Matangi, Maya, M.I.A.

‘Matangi, Maya, M.I.A.’ is a film about the discontinuities and dislocations, and the adaptability and resilience of being a brown migrant transplanted into a new, predominantly white culture. It is a film about the multiplicity of identity that migrants live with – of re-discovering cultural heritage as an anchor, at the same time as finding ways to enter into the surrounds in which you now find yourself. And of course, it is a film about all these things told through the story of the immensely popular, hip hop artist/musician/performer, MIA. Some impressions:

– The film is constructed around footage that MIA has filmed herself*, dating back to when she is fairly young (10-12?) and newly arrived in London from Sri Lanka with her mum and two younger siblings. Much of this footage is incredibly candid, the reunion with her dad – visiting from Sri Lanka in a rare break from his commitment to the Tamil resistance – feels entirely uncomfortable. He doesn’t come across as particularly socially-capable or affectionate, while MIA is nothing but direct in calling him out for his estrangement from the family.  

* MIA had given this footage to a friend of hers, who she had known from her film school days in the mid/ late 90’s. This friend, Steve Loveridge, is the director and producer of this film. 

– Despite a small amount of jumping back and forth, the movie follows a chronological structure from her family’s arrival in London through various key events in MIA’s life and onto her path to becoming a successful artist.  A lot of the footage depicts her immediate love of western pop music and dancing. Whether alone in her room, with her mum and siblings, with a friend or at a larger gathering of the Sri Lankan diaspora, MIA is regularly seen dancing. We could draw a line from this towards her future as a performer, but I think it simply holds resonance viewed within the narrative arc of being a migrant kid trying to find their place within a new culture.

– The film turns on MIA’s re-discovery of her Sri Lankan roots – her return to Sri Lanka for a couple of months in her early 20’s is clearly a turning point in her life. At this point, she is not famous – she has not even changed course from amateur film-maker to musician – but meeting her extended family greatly influences how she ultimately uses her artistic talent and the platform that provides. Her family in Sri Lanka have lived through the long-term surveillance and violence perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil people, and as MIA educates herself about this situation you can clearly see her becoming more affected and emotionally invested in their struggle. From here she comes to unflinchingly speak out against the atrocities being committed by the Sri Lankan state, despite the blowback she receives.

– While advocating for the Tamil resistance is the most direct expression of politics that MIA articulates, the film itself is framed by the politics of race and migration – of being a brown migrant trying to adapt to white society in the face of all the consequent racism and marginalisation. At times, MIA specifically refers to these struggles. For her, connecting with her heritage and bringing it into the present as part of her lived experience and her music, so that it is more than just some historical- cultural artefact, is one way to deal with the dislocations of the migrant experience. It is inspiring to see this occur.

However, it shouldn’t be assumed that connecting with cultural heritage is always the answer (or even possible or preferable) for migrants dealing with racism and marginalisation. The historically complex and inconsistent fallout of colonisation along with the cultural discontinuity involved in adapting to a new place as an outsider has a multiplicity of potential outcomes. I get frustrated when I’m asked about or told (often by other POC) to ‘connect with my culture’ as some cure-all. As if ‘my culture’ is a tangible object frozen in historical time and existing in some other geographical location.

– The film depicts MIA constantly having to struggle to step in from the periphery. Firstly, as a child arriving in south London, then as an artsy, creative type going to film school and all the way to moving to Hollywood after she has become a massively successful. While MIA’s story obviously won’t mirror that of too many non-white migrants, this aspect of having to struggle against being peripheral is entirely common to the condition of being a migrant trying to make space in a colonial, racist society. Any degree of ‘tolerance’ or ‘welcome’ is always conditional, and always set on the terms of white people, attendant with a very real sense that at any moment you might be outcast again, no matter how ‘established’ or ‘proven’ you may be.

– A notable moment in the film occurs when, as a fairly confident, creative young adult, MIA becomes close to Justine Freichmann, the singer of indie group Elastica. She ends up going on tour (as a film-maker) but comes to feels a profound disconnect between her experience as a brown migrant who grew up in public housing, with the white, middle-class indie-rock milieu. There is footage of her talking to camera and grappling with this sense of being marginal, a token almost.

This scene is particularly affecting as it may be the first time that MIA properly understands the basis of this marginalisation in a way where she can define it for herself. This moment is depicted as the catalyst for her deciding to spend some time back in Sri Lanka. (And this shouldn’t be understood as MIA being naïve – from my experience, I felt this racialised alienation for a long time, even in moments where it might look like I was superficially fitting in, before being able to articulate it for myself, maybe sometime in my late-20’s. This is why we write and share stories/experiences, right?)

– I was disappointed when MIA did the typically celebrity thing and shifted her life to Hollywood. However, moving to Hollywood could not prevent her from being treated as marginal – especially when trying to raise issues pertaining to Sri Lanka. The difficulties, the very existence, of a third-world country in Asia were considered a trivial matter that was easy fodder for a joke or a reason to jump to too-simplistic conclusions. While the clips of her TV interview with Bill Maher will provoke the most rage, the NY Times profile of her is more revealing. Written by a white woman, its delivery carries all the arrogant condescension of liberal white people who believe they can grasp the complexities and contradictions of the brown, migrant experience while completely failing to do so and ultimately being entirely dismissive and patronising.  

– While I could relate to a degree of MIA’s experience as a brown migrant, my experiences and position as a guy means I’m not able to untangle or offer specific insights into the complexity of her position as a brown migrant woman. There are aspects I cannot pick up on when incorporating gender as an intertwined factor.  That said, the belittling, dismissiveness of the celebrity media that I have already referred to, was noticeable as existing at a point where race and gender intersect.

There’s also the moment where Madonna asks Nicky Minaj and MIA to perform on a new track. MIA – a long-time Madonna fan – accepts. While she does do a verse on the song, it was frustrating to see that in the film clip, both her and Minaj accepted being reduced to the role of exoticised back-up dancers – a role that typically exists for brown/ black bodies in Madonna film clips. This collaboration with Madonna leads MIA to a Super Bowl performance that ends in controversy and high farce (I’ll leave you to watch this film or research that for yourself). In the aftermath, there’s another of those speaking to the camera moments, where MIA questions her idea of Madonna as a strong, feminist icon, having now seen her too-readily acquiesce to men in suits.

– Films about famous people usually leave me feeling less interested in that person. ‘Matangi, Maya, M.I.A.’ reverses that for me, leaving me with an unexpected feeling of empathy and appreciation for MIA. Her flaws, and the cringe-inducing moments, don’t come across as that of a naïve/ narcissistic celebrity, but as a complex person grappling with the entirely relatable, lifelong situation of being brown and a migrant in a white world. Of course, the cynical part of me also says that’s exactly why films like this are made.

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