“Why do you have to be such a problematic pop star?,” jokes a male voice that we can only hear as MIA, born Maya Arugulgasm, is centered.
She laughs, and in a nutshell, exclaims that she would be a drug addict if she didn’t speak out and express herself. Immediately, I thought of the last documentary I saw on a female pop star, “Whitney”. Since watching Whitney, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a gifted Black woman from an oppressed and distressed area. A flower picked from its field and presented in a way that lacks full context and grounding. Tupac asked what of the rose that grew from concrete but how many asks what of the picked flowers? The flower ripped from its roots so its pretty petals can appease others. It is given just enough water and light to sustain itself and then it just dies and dries out, just to be replaced.
Matangi/Maya/MIA follows the Sri Lankan-born pop star from childhood to the present. Unlike the Whitney documentary, we are hearing and seeing Maya’s story from Maya, in her own words, with mostly her own footage. As an aspiring filmmaker, she spent her early adulthood recording family and friends. We see her journey through and struggle with her life as an immigrant/refugee in a London ghetto, an artist, a pop music fan and a brown girl. We see in her over 40 years of life trying to answer questions for herself and her position in this world. It is almost a coming of age film that anyone can relate to but certainly women of colour artists. And here lies the beauty of MIA and what she’s brought to the world. Someone with such a unique story and place in history has been a relatable voice for so many.
I first became a fan of MIA after seeing her perform ‘Galang Galang’ on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I didn’t know what it was, I had never seen or heard anything like it, but I liked it. It was weird, it was fresh, and it was oddly familiar. MIA kind of became the soundtrack of my friend’s and I’s high school and college careers. As a Baltimorean, ‘Kala’ brought us back home and around the world with her collaborations with Baltimore producer Blaqstarr. She represented the “global south”, the world’s oppressed peoples. She brought us together and made us feel less isolated in her own isolation. She brought us together with global indigenous rhythms, dance and the sound of the youth, Hip-Hop. What seemed to be expected as a result of her success is what is expected of most “picked flowers”. To be pretty, and silent and only face the light.
Instead, she used her platform to shine a light on the Sri Lankan civil war, immigration, internet surveillance and censorship. As a result, she’s virtually been blacklisted. She’s been labelled a terrorist, sued by the NFL, and had her US visas blocked amongst other things. By every public account, she was told she ruined her career and life by being “too political.” She came on the scene during the downward swing of “performative wokeness” and as pop stars are expected to be more political, she still gets attacked for her “unpopular opinions”. But when juxtaposed to Whitney Houston, who seemed to allow other people’s opinions and expectations to further drown her, it appears to me Maya made the best decision. She has continued to be outspoken even if it doesn’t always work in her favour as a “pop star”. Instead of drying and dying, she decided to get and stay rooted.
Her documentary is a testament to the need for women to continually speak for themselves and tell their truth.
As Audre Lorde said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself I would drown in people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.”
Matangi/Maya/MIA premiered in the United States on September 29 for a limited release. Check out the website for local listings.