When life confronts you with its (our) messiness and contradictions, it’s generally unpleasant. It is sometimes, to quote Sianne Ngai’s work, an ugly feeling — a feeling that is more non-cathartic than big emotions like anger and stays in your body longer than it should.
As the white woman bopped to M.I.A. in front of me, I saw a large 3D patch of Lord Shiva sewn on to the back of her denim jacket, smiling gently, as he does. Seeing Lord Shiva in Newtown Music Factory, the image untethered from its sacredness, will unfortunately be one of the bizarre memories I took home from an otherwise electric performance.
M.I.A. was recently in the country to promote the Steve Loveridge- directed film, Maya/Matangi/M.I.A. hosted by the Encounters Film Festival. Two live shows, one in Cape Town and another in Jo’burg, accompanied the screenings. At select film screenings, M.I.A. was on hand to answer fans’ questions about her process, give advice on starting a musical career and discuss the vulnerabilities shown in the documentary.
Naming is one of the first steps of knowing. M.I.A. goes by a few names — and one in particular is striking: Matangi, or “she who lives in the forest”. In classical Hindu scripture, Matangi is one of 10 manifestations of the Great Mother’s shakti (power) in Hinduism. She is thought to be dark-skinned (depicted as emerald green) and of a low caste.
Goddess Saraswati and Matangi have an intimate relationship to each other. Saraswati is the public face of communication and knowledge of the arts and music, whereas Matangi represents the shadow version of this. She governs the mysterious and hidden domains of spiritual knowledge, especially those of music and art.
Matangi is also associated with the forest and nature, as her mother is thought to be the huntress, Matanga. Her worshippers are advised to pray “polluted”, without having showered and leaving prasad of leftover food, which is the opposite to the usual worship codes in Hinduism.
Many assert that her role, as a low-caste outcast in the forest, forces us to delve deeper, beyond mainstream understandings of music and art. Only then is she exalted.
To say M.I.A. has bewildered people is not hyperbole. She has taken the Highway Sheila in us and set it free. A banshee screaming, at points, a reminder of atrocities in Sri Lanka (to which, only recently, MI5 has given the choice line “the files on our involvement are erased”).
Our bewilderment is because she was all of those things we brown girls should not be. That is not merely an expression of awe but a statement of refusal. We, who dance in the line-breaks, rejoiced. We flipped out when she flipped off America, we flipped out when she sang about bananas (and all of those other delicious tropical fruits that desi (local) diaspora love to conjure images of) and border police.
Most of all, we flipped out when she said those words in the Evening Standard. Her comments about Beyoncé, the erasure of black Muslim experiences and Black Lives Matter brought her to our attention yet again, and we had a case of Twitter fingers.
We did more than flip out; we boycotted, sat with our uncomfortable feelings or shelved them, outright denounced her in a state of disbelief. She was cancelled, for lack of a better term.
And what does cancelling, in this case, do except narrow the scope of what can be right and can be wrong?
As Hausmuva puts it in a piece on Erykah Badu’s conception of evil: “How do we express our dissent and concern without having to turn her into the other? How does one empathise with a portion, or all, of what she is saying without collapsing into the bottomless pit of ‘cancelled people’? The answer is resisting the need to live in a binary and actually living inside of the messy, fantastic, heinous world we occupy.”
When I was a child, my mother gave me a choice, which at the time seemed easy to make: Would I like to learn Tamil?
Tamil was a dead language to me. My parents never spoke it to each other, although they could. Tamil wasn’t a national language (like most born-frees, I had to memorise all of South Africa’s 11 official languages) and outside of hearing elders in the family speak it to each other, or watching a Kollywood film (Bollywood’s darker-skinned and more violent cousin), no one spoke it.
It did not appeal to an eight-year-old to learn a language that reinforced aloneness.
I try to learn it now, in fits and starts, but nothing seems to stick.
A few words, scribbled in a diary at first: “M.I.A. opens the world by making her music the site of rebellion to the current systems of power dominating our lives. When I first heard M.I.A. I knew she was special. I was crying when I heard Boyz, and again with Bamboo Banga. I don’t know why. Her samples, of songs I had grown up listening to, immediately caught my ears’ attention. It felt so natural. It felt so nice that there was someone somewhere repping being Tamil.
“Her voice is a comfort. She is forcing the world at large to recognise us and take us seriously. We are here and we are who we are. She is the microphone amplifying our voices and telling our stories. My story is in hers and hers in mine.”
Fred Moten, talking about the difference between voice and sound, said he took his cue from Amiri Baraka: “I always thought that ‘the voice’ was meant to indicate a kind of genuine, authentic, absolute individuation, which struck me as a) undesirable and b) impossible.”
Sound, on the other hand, is really in the midst of this intense engagement with everything: “With all the noise that you’ve ever heard, you struggle somehow to make a difference, so to speak, within that noise. And that difference isn’t necessarily about you as an individual; it’s much more simply about trying to augment and to differentiate what’s around you.”
M.I.A. has been made out to be a figurehead — a voice — an easy target by media. In the documentary she’s portrayed as investigating the immigrant narrative, but in a Q&A at the Bioscope in Jo’burg, she explained that this narrative renders itself more linearly than her internet censorship and surveillance activism — an issue she says “affects all of us”.
She explained that, if she’d cut the documentary, there’d be more about those topics and feminism, such as that displayed by the women fighters in the Tamil Resistance Movement.
What does come across in the documentary is a sense of placelessness, which seems to follow M.I.A. This is not unique to her but many of us who are transplanted forcibly from one place to another, centuries or decades or years ago.
A global Tamil diaspora has, in recent years, come about partly because of the genocide in Sri Lanka. I come from another Tamil root that was forcibly transported during indentured servitude. But one thing that binds us, something that is sometimes a soft nibble, or a sharp pang, is a kind of diasporic melancholia. Of being here, not there. Then being too there for here.
The door into Maya’s world is cracked open, ever so slightly, by watching the documentary. And in it one gets the narrative of a child who grew up in a civil war and left as a refugee to live in Britain, and then became a famous musician.
“Where are the goalposts?” Maya asks after stating this. Where, indeed. There’s no Coca-Cola-sponsored music video she could have done that explores survivor’s guilt but she somehow managed to create a popular banger (Paper Planes) satirising white fear about immigrants. But the goalposts are spread out, on uneven ground.
Quiet down, I need to make a sound
Quiet down, I need to make a sound
— M.I.A. Bucky Done Gun
Or: Since the other hesitated to recognise me, there remained only one solution: to make myself known. — Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
In one of the earlier scenes in the documentary, M.I.A. is pictured reading Black Skin, White Masks. In the same Q&A, she said that reading widely was, and still is, important to the work she does. “Reading that [Fanon] was like an awakening for me,” she said. As much as white audiences may simply read her as a Bad Gyal, her stance is clearly multilayered.
Something troubled me in the week of her inaugural South African visit — an elision of this complexity, and an expectation that M.I.A.’s “wokeness” is all-encompassing. For example, M.I.A. was the person fielding questions about the Old Biscuit Mill and gentrification in Cape Town (interestingly, the Jo’burg Q&A was held in Maboneng). But, as Ashraf Hendricks asks in GroundUp: “Was that up to her to answer alone?”
Arguably, the organisers of the M.I.A. events, who have a better working knowledge of local politics, should have stepped up and accounted for their actions. Part of the power of whiteness and its attendant violence, is how it makes itself invisible.
Our reception to her work, persona and music (overheard at the Jo’burg concert: “I’m just here for Paper Planes”) says more about our easy consumption of icons, and the entrenched and oppressive ways we interact with each other. It’s how certain politics — like the ones M.I.A. espouses in her work — can at once be coded as radical and yet be depoliticised by some.
What M.I.A. does, and has been doing, is akin to what her namesake prompts us to do. In asking us to think about the hidden rules that govern our life through violence and repression, to delve deeper — she also asks us to experience the joy, freedom and vulnerability that come with artistic expression.
MATANGI: The Tiger Who Came to Tea
In “MATANGI: The Tiger Who Came to Tea” M.I.A’s voice is a weapon speaking as much life into the politics of body, space and belonging, as it does to current intimacies and violences between placelessness, industry commodification, the deluge of gatekeeper mentality in the west and internet consumability.
Filmed & Directed by Dani O’Neill
Edited by Elijah Ndoumbé
Dani Kyengo O’Neill is a documenter and digital artist. She is also a music maker, vinyl selector, DJ – and local fly-by-night producer who curates sounds under the guise “Shy Brown Auntii” or “Būjin Buujee”. Her work involves playing with images and memory, and confronting post-colonial myths involving narratives of migration: and she has been awarded a National Arts Festival Arts Journalist award for photography and digital storytelling in 2016. When she is not assisting at the Stevenson, or being a sharp-tongued gal, she’s incubating sonic journeys of resistance, visibility and healing on the dancefloor.
Elijah Ndoumbé works to challenge the dominant narrative around members of their black, brown, queer and trans community as pathologized beings (and rather, recognizing the structures in place as pathological). They are striving towards embodied methods of artistic connection, revolution, and radical ways of seeing. Their work includes photography, film, writing, music, and movement. They are a Paris-born artist, currently based between South Africa and CaliforniaSpecial thank you to Black Major and M.I.A (Maya Arulpragasam & Team)