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Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. - A Piece In The Puzzle of M.I.A.

Words by Edoardo Liotta

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.

The first encounter I ever had with M.I.A. was during my time in high school. I made an art piece inspired by one of her songs, and I got her attention with it. The inspiration came when I discovered her discography. I was obsessed with her genre defying tracks, hypnotic beats, smart rhymes and catchy hooks. It blew my mind. The beats were Tamil or Jamaican, her accent was British and her lyrics referenced everything from the hip-hop scene in America to sweatshops in India. In a rap scene in which artists are often taken up trying to ‘represent’ where they come from, M.I.A.’s geography-transcending music was extremely refreshing. She was not trying to represent one neighbourhood or city, she was rather allowing all the mirrors that created her reflect light onto her work. And I identified with it. As an Italian that was born in the US and grew up in Singapore, it felt weirdly normal to listen to someone be so confidently confused.

Left: Writer Edoardo Liotta with Maya.

The documentary of her life, Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A. by Steven Loveridge brings crucial moments of Maya’s life as a kid, teenager and adult to the silver screen. For me, the film was a reminder of why I was so inspired by her the first time I listened to her, and it allowed me to understand the personal context behind the work that got my attention in the first place. To those who are not familiar with Maya, I recommend the documentary even more. It will show you the political context she was raised in, as the daughter of the founder of the Tamil resistance movement. It will show you how a little refugee girl turned into a hipster art student in London, and then into a global pop star. It will show you what M.I.A. stands for today, and how her mark on the creative industry will be felt tomorrow.

On top of the cultural concoction that comprises M.I.A.’s work, the documentary takes a dive into the politics in her music that was galvanising to many, to say the least. Her message about the international Tamil identity and Sri Lankan civil war were carefully but loudly crafted into her music, videos, artworks and persona. Thanks to her, millions of people, including myself, learned about the extent to which a Tamil genocide was happening in Sri Lanka. When I was a student studying politics in university, I wrote a lot about this, with the help of Maya herself as well. For Tamils around the world, she helped bring unity and a voice to the community. One could argue that Maya brought a bigger platform to the issue than the UN itself, who failed to act on multiple counts. Conversely, the documentary makes the case that her politics brought her waves of backlash from powerful forces of journalists to politicians alike trying to discredit her as a hoax.

M.I.A. - Sunshowers

On this note, I would like to add that a lot of M.I.A.’s inspiration is not derived from Sri Lanka’s political landscape, but rather elements drawn from the rich Tamil history she comes from. With many of her controversial pieces, such as Born Free, being at the forefront of her career, it can easily seem like Maya has only referenced Sri Lanka with regards to the civil war.  However, her fourth album, Matangi, was about exploring the ancient spiritual and cultural roots of her motherland. Particularly, Maya says that “Matangi was more than the current fate of Tamils. It’s about how the world has reduced these ancient people to mere modern day slaves. But that’s not who we are. Tamil is the oldest language in the world that’s survived”.

The way Maya draws from her life and politics as inspiration for her work results in an interplay of mix-match aesthetics and sounds. Similarly, the way Loveridge tries to bridge these complex layers of her life together in 95 minutes makes for a similar outcome. To say it has been done smoothly would be a lie, and that’s the same for Maya’s work. But that is because her story can’t be told smoothly, whether it is through a documentary or through music. It’s her loud presence seeping out of these works that make them so hard to unpack, in the most addicting way possible. It keeps you thinking and coming back for more, and Loveridge’s documentary is no different.

The infamous Superbowl 2012 performance

A highlight is when the documentary takes you through one of the most controversial moments in Maya’s career: when she flipped the finger at the Super bowl while on stage with Madonna. In these intimate moments behind the scenes, you truly discover the strength of Maya as a person, artist and woman. Maya reveals how Madonna was a woman she looked up to growing up, and that she saw her as a ground-breaking and liberating symbol. However, what she saw when rehearsing for the Super Bowl did not reflect this at all. Madonna was objectified, told to dance a certain way and even told to change the way she dressed to please a certain group of men in charge. The only woman rehearsing that had a problem with this misogyny was Maya herself, and realizing that, she was the only one willing to do something about it.

What power dynamics are you enforcing by standing by these people with your talent? Certain forces might make you a star, but how much are you legitimizing them in return? In the era of strong independent women like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, maybe it is someone like M.I.A. that reminds us what it truly means to fight for what is right. Because if you are strong and free, you don’t need the world to acknowledge that of you.

Still from Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.

Strength and independence is knowing what you stand for, to the point that it doesn’t matter if you can’t serve it to the world on a shiny platter. It has nothing to do with album sales or whether the Super Bowl wants you on their stage. A purpose or message is not materially quantifiable. My respect goes to Maya for never having to compromise her image or message for anyone. When interviewers wanted to know about what she was wearing, she would diverge the topic to the fact that innocent civilians were being killed in Sri Lanka. And when the media finally got around to giving artists space to talking about certain struggles, Maya saw the double standards and pushed that barrier further. Why was the media applauding artists for talking about certain struggles when she was being shoved and ignored for bringing up Muslim, Syrian or refugee rights? Maya rejected the institutions that could grow her platform more times than she accepted them. She found her own lane to share her story.

Towards the end of the documentary Maya talks about how amazing it is that people only have one lifetime to figure out so many things about themselves. She was a first-generation refugee that lived through war and became a pop star. She made it all fit together. Madonna, the Super Bowl or the Grammies are minor details in the complex journey she is on. It’s the process of finding her story in a world that wants it silenced that is inspiring. Piecing together the elements that made her who she was. 95 minutes may not be enough time to solve ‘Who is M.I.A.’, but it lays out the pieces that allowed Matangi to become Maya, and that made Maya into M.I.A. This is the journey you will get a glimpse of, and the same one she is still on.  


Edoardo Liotta is a freelance writer currently residing in Singapore. He has Italian roots but spent most of his life in Singapore. He mostly covers the topics of art, culture, lifestyle, and politics.


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