A young woman speaks directly into a camera. Behind her, a peeling poster of Julien Temple’s rockumentary The Filth and the Fury hangs. Though her posture is defensive, there is a Malcolm McLaren twinkle to her eyes. She is already an Alternative Turner Prize-nominated graffiti artist. Soon, she will be a critically acclaimed Grammy- and Oscar-nominated poster child for our hyper-globalised age. She doesn’t know this yet.
Before M.I.A. emerged as the millennium’s refugee enfant terrible, she went by a host of different names. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., Steve Loveridge’s long-awaited documentary, attests to this. The film, along with the slew of reflective commentary in its wake, cements the rapper/graphic designer/videographer/activist as one of the most arresting cultural icons of her generation.
‘Hands up, guns out, represent the World Town.’
– ‘World Town’ (Kala, 2007)
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is a jolt from my days of zealous fandom. I walked into the screening with the jadedness of a wounded soldier. My hesitance stemmed less from a disappointment with M.I.A.’s personal trajectory and more from an unwillingness to revisit the profoundly conflicted teenager I once was. Armed with reams of decade-spanning self-shot footage, Loveridge transported me to both 90’s London and a previous version of myself. This is the Britain of Prince Naseem, Apache Indian and London Posse. The Britain of Massive Attack and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qawwali trip-hop crossovers. It’s also a nation in the throes of Cool Britannia’s nod-to-Mod affectations and the premature optimism of Blairism. To sit between these two worlds is to risk oblivion or worse. To impishly disregard all boundaries is bolder still. The process of becoming M.I.A. began in a cauldron of postcolonial violence and a girlhood scratched out within the confines of South London’s notorious Phipps Bridge housing estate. M.I.A.’s father was a founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). His political commitments forced the family to relocate from Hounslow to Sri Lanka, and later to the relative safety of India. Eventually, following the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983 , the family would leave both the country and him behind, seeking asylum in London.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. poignantly captures these household rhythms. Home videos depicting daily life are interspersed with graphic newsreel footage of civil war. We witness the interplay of domesticity and violence that underpins refugee life. Missing in Acton vs Missing in Action. Yet, the scenes I found the most achingly familiar were often the least bombastic. The precocious banter between M.I.A. and her siblings. The nihilistic humour. The deep reservoirs of imagination one has to accrue, like precious grains of selfhood, to make up for cramped conditions and material deprivation. They lived small but dreamt big. Amid a cacophony of voices and influences, I recognized the youthful inventiveness required to construct a rich inner life with little resources and even less hope of transcending the one you were born into.
To upwardly ascend from child refugee to Central Saint Martins art-school archetype is a kind of science fiction. Bored with both bourgeoisie navel-gazing and hackneyed postcolonial theory, M.I.A. was introduced to the ethical conundrum of the refugee artist long before she hit the headlines. Her cousin was killed the very week she graduated. They had played together as children before their paths diverged. She left for London. He joined the Tamil Tigers. Nothing elicits the gnawing bottomlessness of survivor’s guilt more than the death of someone who could have so easily been you. Caught in the immediacy of her grief, M.I.A. has spoken of the obscenity of preparing for a film-making career catered to the intelligentsia that ‘only 30 people would get to see at the Institute of Contemporary Art’. This is an existential crisis I know only too well. Grappling with what it means to be the one on this side of the waters is a life-long contortion act. I can’t remember a time before it. We are always in conversation with what it means to be the ones who escaped. Aged fifteen, my first pay packet from my weekend job went to my cousins in Mogadishu. I remain consumed by a sense of duty that overwhelms my belief in art’s redemptive capacity, in its ability to affect real change in the lives of those left behind both here and elsewhere. This guilt propelled M.I.A. out of England (the Land of the Spice Girls as she calls it) and towards a homecoming. In true gap-year fashion, she turned to the subcontinent to find her bearings. Intending to film a documentary on the fate of her cousin, she travelled to Sri Lanka in 2001. There, her artistic vision was crystallized amid the stories of relatives who had survived the unimaginable. She had always known what she had wanted to say. Now, she had a better idea of how to say it.
‘I thought I’d die young just to please the old.’
– ‘The Turn’ (Kala, 2007)
Her debut album, 2005’s Arular, was the soundtrack to how I understood the world. It was chaotic, shambolic even. ‘Galang’ announced M.I.A.’s arrival with a pastel-tinged wagwan. I was mesmerised. The wily-limbed movements. The cheap gold jewellery. A backdrop of barbed wire, stone-throwing rebels and majestic tigers. With adman finesse, M.I.A. drew from her inventory of curated images and mythologies. Burying myself in the clandestine world of MP3 downloads, LimeWire and fan forums, I immersed myself in her republic of outsiders. ‘Sunshowers’ recalled the Bollywood sequences I had grown up watching on Middle Eastern terrestrial channels. Her tongue-in-cheek invocation of mangoes and state violence still disturbs as much as it delights. Rupi Kaur meets Jean Charles de Menezes. Only M.I.A. could juxtapose the tropes of bad diaspora poetry against the horrors of interrogation techniques and get away with it. For a while, at least. She wasn’t the best singer or performer. That didn’t matter. With the help of a Roland MC-505 sequencer gifted to her by Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and production credits including Pulp’s Steve Mackey, M.I.A. synthesised Britpop pluckiness with a melange of dancehall, baile funk and hip hop. 2007’s Kala would follow this up with Aboriginal riddims, ragga and the anthemic genius of her hit ‘Paper Planes’.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. tracks the globe-hopping process of creating Kala. We see M.I.A. directing a troupe of established Jamaican dancers in Port Royal. Back in London, she offers to rescue Afrikan Boy from the Somali boys terrorising his block as they improvise their own dance battle in the middle of his poky bedroom. Spike Jonze watches in awe, mesmerised by a scene that quietly and spontaneously captures life’s tender urgency in ways he could only dream of. In these moments, you can see why M.I.A. became such a big deal so quickly. From disputes with record labels to dating against the backdrop of genocide, her lyrics were consistently daring. Her videos, from the chatroom-inspired auntie kitsch of ‘XXXO’ to the sloppy ultraviolence of Born Free, were often light years ahead of her peers.
‘Got brown skin, I’m a West Londoner; educated but a refugee still.’
– ‘Pop’ (Arular, 2005)
Colombo to Cairo. Amman to Agrabah. Same difference. Outside her British context, M.I.A. was absorbed into an amorphous brownness read as foreign and threatening by some and exotically titillating by others. She shrewdly traded on this, as all the best racialized artists do, by playing up this ambiguity. M.I.A. has always been a walking dissertation. Riddims of Resistance: Sub-bass and Subaltern Pressure, in the amusingly apt words of music critic Simon Reynolds. Her brand of musical and cultural syncretism disregards both borders and sampling clearances. To the cynics, she is more Sense8 than Spivak. More Coca-Cola than Molotov cocktail. To her admirers, she is as messy as the world/s she inhabits. This is the M.I.A. that dons niqabs on red carpets. The critically acclaimed ‘Bad Girls’ video is one such example; a Morocco-set potpourri of stereotypes where Khaleeji car-racing culture (tafheet) is curiously celebrated. M.I.A. is a lone South Asian woman in a sepia-drenched landscape surrounded by artifacts of Gulf Arab culture, a region of the world where South Asians are subjected to well-documented discrimination. M.I.A. could never be accused of being coherent. You could never call her boring either.
M.I.A. has always walked the tightrope between militancy and mega-stardom. Billionaire baby daddies to H&M sponsorships, detractors have picked apart her contradictions. Authenticity is an unstable pedestal rooted in meticulously cultivated performance. It is externally adjudicated. No one understands this more than a slippery art school ingénue like M.I.A. Selling out means something entirely different when you come from no money. There are people who depend on you. Regardless of the angst bubbling away in your Adorno-quoting heart, there are loved ones invested in your mainstream success and its accompanying financial rewards. Ideological purity takes the backseat when there are remittances to be sent back home. M.I.A.’s teenage home-videos show her mother (whom Kala is named after) working as a seamstress for the British royal family. A decade and two albums later, her mother sits at the sewing machine laughing, the plushness of Los Angeles life surrounding her. In many ways, nothing has changed. In one irrevocable, life-altering way, everything has. Her daughter is now the kind of superstar that can make a hobby out of what was once undervalued labour. This is what ‘making it’ looks like to so many of us. To provide comfort for parents who have survived war and the daily humiliations of refugee life. To give mama the choice, and truly the choice, whether to work with her hands.
‘Within a year and a half of returning to England, me and my sister were both as black as you can get. My mom was like, “Oh my god, what’s happening?”’
– M.I.A. (2005)
‘Black was the colour of our politics, not the colour of our skins.’
– Ambalavaner Sivanandan (2008)
‘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.’
– M.I.A. (2016)
In one home video, a teenage M.I.A. reads a copy of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Behind her is a collage of posters. Wu Tang Clan concert flyers. Muhammad Ali. Public Enemy. To M.I.A. and generations of non-black children of immigrants, the black radical tradition and its cultural inheritances serve as a source of identity. The black diaspora is a North Star for racialized youngsters seeking self-discovery. What better way to do so than through the transatlantic swagger of masculinist black power politics? Amid Britpop’s exaggerated oikiness, it’s no coincidence that M.I.A. and many like her were energized by black expressive culture. After all, who can resist the slick-talking, fist-raising and leather-clad symbolism of black cool? Of course, black people are often the last to benefit materially from black cool. When black thinkers become dehistoricized avatars, entire liberation movements are reduced to stylistic embellishments. But therein lies the cruel joke; blackness is lubriciously supple in the hands of non-black people. When lived by actual black people, it is painfully restrictive.
Familiarity breeds contempt. M.I.A. discovered this the hard way when her criticism of Black Lives Matter resulted in her being dropped as a headliner from 2016’s Afropunk festival line-up. ‘The Negro is comparison’, Fanon once wrote. In positing contemporary black movements against the supposedly disparate issues of Islamophobia and the Syrian refugee crisis, she proves him right. Her comments were not ‘problematic’. In a world that only understands its own traumas through the yardstick of the pain it inflicts on black people, her comments were simply predictable.
Political blackness, a parochial British absurdity, is the elephant in this room. Ambalavaner Sivanandan, a fellow British Tamil icon, famously declared that black was a political lens, not a colour, even contributing this analysis to Asian Dub Foundation’s 2000 single ‘Colour Line’. Sivanandan survived 1958’s anti-Tamil violence in Ceylon only to find himself embroiled in the Notting Hill riots of that same year. Even as the director of the Institute of Race Relations and the founding editor of its journal Race & Class, Sivanandan raged against the emerging race relations industry of his day. Yet, political blackness is an extension of that very professionalization. The class solidarities that once united communities facing street violence and economic disenfranchisement were bastardized by race professionals into the politics of lobbying and local government, a process abetted by New Left radicals in the name of political blackness. Tariq Modood tracked this phenomenon’s journey from factory floor to think tank, decrying a ‘false essentialism’ that assumes ‘all non-white groups have something in common other than how others treat them’. We may be provisionally fighting the same things but that does not, and should not, mean we are the same. Coalitions rooted in the denial of difference are bound to uncritically reproduce the very hierarchies they aim to dismantle, stifling criticism in the name of unity. Those excluded from hegemonic universalism should be the last to adopt reductive universals of their own. Too often, such gestural solidarities depend on the silencing and disciplining of dissenting black voices. ‘Despite our desperate, eternal attempt to separate, contain, and mend, categories always leak’ Trinh Minh-ha writes in Woman, Native, Other. What happens when leakages only flow one way? Would a British female rapper of Afro-Caribbean descent be allowed to freely borrow from genres as distinct as bhangra and urban desi? Could one ever become Politically Brown, and if not, then why not?
But M.I.A. has never been that naïve. In her documentary, she recounts being terrorised as a Tamil in Sri Lanka and fleeing to England only to be branded a ‘Paki’. To be doubly minoritised by both homeland and Homeland Security is no walk in the park. For those persecuted by virtue of caste, religion, ethnicity or tribal affiliation, the flattening discourses of third culture kids and children of middle-class immigrants cushioned by degrees and effortless nationalisms alienate as much as they infuriate. M.I.A.’s consistent identification with the Tamil cause has made her enemies in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Her personal narrative refutes the received wisdoms of our times. Namely, that history for Brown people starts with 9/11. She rewrites the origin stories of her wounds, locating them in colonial borders and ethno-nationalisms. M.I.A. is the product of a Third Worldism that borrows as much from George Habash as it does from George Jackson. Story time in her household meant listening to her father’s tales of training in Beirut with the Palestine Liberation Organization and hiding explosives under the toys he bought for his children (‘You wanna go? You wanna win a war? Like PLO I don’t surrender’). In today’s political taxonomies, the teen M.I.A. would find a home in the meme-recycling baby Maoist recesses of Twitter.
At a Berkeley lecture attended by incredulous vanguards of the Black Panther Party, Sivanandan once critiqued the Black Power movement’s lack of a ‘Third World perspective’ . M.I.A.’s comments on Black Lives Matter are evidence of this strain of resolutely internationalist, if misguided, politics. Tell M.I.A. to stay in her lane and she will remind you that the road itself has been constructed under the oppressive bitumen-mining conditions of South African multinational corporations. This is what makes her as frustrating as she is vital. She undermines herself when she disregards black radicalism’s inherent internationalism. There is a direct link between the Grenadian-American Malcolm X and Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. These diasporic connections are exemplified in the lives and alliances of politically astute figures such as Claudia Jones and Ella Baker. What is over There is always already Here. In failing to recognise the entanglement of global black freedom struggles or the colonized subjecthood of black people in the First World, she denies black people the specificity she craves for herself.
‘I want to highlight that I’m just the lucky one that got to be here.’
– M.I.A. (2007)
There is a scene in Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s Rude Boy where The Clash’s Mick Jones meets the racist jabs of Ray Gange, the band’s roadie, with threatening disdain. We know Gange is playing a character, and ipso facto, so is Mick Jones. Blurring the lines between fiction, documentary and concert movie, Rude Boy is what Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. would be in the hands of a director concerned with retroactively absolving M.I.A. of her worst impulses. Loveridge, an old friend of M.I.A., avoids hagiography and contextualises the blanks, but still leaves us room to fill them in. The result is a moving, complicated portrayal of an individual equally burdened and invigorated by collectivism.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is a portrait of a survivor. A bona fide hustler. The M.I.A. that dazzled me. The M.I.A. that tapped into the alienation I wore like a scarlet letter. The M.I.A. who grew up with a similar slideshow of night terrors. From secretly taping Lynn Hirschberg during the Infamous Truffle Fries Incident to sending a private detective to steal her footage back from Loveridge when she suspected that he had sold her out, I shared her justified paranoias. To a generation haunted by debt and seemingly immortal warmongers, Fuck The New York Times is not just a T-shirt slogan. It’s a lifestyle. So much of what divides us from those we have left behind is dumb luck. M.I.A. has survived civil war, art school, misrepresentation, the Bush years, hatchet jobs, censorship, irrelevance, a louch into anachronism in the eyes of a generation that demands piously intersectional sound bites from its stars, the NFL, jealous lovers and the heartache of intending more than she could ever deliver. We are lucky that she has. We are lucky to have her.
Image © Rasmin