In 2005, when the infectious tunes of M.I.A’s breakout hit “Galang” from her debut dance album Arular made their way to America, it seemed like a natural progression for any artist from London to make. “M.I.A is making a concerted effort to crack America,” the Guardian declared. At the time, the blossoming Sri Lankan–British hip-hop artist, whose homemade album showed promise by marrying dancehall music with native (Tamil) beats, needed America, the quintessential pop-culture mecca, to launch her career that would eventually result in global fame. The Village Voice singled out the album for its “nursery rhyme tunefulness [that] breathed female principle.” But what’s even more intriguing about the review is that the writer, Robert Christgau, provided a lowdown on the Sri Lankan civil war between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese, to put some context into why there were lyrics like “I got the bombs to make you blow” in the song.
M.I.A’s backstory — a radical Sri Lankan refugee artist with zero qualms singing about bombs — made her immediately noteworthy. Her political baggage arrived in America right alongside her music. Soon as it did, her troubles began. The video for “Sunshowers,” a single off Arular, was banned by MTV owing to its provocative lyrics ("You wanna go? You wanna winna war? Like PLO, I don’t surrendo,” PLO being the Palestine Liberation Organization) and her refusal to remove them from the video. Not long after, in 2006, she was refused a US work visa. In a way, her relationship with America soured before it even started.
Naturally, things grew increasingly fraught: her unfettered outspokenness and politicized lyrics alluding to the civil war in Sri Lanka, an island most Americans are unfamiliar with (much less in 2005), were always in direct conflict with the commercial goals of the music industry. Besides, in the eyes of the industry, M.I.A’s politics were simply unmarketable. They provided no impetus to the success of her albums, a crucial benchmark in the industry; they sold on the power of their inventive rhythms and catchy beats, much more than for their lyrics.
But M.I.A, whose full name is Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, wanted to be more than just a chart-topping artist, and she wanted nothing to interfere with her advocacy. She repeatedly steered interviews toward politics in her early career, keen to outplay her standing as a mere entertainer to make a case about the war crimes against civilians in Sri Lanka. She beseeched Oprah on her MySpace blog, after meeting her at the 2009 Time 100 party, to speak about the refugee camps in Sri Lanka for war-displaced Tamils. In all caps, it said: “OPRAH CAN YOU DO SOMETHING BOUT THESE CAMPS PLEEEEEEEEEEASE?”
If none of these actions were provocative enough, her decision to further amplify her activism with the video for “Born Free” in 2010 proved to be a pivotal moment. Its fake execution of ginger-haired children, modeled after the real executions of Tamil children in Sri Lanka (the horrific videos of which, she claimed, were freely circulating on the Internet), alluded to ethnic cleansing. Blowback to the video, directed by Romain Gavras, was swift, forcing YouTube to ban it briefly. Again, her message was lost in the din, and the shocking video only brought her more infamy.
It’s little surprise, then, that a documentary that provides critical insight into her life is all but needed to unpack her complicated relationship with the world, mainly America. Directed by her longtime friend Steve Loveridge and sifted from taped vignettes (700 hours’ worth) often captured by M.I.A herself, it holds a mirror up to her rocky childhood, shaped by an absent militant father and a family upended by civil war. MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A is a character study that goes into all the previously unscrutinized nooks and crannies of her life. She still seems to have a pressing need to tell the world her side of the story. “You want to see my story? I’m gonna show you my fucking story,” she declared with rightful contempt, looking into the camera at the opening of the documentary.