Even if you’re not a fan of hip-hop, you’ve likely heard some of British–Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A.’s music. Her “O Saya” was featured in Slumdog Millionaire, which earned her an Oscar nomination. Her 2007 song “Paper Planes,” deemed by many critics one of the best songs of the 2000s, was one of the biggest hits of that decade, and has transcended the genre to become an anthem for the dispossessed younger generations; its lyrics have recently gone meme-ified.
But you don’t need to be a fan of hip-hop, as I’m not, to be blown away by Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., the tremendous documentary about Maya Arulpragasam, her work, and the controversies that swirl around her. A challenge to celebrity culture and a musician who can’t not be political about her music, she is a rare breath of fresh anger and passion and don’t-give-a-fuck what she’s “supposed” to be or do as an artist and as a woman. She’s always been like this, as we see in abundant footage shot by the artist herself across her complicated life (she originally thought to be a documentary filmmaker). Her diary-like observations paint a compelling portrait of the several cultural crossroads she exists at: between poverty and wealth, East and West, war and (relative) peace… between music as entertainment and music as rage against an ugly status quo.
The film’s title alludes to how her identity has morphed with her circumstances. Given the name Matangi (goddess of music!) at birth, she changed it Maya when, in the 1980s as a child, her family escaped the Sri Lankan civil war to become refugees in London, and finally took the nom de rap M.I.A. in the early 2000s. Her story would be fascinating even if she weren’t famous: from learning to embrace a Western personality as a teenager through music, to learning how to reconcile life in a war zone in Sri Lanka with the fact that her own father was a founder of the ethnic Tamil resistance movement there. But we also see — again, thanks to her propensity to document her own life — how she has consciously used all of her experiences to fuel her electrifying music, gathering rhythms and relevance from around the world in story songs and music videos that engage with their unique sounds but also enrage some people with their pointed political content. (She’s been called “terrorist” merely for making allegorical art that attempts to clue in the privileged clueless about the outrage of bigotry-fueled injustice.)
The fact that M.I.A. was one of the first pop musicians to take full advantage of the Internet to build her fame online in the early 2000s is barely mentioned here. That’s a big deal, but her importance is so far beyond that. And yet this is not a documentary that even pretends to any objectivity, or even to any overt assessment of the significance of her work: Arulpragasam’s own footage is intensely intimate and profoundly personal; she is friends with director Stephen Loveridge, making his feature debut here, whom she met at art school in London in the 1990s. They are, together, offering a backgrounder on her from her own perspective — here is where all her anger and passion springs from! — and a cry for her to be heard and taken seriously, both of which often fail to happen, as we witness. Arulpragasam is infuriated here when she’s both punished — as in the press, or on a talk show — for not being “nice” enough, not being girly enough, but also dismissed for being a silly celeb. (Of course, if her music was fluff about nothing at all, she’d also be dismissed!) You don’t need to know anything about hip-hop and don’t need to be a fan of M.I.A.’s to find yourself angry on her behalf and gratified to see that she doesn’t seem inclined to let the uphill battle stop her.