Riz Ahmed has spent the last few years pushing boundaries on-screen—from playing a hapless terrorist, a gangster, and, most recently, appearing in HBO’s The Night Of and the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One. All the while, the music he makes as Riz MC has bubbled in the background. From his early days MCing on pirate radio stations to his just-released mixtape, Ahmed has focused on creating uncompromising narratives, sharing his life experiences to the sound of a thumping beat.
Both his recent short film (and directorial debut) Daytimer—a snapshot of daytime parties from the British-Asian scene—and his mixtape Englistan aim to cement the British-Asian experience into the country’s cultural history. (He’s even selling cricket polo shirts that feature the mixtape’s name.) From his satirical take on “God save the Queen” to tracks like, “I Ain’t Being Racist But…” (a phrase often used as a preamble to racism), the mixtape is a well-paced and whip-smart offering that’s always in on the joke.
We talked with Riz MC about documenting a diaspora, loving Kanye, and why his name is a sign of his age.
The concept of ‘British values’ in 2016 has started a discussion about what it even means to be British. How important was it for you that Englistan provided an alternative narrative to British-Asian identity in a cultural climate of Islamophobia?
It took me three years to release this mixtape, because on some level I thought it was a marginal story. I think there was a part of me that had a fear about shouting about my brownness. But it’s crucial that we have alternative narratives, that we have people who are talking directly to us. It’s also about shutting down that anxiety that brown people are made to feel, that they should shut up, or that they don’t have a contribution to make.
London recently voted in their first Muslim mayor. How did you feel when you heard that news?
Sadiq Khan’s victory made me really emotional. It’s hopeful, in an overwhelmingly depressing climate of rocketing Islamophobic hate crime, foreign invasion, a rising right-wing presence, and a campaign against him that was dangerously racist. I kinda almost feel like Sadiq is a relief, rather than an ‘Obama Moment.’ We’ve been in the UK for far too long for that to feel like Christmas—especially at a time when Trump is on the rise in the U.S.
You recently directed a short film about Daytimers [daytime parties in the 90s that were held in South Asian communities]—what was your experience at your first Daytimer?
The whole point of having Daytimers was that Asian girls weren’t allowed out at night. My older brother used to go, and he’d ban me from going because he didn’t want to see me doing whatever there. But I used to sneak in, or go to other Daytimers that he wasn’t at in south London or Tottenham. You would hear jungle, and tracks like “21 Seconds.” They’re the ones that always take me back when I listen to them now.
You work with Himanshu under the name ‘Sweatshop Boys.’ How is that project different than your solo work?
It’s a lot more freewheeling than my solo stuff, partly because of Himanshu’s energy. Sweatshop Boys is more consciously like, ‘Let’s reach into our heritage’ musically and join the dots within ourselves and across the diaspora. I have this vision of doing a documentary where we go from the Bay and the West Coast to Toronto to Southall to Karachi and Mumbai, where we film them and put out a half-hour film set to the music.
We are mirror images of each other across the pond, and we have a very complimentary style, from flows to beats. He’s from Jackson Heights in Queens and went to Wesleyan. I’m from Wembley and went to Oxford. His family are originally from Pakistan, mine are originally from India. So we have very similar trajectories. We’re finishing this album and dropping it at midnight on Aug 13. I’m excited about that.
How did you start down this path?
I started MCing when I was 16 at parties and doing pirate radio talking about stuff like clothes and girls. I’ve always been that guy pissing about in class and speaking my mind, so it’s been very natural to me. But the name ‘Riz MC’ just shows you how old I am, and I refuse to change it. That name is heritage, straight out of 1997. Every now and again it swings back in a cool way. But not really.
You’re currently writing a TV series on the BBC about British Pakistani life which starts off in the ‘80s. What’s some of the music from that time you want to showcase?
I want to tell the years from 1982 through 2016 from the brown street level. The soundtrack from the ‘80s is very disco Bollywood. That was what was coming out at the time, with Charanjit Singh, and acid house, and tracks like “Jimmy.” There’s also a lot of jungle and hip-hop.
What are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to Kanye’s album, and I fucking love it. I love his music. He’s an unapologetic symbol of constant creative innovation. I just listened to the James Blake album, and I like Drake. I like that rap used to be about uncompromising bravado, and now these people like Drake and Kendrick and J Cole are conflicted, and so it’s about the drama of being conflicted. Qawwali music has also been a massive influence for me over the last few years. You listen to Kanye and you hear gospel, and I think that Qawwali is our gospel jazz.
Do you think the creative industries have become more equipped at accepting stories that reach beyond stereotypes?
I think it works in stages. It starts off where you have stereotypes [in art]. But then you move on from drug dealer, terrorist, cab driver. From there, you go to stuff that takes place on ethnic terrain, where you can subvert stereotypes. Then, you move on to the stuff that is the Holy Grail, which is just being a guy. Like Idris being James Bond. Or me being in a film being Riz, but the storyline not being about my arranged marriage or whatever. That’s what we’re trying to move towards.
Don Cheadle recently talked about ‘who gets to say yes’ referring to structural power in creative industries. Is that the third stage?
Exactly. It’s about getting into rooms and making the point that Woody Allen’s films about New York Jews are not seen as marginal ethnic films, they’re seen as a crucial part of the American story. Why can’t we have that about South Asian experiences? That’s more interesting to me now than a show about two guys in a park who happen to be called Haseem and Ahmed. We can do better than that.