Sound Off

Steve Loveridge, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., 2018, video, color, sound, 96 minutes.

“GLOBALIZATION TAKES PLACE ONLY IN CAPITAL AND DATA,” wrote Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her 2012 book An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. “Everything else is damage control.” Networks of information exchange have garbled political messaging; if political art could ever accurately reflect ideology, that mirror is now increasingly clouded. The challenge, argues Spivak, is to relearn how to learn, and an aesthetic education is the only way to deliver global justice.

Enter Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, the rapper-singer-provocateur better known by her stage name, M.I.A. The logical end product of the IMF and high-speed internet, M.I.A., with her globally sourced aesthetic that combines a DIY ethos and a humanitarian bent, is the real-life embodiment of Spivak’s adage. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., Steve Loveridge’s new documentary, attempts to clear away much of the distortion surrounding Arulpragasam, mostly by putting the camera in the subject’s hands; the movie makes generous use of home footage shot by Arulpragasam herself. Loveridge and Arulpragasam met in the late 1990s at Central Saint Martins, where she was studying to be a documentary filmmaker. Raised during New Labour–era multiculturalism and the campaign for Cool Britannia, Arulpragasam had one of her earliest documentary gigs on tour with her friend Justine Frischmann, frontwoman for the Britpop band Elastica. As we see in the camcorder footage, the job is short-lived: Frischmann claims that Maya needs to be the center of attention. Maya can’t understand why anyone with a platform wouldn’t use it to make a difference.

It’s a reasonable preoccupation for someone who grew up in the midst of a civil war. Born in London in 1975, Arulpragasam was raised in Sri Lanka, where her father trained members of the Tamil resistance movement to fight against the Sinhalese majority. She returned to London in 1986 as a refugee with her mother and two siblings. Much of the documentary centers on footage from a trip she made to Sri Lanka in 2001, to ask her relatives about the civil war. We watch her try to make sense of the police checks, the abuses carried out by soldiers against civilians—among them, her murdered relatives. The project doesn’t pan out the way she expects: She finds that her British upbringing has created a rift, which she struggles to overcome. “You never had the war-zone experience,” a relative tells her, pointedly. Similar accusations would be lobbied against her later on in her career by well-meaning white people.

Steve Loveridge, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., 2018, video, color, sound, 96 minutes.

What she does possess—and this was true even in her earliest days—is a preternatural talent for amalgamating the aesthetic cues and gestures of globalization as a commodity, one as easily digestible as it is addictive. It’s what Nick Huggett and Richard Russell of XL Recordings recognized when she showed up with a demo of “Galang,” a sample-heavy fusion of dancehall and jungle basslines and a relentless downbeat—and why one million copies of her debut 2005 album Arular were downloaded on Napster. For her second record, Kala, two years later, we see her enlisting urumee drummers from Tamil Nadu and dancers plucked from local clubs in Trinidad and Jamaica, shunting across the globalized village to produce a sonic syncretism now both unmistakable and widely imitated.

Her sound couldn’t be from anywhere because it is self-consciously from everywhere, a testament to multiculturalism’s influence on Britain’s art school milieu. And yet she remains committed to her causes back home in Sri Lanka, for which she is branded a terrorist, a phony. As the war in Sri Lanka escalates in 2010, she receives backlash for voicing her outrage over the genocide of Tamils by the Sinhalese and her defense of the Tamil Tigers—which is widely classified as a terrorist organization—on talk shows with Bill Maher and Tavis Smiley. Cue the truffle fry debacle with Lynn Hirschberg, her marriage to a billionaire-heir, and the Superbowl settlement. Watching all of these controversies play out again in this documentary, we can sense the resentment that now looms over her once diehard fan base, though it’s difficult to tell if they have grown weary of her agitprop agenda or her purported selling out. “As a first-generation person,” she tells the camera, “I lived through the war, came as a refugee that is now a popstar. What are the goalposts?”

The film reveals less about the artist-as-activist than the limitations and possibilities of a particular moment and mood. M.I.A.’s meteoric rise to fame came at a time when aesthetics and politics were as closely aligned as they have been in this millennium, when Bush-era protest pop and economic deregulation linked with internet-scavenged aesthetics to chain together the personal and the polemical. In recent memory, she has made statements criticizing Black Lives Matter—“Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter?”—and while some have implored her detractors to better understand her nuance, that particular skill is not necessarily within the artist’s own purview. She has always been a fan of the bold act: the burqa, the middle finger, the redheads being shot in a Romain Gavras–directed short. When the documentary begins, we see her filming the video for “Borders” (the song’s refrain: “What’s up with that?”), in which refugees scale a chain-link fence and cram themselves into boats. If her art school antics now fail to shock as they once did, it’s because she has, for better or worse, remained committed to the same politics. It’s our own collective shift toward “wokeness” that makes her persona seem slightly tired. As the language of progressive politics trickles down to the masses, M.I.A.’s subversiveness wanes; her dogged refusal to tether her messaging to the shifts of the zeitgeist places higher scrutiny on the specifics of her politics. And yet her tendency to produce forward-thinking music while never quite adapting her politics or her messaging makes her the perfect avatar for the transitions from the schlock sentimentality of the Bush years to the stalwart neoliberalism of Obama and now the unequivocal garishness of Trump. Call this an echo of her aesthetic education. For M.I.A., the learning curve has only ever been a suggestion, never the rule.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A opens September 28.