Voice Above the Crowd: Rapper M.I.A.’s Political Activism


COLUMBO — For any fan of music and social activism, the trailer for a new documentary called “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” is a moment to be celebrated. The trailer opens with rapper/activist Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam’s (better known for her stage name: M.I.A.)’s hit song “Paper Planes,” and the sound of fans screaming in the background. Unlike other documentaries about musicians, however, this documentary that premiered at Sundance this year seems to focus not just on concerts and the musical process, but also foregrounds M.I.A.’s political activism and social causes.

M.I.A.’s Backstory

The film frames M.I.A. as a refugee and indeed, M.I.A. grew up as a Tamil, a minority ethnic group, on the island nation of Sri Lanka, which has been ravaged by war since the 1980s. Her father was a major Tamil leader, but due to the tensions between the Tamil people and the Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka, M.I.A. relocated to Britain in her childhood. A child forced to flee her homeland due to civil strife: M.I.A. was  a refugee.

Perhaps her personal relationship with the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka — in the trailer we hear her voice state that “there’s a genocide going on” — makes M.I.A.’s political activism all the more potent. The people trapped in the civil war are her people, and the topic of war in Sri Lanka was especially critical to M.I.A.’s rise to prominence in the late 2000s. She was a frequent critic of the Sri Lankan government and major ally to the 50,000-150,000 civilians stuck in the war.

M.I.A.’s Political Activism

M.I.A.’s political activism, however, doesn’t end at critiquing the Sri Lankan government and being a vocal supporter of refugees and people caught in war-torn regions — particularly those of Sri Lanka. Her political activism also extends to humanitarianism and philanthropy. She notes that the crisis in Sri Lanka is a “humanitarian” one; moreover, she was an ardent supporter of missions to Sri Lanka to help the victims of the war. Unable to travel to the country herself, she championed for the safe arrival of the ship Mercy Mission to supply food and medicine to the Tamil civilians.

M.I.A.’s politically-charged lyrics and unyielding support of the Tamil cause has also caused controversy. In Sri Lanka, she is often viewed as terrorist proponent — the Tamil Tigers, the rebel group fighting against the Sinhala government, is often seen as a terrorist organization. Many outlets have argued that M.I.A. was misleading about the numbers of civilians affected by the war and the human rights abuses perpetrated by the government.

Human Rights in Sri Lanka and the Globe

According to Amnesty International, evidence of human rights violations was found on both sides. Yet, people suspected of being members or supporters of the Tamil Tigers, and the Tamil people in general, have continued to face persecution. Thus, there is an international need for voices like M.I.A.’s to direct attention to the situation in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps far less controversial, M.I.A. has proven to have a major role in fighting for education and against global poverty beyond Sri Lanka, as well. In Margibi County, Liberia, M.I.A. helped fund a school to increase educational access for students where schooling had previously been inaccessible. This was part of a humanitarian mission, which M.I.A. completed in conjunction with the organization, Youth Action International.

Waiting in Anticipation

While the documentary has yet to be widely released, critical reception has so far been positive. The film won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury award at Sundance, and was selected to be part of the Berlinale. The trailer itself is masterfully cut, with some of M.I.A.’s catchiest songs playing behind images of her talking about her childhood, stepping on stage and other powerful moments of her life.

Yet what intrigues one the most about the documentary is the portrait of M.I.A. as a humanitarian and social figure, and the attention to M.I.A.’s political activism. Because, unlike many other pop stars, M.I.A. was a refugee, and her experience as one colors not only her music, but also how the world perceives her.

– William Wilcox
Photo: Flickr


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