I fly like paper, get high like planes,
If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name.
The incomparably talented, swagga-some Mathangi Arulpragasam, naturally dons these big, majestic eyes. They show her varying levels of pain, a whole world of immeasurable passion and ambition. A girl with anger, but also accessible joy. Eyes that show us Matangi (her childhood name), then Maya (as she identifies), and M.I.A. (the artist), has a lot more to say than she has by the time you meet her.
The candid, engulfing documentary, Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., even opens with director, and long-time friend, Steve Loveridge, asking Maya why she does not ever shut up. From a child of war, to immigrant in the United Kingdom, and hip-hop musician, the film explores a restless, always riveting, politically-charged individual. The product of her environment, and vocally unabashed advocate for human rights.
When M.I.A. and her bolstering, edgy music broke out, it was an explosion of raw expression through music, lyric and sound. I remember watching the Mercury Music Prize back in 2005, for which the young, spirited M.I.A. was a nominee for her debut album Arular. I had little choice but to witness this fierce energy burst from my television screen. I was fucking gobsmacked.
And truth be told, this was not even the style of music I usually entertained. I’m still not a huge fan of the genre, but M.I.A. transcends this notion in all her rebellious allure and musical clout.
Before the fame, Maya wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, which kind of makes sense. She was raised during war-torn Sri Lanka, fleeing to the UK at age 10 with her mother, and from there grew up a refugee in South London. But many of us are all too aware, England is not all roses and fucking rainbows. The dated, prejudice views that there are too many foreigners ruining the British system is alive and well. Maya tells us she was even spat at as a child, and called a Paki.
Revisiting her perpetual memories, Maya describes how she’d spend most of her time listening to pop music on a second-hand radio, to shut the world out. But when the radio was stolen by kids, Maya had to endure the huge bassline of the neighbours listening to hip hop instead. The refreshing inspiration was music to her ears. You can hear the wonder in her voice as she describes it.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. largely consists of family home videos, and footage of M.I.A. during moments of her successful music career. We learn that her father founded the Tamil group, EROC (Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students), teaching many future members and leaders of the important establishment. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, for which we are grateful.
It’s a documentary that gives us an integral, intriguing background of someone hundreds will only know as that cocky voice on the iPod. The kind of backstory we often tend to disregard or have little knowledge of, but in the hands of Maya and Loveridge it’s an absorbing education.
Lucky enough to make a friend in Justine Frischmann of Elastica, Maya would hang out backstage, videotape some of the sessions, and by admittance would not be the flavour of the month with other members of the band. That was hardly a scratch on the surface of Maya’s skin, given her upbringing and the noses she would knock out of joint with her songs.
M.I.A.’s kinetic, raw music tells us about the person she has shaped up to be, and allows us to bathe in the attitudes she is not afraid to impose. Maya later traveled the continents of the world, to not only embrace other cultures, but also to adopt them into her music as she was creating it.
Apparently, Maya flaunted her demos and self-made artwork to the recording studio like it was a done deal. The rat-a-tat-tat of M.I.A.’s vivacious music is no frills, rough around the edges, from a real place Maya knows all too well. Her experimental style, a kind of underground social symphony, would attract downloads of Arular by the thousands (remember Napster?).
By the time the blood-pumpingly catchy Paper Planes hit our ears, M.I.A. was a household name, with a punctuating sound. That very track, of course, laid it heavy with parody on stereotypes of the pesky immigrants taking the good people’s money. Ask the same knuckleheads about the violence in Sri Lanka – yeah, that’s what I thought.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is a bona fide gem. Never does it pander on the pain or the politics of Maya’s mindset. It portrays a great sense of humanity and intimacy, without shoving anything down your throat or attempting to play the heart strings. The collaboration between old college friends, Steve Loveridge and Maya, proves to be a damn fine one, yet again. In a year chock-a-block with enthralling documentaries, this might be the cream of the crop for me.
The final act of the documentary creeps into darker territory. Not that the subject matter was not alarming or personal already. At this stage, Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. hits even deeper somehow, weighs on the changing mood, and actually creates genuine tension and discomfort. With lazy journalism, M.I.A. becomes a kind of victim of censorship, and has to take on the chin all manner of pro-terrorist accusations. Terribly unfortunate for Maya, but this documentary is essential for giving us these junctures.
One ridiculous fiasco, when M.I.A. is invited to perform at the Super Bowl, her brief middle finger gesture causes much head-shakes Stateside. The NFL were displeased, to say the least, and she was sued for $16m. Have they not done their homework, though? This isn’t Katie Perry. And then the infuriating snippets of Americans on talk shows, wondering why she didn’t wave, and asking who was she mad at, and why they got someone who was not even American to perform.
As I was watching, they got another middle finger and an ‘Oh fuck off’ from me. It is, however, two defiant thumbs up for Steve and Maya. To the world, quieten down, M.I.A. needs to make a sound.