.A.’s earlier work nor as brazen in their misguided convictions as Maya. Despite public disputes with Interscope, her record label, around both Matangi and AIM, the final product in both cases didn’t live up to the drama surrounding their release. “Borders,” the lead single from AIM, was a surprisingly flat comment on the still-ongoing European migrant crisis. “Borders, what’s up with that? / Politics, what’s up with that?,” she asks, with little of the playfulness or provocation that worked for her as recently as the hit “Bad Girls”.
Some of M.I.A.’s recent public statements have also made supporting her politics a more difficult proposition for fans. In 2016, she criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and black American artists such as Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar for not addressing violence against Muslims abroad. “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters?” she said in an interview with Evening Standard. DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, two activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, pointed out on Twitter misconceptions about the movement and erasure of black Muslims in her comments. She was also replaced by Grace Jones as a headliner at Afropunk Fest London following her statement.
Last year, she defended WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after Swedish prosecutors dropped an investigation into allegations of rape against Assange. (Assange also appears in the trailer for Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., which was leaked back in 2013.) Assange remains in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he moved in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on the allegations. Assange’s Internet service in the embassy was recently shut offfollowing concerns of his meddling in the country’s foreign affairs, and also in October 2016 after WikiLeaks released emails from Hilary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Grab that pussy is a symptom of your broken system that was allowed to grow without question. He helped You to see hypocrisy you should thank him and fast fix your system not hide him or the cracks he exposed,” she posted on Instagram.
While these statements seem to come from noble intentions, however misguided or clumsy in their delivery, they speak to some of M.I.A.’s recurring issues as a political avatar throughout her career. Both in her music and public image, M.I.A. is most effective as a provocateur — someone who puts together seemingly incongruous ideas and presents them in unlikely ways. She gets fans to “question shit,” as she mentions in the documentary. Still, taking such a combative stance can lead an artist like M.I.A. to miss some of the details of important issues, while her attempts at something more conciliatory have diminished some of the spark that made her work so special. M.I.A. is in a precarious spot. But as Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. shows, she’s always been in this spot throughout her career.
I thought about M.I.A. as I watched Cardi B perform on Saturday Night Live last weekend, after releasing her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, currently the top album in the country.
As she performed, she carefully revealed a baby bump, not unlike M.I.A. at the Grammys, during a career peak. And as with M.I.A., the details of Cardi B’s biography have been elemental to her public image; her path as a stripper turned Instagram celebrity turned Love and Hip Hop cast member turned viable major-label pop star is literally unprecedented.
It’s still early in Cardi B’s career, and still unclear how she will continue to navigate the pressures of fame and the music industry, especially as she remains an outspoken presence on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter that helped make her famous. But if the existence of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is any indication, we’ll probably have all the footage we need of her public ups and downs along the way. No one stays on top forever, but in 2018, social media keeps all the receipts.