“Finally I can stop doing interviews now”, M.I.A tweeted on October 6th, ahead of the release of her documentary MAYA/MATANGI/MIA, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and was released globally in October. Directed by Steven Loveridge, the film offers a deeply personal look at her heritage as a Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant, follows the popstar’s journey to fame, and provides a platform for her to explain approach to social activism. The film relies heavily on footage filmed by M.I.A herself, and her self-documentation spans decades, beginning from her teenage years through to present making it clear that she’s always been adamant about capturing her side of the story. In a lot of ways, the film feels like being handed receipts—there is a point to be proven and M.I.A wants you to get her message as she intended it, not through a third party.
Documenting your entire life can be especially beneficial when your words are continually used against you, or twisted and taken out of context to mean something you don’t intend them to. Young Maya uses a personal handheld camera, recording herself speaking in bathroom mirrors, in pre-bedtime reflections, and during conversations with her friends and family. Whenever she films herself, she is up close and personal. She records everything. Her recordings have a sense of urgency about them, as if without recording, crucial moments will be missed, or she’ll lose the agency to tell her own story. In other footage, clips from past interviews and backstage interactions weave together a story of her emotional journey from a beloved local provocateur, to an internationally recognized superstar.
It is painfully evident that M.I.A’s life work, by her own definitions, is at odds with the perception of pop star life imposed on her by fans and listeners. Being slighted by the journalists she interacts with is commonplace in the film. After several high profile incidents, the narrative surrounding M.I.A. as a “problematic” pop star has only snowballed.
These have included the criticisms of her Born Free video, the infamous Superbowl Finger Flip, the scathing New York Times profile of her in 2010, her scrambled comments regarding Black Lives Matter, and the backlash following her large-scale campaign with H&M. Though she pointedly fails to address a handful of her most controversial recent moments, she gives viewers an insight into her thought processes on the other side of bad publicity. Namely, what she perceives as a short-sighted North American response to what she, a self-proclaimed human rights activist by birth, perceives as trivial items.
Though unacknowledged in the documentary, in 2016 M.I. A was pulled as a headliner from Afropunk London, for comments she made that Spring that were published in the Evening Standard about Beyonce’s Black Power salute during the Superbowl: “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter.” The moment called into question the motive behind her political ideology, and positioned her as either uninformed (or uninterested) in bridging the systemic gaps necessary to collectively advocate for people from marginalized groups.
With reference to the film, each of the criticisms launched against her, though legitimate, are also only part of her story. Taken as a whole, North America’s perception of M.I.A’s heavily underscores the intense scrutiny that pop stars are constantly under— you can do good work in some areas, while concurrently, being called out for your ignorance in others.
MIA’s own journey highlights the fact that as a woman of colour, the tolerance for her mistakes is much lower. The permissible margin of error is small, to non-existent.
Despite the intimate look MAYA/MATANGI/MIA takes at M.I.A’s own life, her growth as an artist and activist, and (potential) path towards reconciliation, in the court of public opinion, she is still a “problematic pop star,” and subject to being cancelled for her missteps. The film’s release is timely—much of her behaviour is understood through the lens of our cultural reality, which for many, is primarily informed by social media.
There’s a clip in the film of M.I.A, in radio interview, explaining how ridiculous the response to her “Born Free” video was, when taken in the context of ethnically-charged violence around the globe. Despite her efforts to speak to the political nuances of the video, the interviewer (a tone-deaf, younger, pre-allegations Jian Ghomeshi—type figure) continues to steer the conversation back to her success.
In 2018, watching M.I.A flip off the camera during the 2012 Superbowl, it’s difficult to side with those accusing her of being offensive. Deliberately, the reflections seem to say “I told you so.”, as if M.I.A. had already pre-warned us against the things we are challenged by in about our own culture today. As if after the passage of time, North American culture has finally caught up with the warnings M.I.A was punished for.
In 2018, while as a collective we seem to have committed to correcting and calling out toxic aspects of American culture— like the NFL, or journalists who fail to do their due diligence when reporting, or a government that fails to work for the best interests of its constituents—MIA takes back her mic to tell us that this shouldn’t be news to us.
Now more than ever, the idea that we must “hold our heroes accountable” for their behaviour, and often, cancelling celebrities who do stumble through their “advocacy” for social justice is pervasive. Other high-profile celebrities, such as Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, have been taken to task for their misguided politics and flawed ideas of feminism. Accountability, we feel, is everyone’s responsibility. Yet, we have to ask whether “cancel culture” is really as productive for accountability as we might think. Now, it’s easier than ever (and often, necessary) to call out celebrities for their mistakes. But often those critiques are launched without taking all the information into account; without reflecting on the cultural changes that impact our own politics over time; and without reflecting on our own fallibility.
MIA’s own journey highlights the fact that as a woman of colour, the tolerance for her mistakes is much lower. The permissible margin of error is small, to non-existent. From day one, there are expectations to conform to as a woman, and as a minority with respect to how you will act on screen, on stage, and in public. As M.I.A highlights in MAYA/MATANGI/MIA, she hated seeing the way even a pop giant such as Madonna was put into and conformed to those boxes, being pushed around by NFL executive’s expectations for the Superbowl show. One strike, and you are out.
It’s impossible to ignore that when it comes to deciding who gets cancelled, high-profile women regularly receive a nearly irrevocable red card.
On the other hand, we see that some people have unlimited strikes, for whom we are ready to pull out the “separate art from artist” card at any time. To name big examples: for artists a diverse as Kanye West, to Morrissey—who have been open blatant comments in poor taste, and espouse dangerous political sentiments–have had little effect on their overall popularity. Perhaps as a function of society collectively expecting transgressions on their part, notably, men consistently get a pass, or at the very least, are far more likely to be handed a card reminding them to proceed with caution. It’s impossible to ignore that when it comes to deciding who gets cancelled, high-profile women regularly receive a nearly irrevocable red card. The double standard is rampant, and operates largely as a function of who has the mic, who is calling the shots.
For someone like M.I.A, who had the time, money, and ability to take back the mic, curating her own story was within reach. To tell her story, she was armed with her own archives, the right timing, forums to tell it. In this story, she forces you to think critically about exactly who usually tells her story. With MAYA/MATANGI/MIA, M.I.A reminds you that for the first time, she is.