Ways of Seeing: How M.I.A Dismantles the Establishment

At the end of last year, I was lucky enough to catch the last screening of Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A at the GFT, and it made a big impression. The film is a documentary following the life and career of rap singer Mathangi Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A. The biopic traces her family history as well as her artistic and political activism. As an advocate for peace in Sri Lanka, her uncompromising and antagonistic spirit flew in the face of a US media smear campaign, which has seemingly made it their mission to discredit and undermine her at every turn. The film, directed and produced by Steven Loveridge, Mathangi’s friend from her early years as an art student at Central Saint Martins, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. In seeking to give insight into the life of a ‘controversial’ star, the film revealed the insidious and deeply embedded prejudices in Western culture.

The documentary tells us that Mathangi herself had aspired to become a documentary filmmaker as a young woman. It draws heavily on footage she filmed in the 1990’s as she wrestled to understand herself in her dualities and her need to find a way to express something authentic of her self, particularly her experience as an immigrant woman in London. Her way to embrace a hostile environment was through Western music, through the hip hop and urban dance music she heard and grew up around on London’s estates and in the fabric of immigrant communities. As the daughter of the founder of the Tamil Resistance movement, Mathangi was a target by the Sri Lankan government, and she was forced to flee with her family from war-torn Sri Lanka in 1985 aged ten.

Her estrangement from her father, whom she had not seen since her mother and siblings fled to the UK, and for whom she named her debut album Arular, is a focal point in her search to understand the situation in Sri Lanka, particularly the role her father played in the war. As a young woman, her father flies into London after sixteen years apart. He poignantly reiterates the conditions in Sri Lanka, in footage Mathangi herself recorded of his visit. He says that “Sri Lanka is a human rights problem, everything is inhumane,” telling the camera that what the Tamil ethnic minority had been seeking was independence, “self-esteem” and “self-identity.” This powerfully articulates what M.I.A, as a singer and songwriter, activist and creator, will strive for against a system which wishes to subdue her, fighting and resisting to this day the structural racism and xenophobia of Western cultural dominance.   

M.I.A, the pop star, does not emerge until after she visits Sri Lanka as a twenty-four year old woman, a journey which shows how the artist was searching for a way to express something, this thing she couldn’t find words for yet. Having struck up a friendship with Justine Frischmann, lead singer of Elastica, and having gone on tour with the band, Mathangi had become frustrated with Justine: “you’ve got access to a microphone and thousands of people every night, please use it to say something.” The superficial and “pretentious bullshit,” which she felt was embodied in British popular youth culture, meant that people were talking a lot and seemingly saying nothing about anything that mattered. Her trip to Sri Lanka was also a symbolic search for meaning and self-understanding. Sri Lanka, and the realities she experiences there, reiterate the brutality and arbitrariness of fate; she realises the violence and suffering that these people have been forced to live with could have also been her life. In seeing how her consciousness of the political situation in Sri Lanka materialises through her experience and connection to where she comes from, the audience can see how it has shaped her music and videos. Criticism from the press shows that, as her recognition grows, so too does the backlash of serving as a threat to the establishment. Her persona surges with urgency and energy; her songs “Paper Planes”, “Bamboo Banga” and “Galang” are interwoven into the documentary reminding us of the power of music and dance to unite people and start conversations. Blasting from the speakers, her music demands that people acknowledge her, all of her, that they listen to what she has to say.   

Having followed Mathangi in her return to Colombo, seeing her grandmother and family for the first time in years, the audience understands why she cannot remain silent or depoliticise her art and music. Through heritage, birth and personal history, her Sri Lankan roots are part of her. The struggle and the injustice that the Tamil people have faced is integral to her and who she is, where she has come from and where she is going. She relates that the Tamil people are facing genocide. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Sri Lankan government and military are engaging in ethnic cleansing of the Tamils in the North, the supposed “safe-zones”. She must speak out about what the Tamil people are experiencing in Sri Lanka, for she is an unashamed and proud Tamil woman and that is inextricable from her, making her strong and immovable against the pressures to perform the role the media wants her to.

The video for her song “Born Free”, in which she recreates Sri Lankan guerrilla footage of executions of Tamil people using red-headed children as the target, sparked outrage and was removed from YouTube for “gratuitous violence”. The reaction shows an undeniable institutional racism and implicit positing of people’s worth by skin colour and race. When probed about the video’s backlash, M.I.A stated that she had posted the real video footage of the executions on Twitter two months before and no one had cared; what is controversial, it is implied, is not the violence but who the victims are and how this challenges people’s implicit biases. The video demands introspection about how the media reports on atrocities committed outwith the West and how it values human beings. Her conviction to use her position, harnessing music and conceptualising her music videos to challenge representations and incite change, forces the West to witness ugly news to which they would rather turn a blind eye. It is this which makes her a remarkable person, an activist who cannot be shut down.  

The media’s response to her music videos or “controversial” lyrics is, in many respects, more an attack on M.I.A than an attack on her work. She is a target of the press because she will not apologise for being an immigrant woman, instead utilising  it as the basis for her most powerful and provocative music. She fails to recite the script of the political and media elite as a point of principle. One interview I read said of M.I.A that “she was treated as an idiot because she didn’t speak the right language”, which I think perfectly articulates the dynamics of race and xenophobia and why there has been a drowning out of particular voices in Western society. The film manages to capture just how scathing and vicious the media is towards M.I.A and how determined they are to prevent her from discussing issues of identity, politics and discrimination. In an interview with Bill Maher, an American talk show host, he patronisingly tries to silence her on the Civil War and the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka by attacking her accent to discredit her claims about Sri Lanka and the horrors being waged there. The interview is an example of a broader attempt by the establishment to force her to “stay in her lane”. Her attack on the apathy of the West towards the conditions of refugees, and the “othering” of individuals based on race, is an attack on the colonialism, cultural imperialism and the hypocrisy of Western democracies. We see from the reaction by the American media to her “flipping off” the audience during her 2016 Super Bowl performance how just being a brown person standing on stage not celebrating Americanism is, as she says, “worse than murdering someone”. The NFL tried to fine her $16.6 million for the “offense”.  

The film had begun with a question by Loveridge: “what makes you such a problematic pop star?” Her answer is the bones of this documentary, which is what makes it such an important watch. What is revealed in her search for a vehicle to express what she needs to, and how she feels and experiences the world as an immigrant, as a woman, as a person of colour in the West, is a magnetic person refusing to be boxed in by stereotypical representations or be broken by discrimination. The outrage that her politicised music and videos stirs from the media emphasises the way the Western Establishment tries to censor and control the narrative of her life. Due to her economic and racial background, the film shows how the media attempts to make her invisible and irrelevant when she dares to challenge them. She unashamedly refuses to be silent on issues that matter to her. We are shown a woman who is angry and frustrated with the way that she is perceived and the invisibility of the Tamil people in the West, asking in the face of their systematic genocide by the Sri Lankan government “do they just not care that this is happening?” Her magnetism comes from this unapologetic need to be visible “as the only Tamil woman in Western media”. It is clear she feels compelled to rally for the marginalised and abused. Her compelling personal journey teaches us the power of standing by what you know or feel is right, no matter how the forces rally against you – it s the only way to undermine the institutions which seek to write our narratives for us. She is an example of how, through non-adherence, through the refusal to submit to perception and racial stereotyping, one can use the wealth of their experience, empathy and multiculturalism to create art and music which stirs and acts as a surging resistance, not just to be admired but utilised and embodied by all of us.

[Jude Mckechnie]

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