Riz Ahmed is breaking up with Britain
On his new album he sets out his plans to create a new world for the displaced – a no man’s land in between “us” and “them”. Here, the actor, musician, poet and political activist talks of finally feeling like himself.
Riz Ahmed is playing dead, lying face down on the ground of a leafy suburban cul-de-sac. Minutes ago, his family home was raided by what it transpires is a far-right terror group. His mother, father, siblings and relatives have all been shot dead, with Ahmed’s character narrowly avoiding a bullet to the leg.
The killers pile into vans and speed off. He picks himself up and unleashes a series of bars direct to the camera.
“Where I’m from is not your problem, bruv,” Ahmed declares, staring right down the lens, brown eyes blazing.
So begins the latest starring role – uncompromising, versatile, direct, angry – from the 37-year-old actor, musician, rapper and political activist. The Long Goodbye, a short film directed by Aneil Karia, accompanies Ahmed’s new album of the same name, released this month on his own label, Mongrel.
The film opens with a warming, familiar scene for many British Asians: a large family preparing for a celebration. Girls huddle in a bedroom upstairs chatting about boys. Downstairs, Ahmed’s character is hanging out with his younger brother, caught up in a dance routine while shuffling chairs to make room, presumably for incoming guests, at his mother’s request.
Then, in burst the white terrorists. Racist slaughter ensues. Is this brutal narrative the multi-hyphenate’s prediction of a grim future for post-Brexit Britain, where hate crimes have shockingly risen by 11 per cent since 2018?
“Sadly, I wouldn’t even think of it as a kind of ‘fiction,’” Ahmed replies. He mentions the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Hong Kong’s political protests earlier this year, and the rising war between Hindus and Muslims on the streets of New Delhi in India.
“Our future is today, right now, around the world,” he continues. “If it’s happening anywhere, it’s happening everywhere. We’re all in this together.”
Ahmed’s Pakistani parents settled in England in the 1970s. Born in Wembley, northwest London in 1982, he grew up surrounded by his parents’ music: disco-infused Bollywood, sitar strings and the devotional, spiritual sounds of Sufi.
But as he got older, Ahmed immersed himself in ’90s London’s thriving club culture, planting himself in newly-opened megaclub Fabric at the turn of the millennium and skanking out to jungle most Friday nights. He’d go on to graduate from Oxford University with a PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) degree, all the while embracing the local pirate radio station scene on the side.
Post-uni he studied acting at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, then made his professional debut in Michael Winterbottom’s 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. But Ahmed’s career took off in 2010 with the release of Four Lions, Chris Morris’s brilliant satire of post Twin Tower attack Islamophobia. He played lead character Omar, the fairly competent security guard-cum-jihadist living in Sheffield.
His career had lift-off, and in multiple directions. He starred alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in acclaimed Los Angeles-set neo-noir thriller Nightcrawler (2014) then, in 2016, took the lead role of Nasir “Naz” Khan in HBO drama The Night Of. Playing a college student accused of murder in New York, he won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series – the first South Asian male to win an Emmy. Ever.
Switching it up again, in the same year he was nominated for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his guest-role in Lena Dunham’s Girls. Then it was on to the sci-fi blockbuster world in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and into the comic-book world in Venom.
Now, in early 2020, Ahmed is all over the place, in all the best ways. Mogul Mowgli, produced and starring Ahmed, recently premiered at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. It follows a British-Pakistani rapper, Zed, returning to his family in London having been struck by an autoimmune disease. He’s still working on his long-gestating Englistan project (“It’s set around three generations of British-Pakistani family in the UK, starting in the 1980s and ending up about now,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2016) and, at time of writing, was announced as working with the production company set up by Michelle and Barack Obama on an adaptation of Exit West by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist).
Meanwhile, he was developing a music career. Debuting with Microscope (2012) under his stage name Riz MC, he then released Cashmere in 2016 as one-third of hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys, which landed on Rolling Stone’s “40 Best Rap Albums of 2016”.
But right now he’s in the thick of his most personal music project yet, with The Long Goodbye representing the first time he’s releasing music under his full name. As he puts it: “I’ve spent the first half of my career shapeshifting to fit into other people’s jigsaws. Me going unapologetically ‘mask off’ is one of the concluding ideas of the album.”
More broadly, he’s most unmasked and straight-talking when he’s on stage, mic in hand, passionately voicing his stance on the wavering political landscape both in the UK and US.
His 2017 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon blew up online and was a testament to Ahmed’s credibility as a poet. He delivered a powerful, edited version of Sour Times – a track he wrote in 2007 and which featured on Microscope – in the wake of the Charlottesville attack, where a car deliberately drove into a peaceful protest killing one and injuring 28.
This was Ahmed debunking Islamaphobic rhetoric in lines like: “In these sour times, please allow me to vouch for mine /bitter taste in my mouth, spit it out with a rhyme /I’m losing my religion to tomorrow’s headlines.”.
Those themes are at the heart of The Long Goodbye, a concept album searching for answers in polarised modern Britain. It rattles “the system”, debates, indignantly rages, reverses and resumes. It’s an emotional take on 21st century British politics through the metaphor of a tough break-up of a toxic relationship. A journey of heartache, loss and loneliness.
“A big motif in the album is the idea of a no man’s land,” he says, highlighting the reality of an ‘us vs. them’ divide commonly associated with minorities feeling caught in the middle: too brown for your friends at school, too white for your family at home. “[The] world is becoming increasingly binary – ‘us versus. them’. For a lot of us, we’re unable to pick a side because we’re a product of both.”
Pakistani by blood, British through birth, he’s speaking of his dual-heritage – a “complex identity” as he calls it. It’s one that has crossed wires throughout his life, especially through music. For the young Riz, traditional sounds of qawwali – likened to Indo-Pakistani classical jazz – and “VHS cassettes sent from Pakistan” soon collided with the explosion of UK grime, jungle, house and footwork in the early ’90s.
A short story by Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto inspired the album’s second track, Toba Tek Singh, where his early dual influences are noticeable. A sprightly powerhouse of electronica merge with Manto’s narrative of a person who refused to pick a side between India and Pakistan during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1947 – 1948, also known as the First Kashmir War.
Ahmed interprets Manto’s story to suit the album’s break-up metaphor. “She wants to put the walls up /She wants to build a border /I never asked you to move in /You was broke I was stupid”. These are lines referring to the Indo-Pakistani border, but also the borders faced by immigrants everyday.
“The reality is that there are more people in the no man’s land than in the ‘us’ and ’them’ piles now – there are more and more of us who have complex identities,” he says. “There’s a new normal taking shape and the old status quo is freaking out about it. But you can be scared of us or not. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”
As we talk, Ahmed namechecks a whole host of early influences, ones that would influence the album, spitting out names quicker than he would a verse: the Sabri Brothers, Nazia Hassan, A. R. Rahman, Bally Sagoo, Bally Jagpal, Busta Rhymes, Punjabi MC, DJ Marky, MC Shabba D, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, 4Hero.
“That’s our hybrid culture which the UK really spawned, in a way. I was always a junglist, so I’d be going to Fabric every Friday when it opened, Bar Rumba [in London’s West End] on Thursday, right up to when I started university, where I was doing a lot of [local] pirate radio stations.”
It’s a reflection of the dual-heritage lives of Asians living in ’90s to early ’00s Britain.
“I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.” “I want to create my own narrative.”
“It was interesting being in the middle of the late ’90s cultural explosion,” he reflects fondly of a period when integration was presented as the Asian rude girls of Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach (1994), or the aspiring footballer, Jesminder Bhamra in Bend It Like Beckham (2002). Then, of course, there’s the offbeat characters in late-’90s, prime-time BBC show Goodness Gracious Me, a satirical sketch comedy openly airing the humours of assimilation from the perspectives of both brown Asians and white Britons.
The events of the September 11 attacks in 2001 ushered in new meanings to being British Asian. Ahmed addresses it as a pivotal point when ethnic minorities had their narratives hijacked to the point of losing agency over their own sense of self. Now it was all about terror, security and a fractured Asian identity, an ongoing, even increasing challenge that he tackles throughout The Long Goodbye. As he shouts in Fast Lava: “I spit my truth and it’s brown.”
“Often to be a minority is to have your narrative defined for you,” he says. “That’s what the first half of the album is: this narrative of being a victim in the relationship and not having agency. The second half is about finding some agency and moving beyond that, saying, ‘Actually, I want to create my own narrative.’”
The Long Goodbye is Riz Ahmed’s latest spearhead in that drive. It brings his gifts for storytelling, rapping, singing and spoken word together in one tight, thrilling, provocative concept (one with a walk-on part for Mindy Kaling in one of the between-song skits). Most importantly, he’s being himself, loud and proud, prepared for the fight to create a world for those caught in the middle.
As he concludes: “If people with ‘complex identities’ are fully being themselves, that’s the biggest thing we can do to make no man’s land habitable.”
Riz Ahmed’s new album The Long Goodbye is released on 6th March accompanied by a short film directed by Aneil Karia made in collaboration with WePresent, WeTransfer’s editorial platform. His new live show, also called The Long Goodbye, commissioned by Manchester International Festival and Brooklyn Academy of Music, will be presented in Manchester and New York followed by two album gigs in London and LA. Tickets are available here.