M.I.A.’s latest album Matangi—titled in honor of her namesake, the Hindu goddess of music and learning—plays like a conceptual middle finger, a defiantly personal reclamation of the brown girl narrative that was wrested away from her. It’s largely a success that sees her at her strongest and most convincing: the most polished raw edge, a very human superhuman.
The outmoded belief that one can either be a rebel or a pop star, and that both are inherently at odds with each other, is the very status quo that has continuously been foisted onto M.I.A. It’s also the status quo that she actively redefines on Matangi, by encapsulating the complexities and wide-ranging possibilities of identity. On the album, and throughout her career, she evokes multiple, seemingly contradictory but ultimately reconcilable modes of being.
By gelling Kollywood samples with hip hop and R&B and Brazilian Carioca funk and Angolan kuduro and UK Bass, she reconciles the possibilities of being both Sri Lankan and British, revolutionary and mainstream, flawed and aspirational, of intently wanting to effect change and desiring nice things. It is a synthesis that embodies the unfortunate but unassailable reality that having the courage to be oneself and assert one’s identity in the face of a society that constantly demands the opposite is a political action.
M.I.A.’s aesthetic commentaries on racial, cultural, and religious identity, immigration, and globalism have, in retrospect, been more impactful than her overt politics. More than her words, it is the sounds she makes and the textures she creates that frame her work as a uniquely hegemony-defying proposition, the likes of which has hardly ever existed on such a large scale. That she—brown, immigrant, woman whose work deals primarily with being brown, an immigrant, and a woman—is a pop star and not a fringe artist is itself the ultimate subversion."