Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
“Yesterday I had this super eccentric moment. I was sitting by myself, writing my third feature film, and I wrote this to myself. It sounds kinda crazy now, reading it back, but…”
I’m entering the fourth hour of a FaceTime conversation with Raza Tariq, a 21-year-old multi-disciplinary artist from West London who has enough ambition to feed a village. Gesticulating passionately while clutching a string of pearly Islamic prayer beads, he reads aloud a note off his phone: “I’m only just having spiritual openings, which really concretise the words: I am the greatest artist in human history, now… I’m not just saying it. I believe it.”
The greatest artist in human history (self-proclaimed) is talking to me from Los Angeles, on a trip designed to make inroads into Hollywood and facilitate the making of his first feature film. He’s there with Aref Qasem, another artist and one of 15 creative young minds assembled by Raza and named, with just a little grandiloquence, The Polymaths. With their help, he plans to do nothing less than infiltrate, disrupt and rebuild the cultural systems of the world. He’s pointing three barrels at society, using as ammunition a catalogue that includes art exhibitions, short films and a debut single. The sky’s the limit, and so on.
He’s been working on that catalogue for a while. Raza made his first film aged 11, an improvised short that “was some Cassavetes shit, lowkey”, as Raza remem- bers it. It was an early statement in his mission to be his generation’s Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. In recent years he’s shied away from that thought, deciding he would prefer his ideas to be celebrated rather than him. But the day before our conversation, Raza doubled down on his self-belief.
“Yesterday something sank on me,” he says. “Like, oh, you are actually gonna be the greatest artist ever.” He launches into a potted history of his beloved Islam, mentioning Genghis Khan and the Mongols, the Umayyads and Abbasids, the Egyptian Mamluks, Turkic slaves, the Ottomans and the Mughals. “After literally looking at the entirety of Islamic history, I realised I’m at the end of it. Muslim imperial rule ended in the last hundred years and Muslims have basically been salvaging an identity for themselves within the Western context, within the diasporic context, and understanding: ‘How do I exist in this new world?’ I think The Polymaths is the crystallisation of that growth.”
Of course, all of this is lofty, outsized talk for someone you probably haven’t heard of. But it’s Raza’s hyper-inflated confidence and ambition that have got him where he is. Thanks to a murky mix of talent, charisma, luck, circumstance, arrogance and people skills, he’s earned himself a steadily growing audience and increasing interest from the creative industries’ most influential people.
I first heard about Raza last year after his artwork NO THANKS – essentially a letter to Central Saint Martins rejecting their offer of a place on their Fine Art course – generated a few headlines when it was displayed outside the university. Raza outlined his plans to apply to the college and then reject their offer on The Polymaths’ WhatsApp group, his way of taking aim at the “bureaucracies and establishmentarian prestige of art universities as an entity”, as Crack put it. He considers himself a multifaceted creative, with a filmography that includes 2022’s Uber-set drama Taming a Seahorse, recently shown at the London Short Film Festival. Also among his oeuvre is 2018’s Jamal, which he financed by selling a pair of Virgil Abloh’s Nike VaporMaxes for £500 and titled using an Arabic word which, the film tells us, means “the most influential person on Earth” (alternative spellings include – wait for it – “Raza”).
After I followed him on Twitter, in March he invited me to Floor Door, an intimate exhibition of his latest work, consisting of a marble rectangle in the middle of a basement room deep in – of all places – Soho House. The piece echoed Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966), a piece of modern art that got everyone angry because it was, quite simply, a pile of bricks on the floor of a gallery. Raza talked to punters effusively about his work, comparing it to a Muslim prayer mat and explaining in a statement on his YouTube channel: “YOUR FEET WILL NOT TOUCH THE FLOOR OF PARADISE UNTIL YOUR HEAD TOUCHES THE FLOOR OF EARTH”.
That’s when I met Raza for the first time. He wore what I later discovered was his signature look: an all-white outfit comprising a tunic, boots and a scarf, plus a pair of gold-rimmed glasses. He also introduced me to The Polymaths, who made up most of the audience: like-minded young men from around the world whom he discovered on his creative travels. Among them was Gabriel Dedji, a DJ and writer who published his first novel at 17; fashion designer Mo, whose brand THRTNZ (pronounced “thirteens”) sold out its first T‑shirt launch in three hours; model Amani, recently photographed for Dazed; entrepreneur Anas, founder of the brand BetterWhenUrOffline; producer, multi-instrumentalist and “sculptural musician” Saia; poet, rapper and architect Obi; and designers and multi-hyphenates Jon Hua and Dawuud Loka. Like Raza’s polemic ramblings, the list went on (and on).
Each of The Polymaths spoke to me at length, off-loading their ideas and worldviews a mile a minute, even while some of them chose to keep their full names obscured. They all live in London, with roots everywhere from Kenya to Middlesbrough, and with the exception of Dawuud, all of them are under the age of 23. They’re also all male, although Raza insists that The Polymaths aren’t limited to the people in this interview: “I don’t feel like The Polymaths is a group, let alone a group of guys,” he says, citing two eighth- and ninth-century Muslim women as influences. “My reference points are Fatima al-Fihri and Rabia al-’Ad-awiyya. When I think of polymaths I think of them.” Fashion designer Mo told me The Polymaths are like a contemporary equivalent of what Odd Future or the A$AP Mob were around the start of the 2010s. He later tried to scratch this quote from the record, insisting that the group are their own entity, following their own path, resisting comparisons, et cetera. But he won’t row back on the gang’s plans.
“World domination,” he states later on the phone. “In every medium. Whether it’s fashion, music, art, architecture, UX design, there’s someone doing everything. In the short time I’ve been amongst the brothers, we’ve seen success that would’ve taken years beforehand. There’s things that are in the works that I can’t even talk about right now.
Again, this is lofty talk, like they think they’re the first group of kids who believe they can change the world. But meet The Polymaths in the flesh and it’s hard not to be seduced by their boundless ambition, dizzy array of talents, approachability, camaraderie and cherubic babyfaces. Can they really rewire the very fabric of society, not only conquering every creative industry under the sun but rebuilding each one of them from the inside out? It’s tempting to suggest they’d be better off starting small, quietly going about their business, keeping their ambitions modest and all that until they’ve made at least a bit more headway into film or fashion or music – or whatever. Plus, it begs the question: how is all this being funded?
Knowingly pre-empting this, Raza is quick to confess: “I was born into privilege.” He has spent nearly his entire life living with his parents in Richmond, one of London’s richest boroughs. But his childhood wasn’t that of a typical upper-middle-class South West London kid.
His dad always wanted to be a photographer and won some competitions, but trained as a doctor in his native Pakistan to make a living. One day a British patient told him if he ever needed anything in the UK, his house was open to him. Raza’s dad was on the next flight. But, in 1980s Britain, his Pakistani medical qualifications were all but meaningless. He spent years working at factories and cash-and-carries, before going to med school all over again. In his late twenties, he met Raza’s mum at an art exhibition in Leicester Square. She had a hard time at school because she’s deaf, although she wasn’t diagnosed until she was seven and had to retake several years of her education. Eventually, she applied to study on an art course at Central Saint Martins, who – to the surprise of everyone at home – offered her a place.
Raza went to state school until he was 11, when his family’s fortunes improved enough to buy him a private education. In class he sat next to Gordon Ramsay’s daughter, future TV presenter Tilly, and for a while he was “really drinking the Kool Aid… They were breeding me to be the next Rishi Sunak or Priti Patel,” he says witheringly. After two years at the school he had to drop out, officially because his family could no longer pay the fees but also, he claims, because he was “profiled” and “nudged out of school”. In an institution that was 99 per cent white, Raza says he was always treated differently. “I look back on it in a very bitter way.”
Things got worse. After his dad lost vast sums from a series of bad investments, the family was homeless for a year. “We were never sleeping rough outside,” he clarifies, “but we were moving around a lot and it was a very difficult time.” They spent some time in the Middle East, without electricity and running water, but Raza used the time to teach himself scriptwriting. When they returned to London he went to a state secondary school for the first time, mixing with kids from different backgrounds. “I was suddenly in a completely different environment where our friends were saying ‘wallahi’ [colloquially used to mean “I swear to Allah”]. I was like: ‘What the hell, you’re open about the fact that you’re Muslim, and no one is gonna kill you for it?’” Eventually he auditioned for and was accepted at ELAM (East London Arts and Music), a creative and performing arts college in Bromley-by-Bow.
Around this time Gabriel Dedji, a young author, stumbled across Raza’s Instagram. The two connected over a number of common interests, including their mutual understanding of the word “polymath” – “a person of wide knowledge or learning” – which Dedji had learned through his reading of Christian history. He suggested Raza apply to Soho House, which he did, successfully. He was granted a 12-month membership as part of the Soho Fellowship scheme after being selected by their Inclusivity Board, a program designed to help young creatives get into the industry.
He soon began building an empire, gathering a coterie of other talents who each seemed to share his aspirations and multi-disciplinary skills. Every one of The Polymaths has a story behind how they met Raza. Aref moved to London from Middlesbrough without knowing anyone, spent months struggling to settle, then noticed a man at a fashion pop-up clad in all white and approached, clocking him as a fellow Muslim. Saia met Raza at a film festival in Seattle and they hit it off: Raza invited him to London, asking Saia to write the score for his next film, and then they flew to Cairo (Raza “had a vision” telling them to go). By the end of the trip, Saia had converted to Islam. Amani, their newest recruit, moved to London from Kenya last year. He tells me they’re “all different brushes on the same canvas”.
In summer 2022, after the group had hung out a few times in person, Tariq made a WhatsApp group called “THE POLYMATHS”. His first message, in all caps, read: “YOU GUYS ARE THE RENAISSANCE. I’VE SELECTED YOU BECAUSE YOU ARE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE GONNA CHANGE THE FUTURE. YOU ARE ALL POLYMATHS.” There was no context, no grand manifesto. “Everyone was like: ‘Oh, hi guys, happy to be here…’” he remembers. “I don’t think they knew what was happening.”
Soon, everything was clicking. Aref remembers his own understanding of what the group meant: “I guess polymath in the most literal sense of the word just means someone who does a lot of things. But there’s plenty of people who work through different mediums. We emphasise a lot on spirituality. Ask any of The Polymaths, they’ll bring up very esoteric, mystical reasoning as to why we do what we do.”
He’s not wrong. Each one of them gives a nebulous, abstract definition of their collective vocation, and each mentions “spirituality”. In a world where many think religion is in decline, it may surprise some that this cabal is so proudly faith-based.
Most of The Polymaths identify as either Christian, Muslim or another, harder-to-define creed, with all of them resisting the confines of “traditional” religious teachings and employing their own interpretations of existing belief systems.
“I think the world is more religious than it’s ever been before,” says Raza. “I always say I think God is the counter-counterculture. I think what we are is the post-postmodern. We saw the resistance to these traditional cultural, religious values, and now I think you’re seeing a return to spirituality with the newer generation, a desire for meaning in such a meaningless world.”
This extends to his personal embrace of Islam, which seems to inform everything he does. He thinks religious devotion is becoming increasingly common among people his age. “All the way up to those edgy, goth, Playboi Carti kids who say they’re Satanists, all of them have some sort of reverence for traditions outside of the Eurocentric Judeo-Christian tradition. I think Buddhism is less cool than Islam right now. And I’m not saying that to show off. I’m saying that because basically everything which has been watered down by trad, cis, normal old white men is now boring to the new generation.”
It’s this generational difference that stands out most when you hang with this lot, brought into sharpest focus of all when talking to Dawuud, The Polymaths’ only millennial. Now 32 and married with kids, his family fled the Congo when he was a baby, settling first in Angola, then the Netherlands, then Russia, then Germany. Dawuud’s dad sent him to the UK when he was a teenager in a bid to correct his misbehaviour at school. Years later, he met Raza at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. “He schooled me on a bunch of things I thought I knew, but I didn’t really know,” says Raza. To him, Dawuud is the “spiritual father” of The Polymaths.
“There’s this joke about millennials being stuck in skinny jeans,” says Dawuud. “I think it represents the constraints we have as millennials, because we weren’t able to jump on the property ladder, we’re not able to go on holiday the way our parents used to take us on holiday… Although most millennials consider themselves politically liberal, or even leftist, I feel like they still have very conservative views about the world.
“That’s why I’m so in love with Gen Z,” he continues. “Because they’re very into the idea of changing the world, and really believing it and having the tools to do so. Us millennials, we were supposed to be that generation. But we still come from the analogue world. We still subscribe to what our parents wanted us to do, i.e. going to university, and then obviously this disillusionment happened. But I think especially in Europe or the UK, there’s this whole new generation of activist-artists, I call them, wanting to change the world and not bound by ideas such as, ‘I need to go to university, I need to do this…’. I think Raza’s exhibition NO THANKS is such an amazing representation of that.”
And herein lies The Polymaths’ intangible, quasi-mythical USP. Working collaboratively at every turn (Saia does the music for much of Raza’s film work; Dawuud provides clothing for their photo- shoots; several members can be seen modelling Mo’s T‑shirts), each of them plans to ascend to the upper echelons of their chosen industries, motivated not by personal success but by a desire to change the world for the better.
Mo grew up on a council estate in Leicester and wants to make the fashion industry accessible to everyone, hoping to eventually sell his T‑shirts – currently retailing for 30 quid – at “Primark prices” while maintaining designer quality. Aref just launched a magazine (called A‑Ref) aiming to spread the messaging of Sufi mysticism to a wider audience. Anas has built an entire brand hoping to convince people life is better offline. “It’s a group of very talented people that will be going very far,” he predicts. “Because when you create with purpose, people see that. People feel it.”
And purpose drives everything Raza does. “The thing that I find really interesting is it’s always the 30‑, 40‑, 50-year-old guys who feel the need to break my confidence. But my peers, the people my age, are so filled with life by what I do. They’re excited by the fact that I’m giving them a voice when the rest of the world just wants to shit on them.”
A short while after Floor Door, Raza invites me to the launch party for his debut single, a sample-heavy psychedelic hip-hop track called This Race This. He’s holding it on the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames, which links St Paul’s Cathedral and Tate Modern. His text read: “gonna shut down the whole bridge”. Shortly before sunset I reach the event, in the middle of the bridge, and see Raza, in his usual all-white, crouching behind DJ decks playing Kid Cudi and Travis Scott while skanking his tits off, surrounded by The Polymaths and maybe 15 others. Dawuud grabs a mic. “It’s Saturday… and we’re on the bridge. That’s ridiculous. So we have to behave ridiculously. Big up yourselves, innit,” he shouts, hyping the small crowd. “We’re here because we’re in an amazing community. Today it’s about 30 people on the bridge. Yo, mark my words, yeah: next year it’s gonna be 30,000.”
Raza then plays This Race This, which features bars about an argument with his dad and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, underpinned by a winding guitar solo from Saia. It’s deeply considered – precisely 99 seconds long – but it’s also instinctive, raw and unlike anything I’ve heard before.
Thirty people on a bridge might not sound like much, and at time of writing, This Race This has about 12,500 plays on Spotify. But with belief like Raza’s, it’s hard to bet against him. Will he really change the world, guide The Polymaths to supremacy and be remembered as the greatest artist in human history? You can make up your own mind. But don’t say he didn’t warn you.
grooming Yasmin Khan producers Johnny Woodman and Katherine Bampton photo assistant Walid Abelque styling assistant Vanesa Aller