Music is more than just a combination of sounds for M.I.A. — the English rapper with Sri Lankan roots who’s famously known for her hits “Paper Planes” and “Bad Girls,” not to mention the time she gave the finger while performing with Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl.
For M.I.A — born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam — music is medicinal in its power to share information and call out injustices on a global level.
People still listen to “Paper Planes” and dance to its now iconic gun shot and cash register sound effects. Yet after dissecting the song, it’s more than just a pop hit — it explains the stereotype that immigrants face with the false belief that they come to take jobs and money. Integrating a political message into her music is M.I.A.’s forte.
So why, after having reached global recognition at one point in her career — “Paper Planes” holds the #1 spot on NPR’s “The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+” list — do we not hear more about M.I.A.?
The media has chosen to ignore her because she has a political message to share that does not align with the glamour of Hollywood. If you didn’t know, M.I.A. is not one to be silenced. She reveals her life story as a refugee and the atrocities of the Sri Lankan civil war in her new documentary “MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.”
Director Stephen Loveridge stitched together at-home video footage that followed Maya’s path as she navigated the streets of Sri Lanka and began her transformation into M.I.A. The documentary examines identity while shining a light on the bloodshed of the civil war.
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Her father was the founder of the Tamil Resistance, a Sri Lankan political movement, so the violence of war and the fight to end it were concepts with which she was all too familiar. She arrived in London as a refugee in order to escape the genocide of Sri Lanka’s minority group.
The documentary portrays how her music was created — and even features an appearance by producer Diplo — and how the music was spread across the world. The audience sees her gradual increase in venue size, starting as an underground performer, working her way up to music festivals Coachella and Lollapalooza.
But ending up on larger stages could not save her from the backlash she would face while doing interviews.
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She was constantly interrupted during an interview with Bill Maher, where she tried to explain the total control of the Sri Lankan government and the genocide of the minority people.
“We don’t wanna talk about death,” M.I.A said in the documentary’s trailer. “Talk about Beverly Hills.”
The documentary showcased how her support for the minority group resulted in a terrorist label being plastered across her name. But that didn’t stop M.I.A. from using her platform as a way to spread information about the resistance and the fight for life.
Though her political messages were not accepted by mainstream media outlets, she’s taken things into her own hands with the release of this documentary. This eye-opening film shows how music can help spread a message, but that message will only be heard if you continue to fight for what you believe in.
“The worst thing they can do to you is make you irrelevant,” M.I.A. said. “You’ve got access to a microphone, please use it to say something.”
The release of this film has put her on the map again, and it’s received recognition at Sundance, New Director/New Films and the Berlin International Film Festival. Though the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009, the 26-year war is not something that should be covered up and forgotten, and M.I.A.’s time as a political activist is surely far from over.