Matangi Maya MIA (2018)
Cast: Maya Arulpragasam, Director: Steve Loveridge
I had nearly forgotten one of my first female idols in music until the documentary film “Matangi Maya MIA” (2018) directed by Steve Loveridge, a close friend of the artist.
Maya Arulpragasam, the Sri Lankan musician and female rapper who goes by the moniker MIA, released her debut album “Arular” in 2003. At that time, this youngin’ was a sophomore in high school. It was her loud fashion style that drew me in. Honestly, I just wanted to dress like her. But it got me to pay attention.
And today, I walked out the theater knowing and feeling full well the depth of her lyric. The artist has repeatedly stated that it is not the film she would have made. But it’s the film we needed to see.
This “pop star” grew up loud with her political views - a passionate view in her music that was mixed into a bombastic global tech sound, hip hop but experimental, pop but with way more raw grit. Mainstream music seemed to embrace her but did they believe her? MIA has been both pop star with a worldwide fan base and the most famous Sri Lankan political activist championing the voice of her people. Director Loveridge took on the courageous task of putting MIA’s work into context with decades of footage most of which were recorded by the artist herself.
15 years after her first release and we see MIA standing thick in the truth that she’d built her career on and today, perhaps audiences are more able to resonate with where the artist comes from with a deeper understanding; a greater appreciation. We see now that MIA was before her time. When she was catapulted onto the world stage in the early 2000s, we were not equipped with the language but our ill-comprehension could not wait. MIA was born into, witnessed and experienced the struggle of her Tamil ethnic community - a targeted ethnic minority by Sri Lankan government that led to a 26-year Civil War. In 2009, the war ended with a death toll of 100,000. MIA’s father was the founder of a student Tamil resistance group affiliated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. One third of the Tamil population lives outside of Sri Lanka and MIA’s personal history is a lineage of this war. With a quick tempo and sense of urgency, audience’s in “Matangi Maya MIA” are introduced to this day one history immediately in the first 10 minutes of the film. MIA had followed impulses to document her surroundings at an early age, even if the world wasn’t ready.
I remember walking out of the theater after watching “Matangi Maya MIA” feeling fearless and proud. I rediscovered the essence of why the female rap artist had a place on the altar up there with Ms. Lauryn Hill a la The Fugees and the holy grail embodied in Medulla Oblongota also known as Erykah Badu. This is a specific altar - one that devotes itself to the power of selfless revolution.
“MIA is a British musician,” reads some of her biography descriptions listed online. The film draws a clip from a late night talk show interview where the host uses MIA’s British accent as a way to turn the conversation away from speaking on Tamil matters. It happens again and again, marginalizing the artist even from present conversations of social justice issues in the US. She is made to be irrelevant and in the documentary film, the subtle line of personal vulnerability at the hands of rejection or trivialization is what draws us in. Here is a woman on a mission. And it is authentic. How do we know? We can tell when it hurts.
In her most recent release “Matangi” (2013), the artist reached a place of pure self-expression; pure in the sense of consciously choosing to stop playing the game that was rigged for failure. In an interview with Canadian radio Q TV, MIA says, “I knew this was the only way to protect yourself. If you gave it your all. If you work completely true and honest then it doesn’t matter. That’s how you can take millions of cheap shots and not be hurt. Because it’s coming where it should be coming from.”
The same ethos that governed MIA’s approach to the “Matangi” album was brought forth in “Matangi Maya MIA" the film by Loveridge though without any creative oversight or control by MIA herself.
Loveridge, a trusted friend of MIA's understood that his friend had always been misunderstood by the world due to a lack of context. MIA didn’t see the film until it’s premier event.
But like MIA’s raw channeling of the atrocities her people face that so much defines her artistry, this film needed to be presented in its stripped, most vulnerable portrayal of the artist. This is a double-edged sword and here is the qualm of the artist in today’s increasingly transparent, social media and technology driven age, which MIA is also extremely vocal about: If we are to challenge what the music industry and society commodifies as good or valuable in contrast to what an artist really wants to create, say something intimate and political, then they too might have to be comfortable with the camera being flipped. If you are holding a microphone, everyone is listening. And today, everyone is watching. They want to know who you are.
Written by Naomi Yoshida