I’m not a moral philosopher, but I think about Chidi Anagonye’s central question on The Good Place a lot: What do we owe to each other? As individuals, as members of a society, of consumers of culture, what are our responsibilities to other people? What graces do we allow them? How many chances? How much patience? What makes us lose interest, turn our backs, give up?
And I’m seriously realizing, after watching the documentary MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. and thinking about my own relationship with M.I.A., which I wrote about previously while considering the legacy of her song “Paper Planes,” that what caused our abandonment of her really was those damn truffle fries. One faux-bougey appetizer that Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam didn’t even order while at an interview with New York Times reporter Lynn Hirschberg honestly changed the entire media narrative surrounding the globally minded pop star. And that’s a goddamn shame.
Is singling out the fries as the first moment we began to turn our back on M.I.A. a reductive way to consider her meteoric rise and Icarus-like tumble a decade or so ago? Maybe, but I think that Hirschberg anecdote, and how quickly people seized on it as a way to question M.I.A.’s authenticity, is emblematic of so much: of the reluctance of parts of Western media to engage with M.I.A. on her own terms, of the confined boxes within which we trap our pop stars and celebrities, of our collective inability to accept that someone who started out poor and who literally made themselves out of nothing may be interested in delighting in the good life once they get to the top. No, M.I.A. didn’t order the fries. But we sure as hell got mad that she ate them at all.
The documentary MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. is pieced together from 22 years of personal video footage, some of it shot by M.I.A., some by her family, and a lot of it by her art-school classmate and close friend Steve Loveridge, who directs this film. It tells the story of a young girl brought from Sri Lanka to England as a refugee, desperate to yell loudly about what her family and her country were going through, enamored with the opportunities popularity opened up for her voice, and increasingly stifled by the expectations placed upon her by that very fame—and infamy.
This is a classic rags to riches story, I suppose, but you’ll pick up more on the rhythms of the film if you already know some of the personal-life stuff about M.I.A., like her complicated perspectives on her father, one of the creators of the Tamil resistance movement and the Tamil Tigers, who stayed in Sri Lanka while Maya, her mother, and her siblings traveled to London; her relationship with DJ Diplo, who helped create the mash-up mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, which introduced M.I.A. to a U.S. audience; the massive popularity of “Paper Planes,” which caught the eye of mainstream rappers like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne and led to a very pregnant performance at the Grammys on M.I.A.’s due date; her engagement to Seagrams heir Benjamin Bronfman after the break-up with Diplo, who then went on to badmouth her in various interviews; and her one-time mentorship of Baltimore rapper Rye Rye, who blew up with “Shake It to the Ground” and whose career was then put on hold by personal tragedy. If you know some of those broad strokes, how the documentary passes through time—from M.I.A.’s childhood to the filming of her music video for the 2015 single “Borders”—becomes clearer, because the movie mostly doesn’t address those personal things.
Instead, MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. lives up to its title and is mostly singular in its focus on M.I.A. as an artist, musician, and public figure, following her from skinny arts student to brightly dressed festival performer to single mother, from someone sharing a bedroom to lounging around her one-time fiancé’s gigantic mansion to sitting around plastic bins full of stuff in a smaller place in London after their break-up. She has a pattern of speaking passionately and never apologetically. M.I.A. doesn’t measure her words, and so sometimes what she says ends up being more than a little pretentious (“If I shut up and get a hit, I would have to become a drug addict and overdose … because that’s what happens when you don’t express the shit that you need to express,” she says of people urging her to make straightforward pop music) and other times achingly honest (“I kind of feel like I’ve opened a can of worms. I’m not sure how it’s going to manifest inside my head,” she says of her increased political activism).
I respect that, and yet every so often I was caught between cheering and cringing, especially when M.I.A.’s wariness about a certain situation ends up being warranted. She thinks maybe she shouldn’t do the New York Times interview, that her words will be twisted, but she goes through with it because of the potential for such a gigantic platform to talk about the war going on in Sri Lanka and the murder of Tamil civilians. In return, the New York Times labeled her “agitprop pop” and mocked her with that truffle fries detail. She goes on TV to be interviewed by men like Tavis Smiley and Bill Maher, and they belittle her and undermine her; the appearance on Maher in particular, in which he smirkingly comments on her accent instead of addressing anything she’s actually saying (“Tell the listeners why if you’re from this island nation, you sound like Mick Jagger”), made my blood boil. And when M.I.A. accepts the offer to perform at the Super Bowl with Madonna and then offends the worst parts of America when she flips off the camera during the song—yeah, you can sure as hell bet that conservatives and racists had a field day with that, and don’t forget that the NFL sued her for $16.6 million. “Not even an American,” one Fox News commentator sneers the morning after the Halftime Show; “Why can’t we have some America in our football?” another asks.
There’s a cycle to MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., and it veers between the work M.I.A. puts into her projects—pounding out beats, jotting down lyrics, pumping up crowds, filming music videos that provide glimpses into worlds totally different from those of most Western listeners—and the varying reactions from outside observers, from cheering fans to skeptical talking heads.
And after a few years of traveling all around the world, inviting musicians and people from places like Trinidad, Jamaica, Brooklyn, Liberia, and Sri Lanka to contribute to her sound, after shocking popular success, all of the worst reactions that M.I.A. could have expected for her actions occur over and over again. MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. doesn’t shy away from either the criticism or M.I.A.’s own thoughts on the backlash, suggesting throughout that yes, possibly M.I.A. invited this by pursuing fame, by becoming an artist and musician and activist, by accepting a role in the public eye. But where is the limit? Her management team urges her to have some faith in people, but the reality is that we’re quick to label successes as sell-outs, and we’re especially cruel to women, and women of color, and women of color who are also immigrants, and M.I.A. learned this all rapidly and harshly. The questions M.I.A. poses about fame and authenticity are ones we may not have answers for: “What experience are we allowed to share from these places that makes you comfortable?” she wonders of being an immigrant trying to tell her story. “If you come from the struggle, how the fuck do you talk about the struggle without talking about the struggle?”
I don’t know if pop culture as a capitalist product or we as consumers of that product have mechanisms for how to address any of this, but I do understand after watching MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. how that experience made M.I.A. harder, more resolute. That doesn’t explain away her comments about Black Lives Matter (“It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter. It’s not a new thing to me — it’s what Lauryn Hill was saying in the 1990s, or Public Enemy in the 1980s. Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question”), but the documentary provides more context about how she got to that place, complicated and problematic as it may be.
“Hi, I’m the starving child from a mud hut that made it, and I’m always going to stay that way, just for you,” M.I.A. sarcastically says when Hirschberg’s piece is published, and her fury is sympathetic and, I think, justified. What do we owe to M.I.A., to the artist who says “I loved America … Since then, they’ve been chiseling away at me, bit by bit”? MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. makes a case for us to re-evaluate who we thought M.I.A. was then in light of who we are now, with our knowledge of the soulless billionaire class ruling the NFL and the Syrian refugee crisis that continues to result in the deaths of thousands and the increasingly drastic gap between the world’s rich and poor. M.I.A. was trying to tell us about all of it, and we refused to listen.
MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. is playing in limited release around the U.S.