In 2010, ran a profile on British-Sri Lankan hip-hop and pop star Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., which many people (including M.I.A. herself) saw as a hit piece. Using unflattering quotes by collaborators and painting the artist as a pampered starlet who dabbled in politics she knew little about, the feature may not have derailed her career and reputation, but it served as one of several factors that caused her success in the 2000s from smoothly progressing into the 2010s.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., a documentary about the songwriter and performer’s life and career, serves as a reminder of how prominent she was in the mid-2000s cultural zeitgeist thanks to songs such as “Galang,” “Sunshowers,” and most famously, the perennially infectious “Paper Planes.” Director Steve Loveridge attended art school with M.I.A. in the late 1990s, where a longtime friendship blossomed. Thus, he has a trove of footage — encompassing performance, songwriting, and casual moments — chronicling her early life, her rise to prominence, and her tumultuous past decade, when she was sued by the NFL for giving the middle finger on a Super Bowl broadcast, as well as derided and dragged down for publicly advocating Sri Lanka’s Tiger rebels against the country’s government. In footage throughout the film, she notes that her opinion on such matters was dismissed because she is a woman.
The movie proves this point by letting us see these events through her perspective, but more importantly, by giving us the full context of her background. She spent her early childhood in Sri Lanka, where her father Arul was an activist and revolutionary. She had little contact with him due to the Sri Lankan civil war, which forced her family to move frequently throughout the country, and then eventually to India before moving back to the United Kingdom (where they had previously lived and she was born). This turmoil is compellingly conveyed in the film, and it clearly colored her entire worldview and artistic practice, from her visual art to her fashion choices to her music.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is richer than the usual musician documentary (due to the entertainer’s background). The film explores subjects such as mass migration, refugee and immigrant culture, the challenges in being a celebrity woman of color, and more. Loveridge is careful to make sure it never strays too far away from the music, however, which remains as brash, joyful, and gripping as ever. It’s hard to imagine that her particular hybrid of hip-hop, dancehall, and Indian and Middle Eastern music, made by an unapologetically political brown-skinned woman, has crossed over into mainstream culture around the world, giving voice and inspiration to refugees and revolutionaries everywhere. Through that lens, it’s little wonder that major media figures tried to drag her down. — Robert Ker