The coronavirus lockdown is still a few days away in the UK, but Riz Ahmed has anticipated its arrival when we speak. The Emmy-winning actor and rapper is quizzing me on my game plan for the near future, when we're no longer allowed to leave our houses. He has a pile of books by his bed ready to plough through, including Hassan Damluji's The Responsible Globalist, Elizabeth Plank's For the Love of Men and Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Lies That Bind.
When I mumble something about going back to working on a novel, he interjects, playing devil's advocate as he half-jokes: "Alternatively, you could just say, 'I'm going to step away from the internalised capitalist idea that I have to be productive even in the middle of a pandemic and just be OK with being still.'"
I nod, but Ahmed can't see. We're talking on the phone, because our meeting in Manchester – arranged to coincide with the now-postponed tour of his latest album, The Long Goodbye – has been cancelled due to COVID-19. Despite this bump in the road, Ahmed remains optimistic. "Every time we have a crisis it's an opportunity to rebuild our society," he says. "What we need to do is find ways of using this moment, this reset, to work for all of us."
Released at the beginning of March, The Long Goodbye has been widely described as Ahmed's response to Brexit. The album sees the 37-year-old Londoner tackle racism towards British Asians through the lens of a breakup, presenting the wounds of colonialism as an abusive relationship in which Britney (a sentient stand-in for Britain) dumps him, leaving him to deal with the resulting trauma of being homeless and displaced. Speaking about the album's narrative through-line, Ahmed compares the emotions to the seven stages of grief – shock and denial, through to acceptance and hope.
Personal experiences informed the album's lyrics, from what Ahmed describes as "code-switching" as a Wembley-born son of Pakistani immigrants attending a predominantly white private school on a bursary, to being at Oxford University, where a fellow student likened him to Ali G. They're also a response to the fact Ahmed still finds himself stopped and questioned at airport immigration post-9/11, despite literally being in Star Wars.
"You internalise the labels that are put on you, whether you know it or not," says Ahmed, who wrote about these experiences in the 2016 essay "Typecast as a terrorist". "You have to make a conscious effort every day to push against them."
In his acting career, Ahmed has fought for roles where he's not defined by his ethnicity. Following breakout performances as the hapless wannabe suicide bomber Omar in Chris Morris' Four Lions (2010) and a Pakistani radical in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), Ahmed's more recent standout roles have included a hippy surfer love interest of Lena Dunham in Girls, a desperate LA hustler in Nightcrawler and college student Nasir Kahn in HBO miniseries The Night Of (a performance that saw him become the first male actor of Asian descent to win an Emmy for acting). While his screen work offers a way to resist stereotypes, music is a medium for Ahmed to "speak from [the] heart", as he puts it, allowing his own identity to take centre stage.
As in much of his past work, on The Long Goodbye Ahmed engages with the very labels he talks about internalising. In 2006, making music under the moniker Riz MC, he released "Post 9/11 Blues" – a satirical track that was banned by some radio stations for being too controversial, while his 2016 EP Englistan took on British nationalism and third culture identity. It seems apt, then, that The Long Goodbye's sonic palette of Pakistani and Indian instruments and qawwali vocal samples is complimented by Ahmed's British musical inspirations, shaped as they were during his years running the drum 'n' bass night Hit & Run while at university.
From powerful spoken word opener "The Breakup (Shikwa)", inspired by an epic poem by "Spiritual Father of Pakistan" Muhammad Iqbal, to the triumphant "Karma" (which would sound great blaring from nightclub speakers), The Long Goodbye masterfully demonstrates Ahmed's lyrical and musical range. Written over the space of two weeks, mostly on the tube or while waiting in line at JFK airport, The Long Goodbye came together quickly – much like Ahmed's collaboration with Heems, when they recorded the critically lauded album Cashmere under the moniker Swet Shop Boys in just four days. The beats came from longtime collaborator Tom Calvert (Redinho), who Ahmed first met on Myspace in 2008, and who produced "All in the Ghetto" on Ahmed’s 2012 debut album MICroscope.
Relationship advice skits come courtesy of some recognisable voices – from Mindy Kaling's reveal that she "never trusted that bitch" to Mahershala Ali cautioning Ahmed not to let Britney's hate for him turn into self-hate, and Asim Chaudhry's offer to "go Southall" to cheer him up. Despite the linear narrative arc and what Ahmed describes as a straightforward writing process, The Long Goodbye is a complex album. The breakup metaphor is enriched by a layer of introspection about the meaning of writing and performing such heavy emotional work. For example, on "Can I Live" Ahmed lays bare the trauma of his ancestors and his own personal mission of "Tryna put Pakis on the telly", but also discusses the position he finds himself in. "All the scars on my heart earned me 50 grand," he raps.
"I'm always questioning myself," Ahmed says. "Is there something weird about performing trauma; is there something weird about performing resistance? What are the limits of it? If I'm whittling it down to a nice bite-size entertainment product for you, am I putting my foot down or am I tap dancing for the man?"
Ahmed didn't set out to make an album that represents British Asians with The Long Goodbye, but its recurring motif of asking where home is – how it feels and what it looks like for the children of immigrants – resonates. It also speaks to a wider community of migrants, such as the Somalis and Poles Ahmed grew up amongst in Wembley. "What I'm getting at with this album is asking: how do you move past these conversations that you don’t want to define you?" he says. "There's different ways of doing it, but before we move past it, we've got to talk about it – we've got to engage with it and respond to it."
Ultimately, the conclusion of The Long Goodbye is a hopeful one, as Ahmed reflects on his achievements and the developing self-love of his community in tracks like "Deal With It" and "Karma". However, the album's accompanying film, directed by BAFTA-nominated Aneil Karia and starring Ahmed, unties that feeling of resolution.
The film follows a British Asian family torn apart by a sudden and violent ambush by a gang of white nationalists – a sobering depiction of what might happen if rising Islamophobia in the UK, referenced throughout the album, continues. Despite its bleak narrative, Ahmed finds comfort in the interest the film has received – not only from fans, critics and the wider public since its release, but from others during its production. "Even though the film's content might not be particularly hopeful, the fact that we made it, the fact that we were supported in making it, the fact that it was mentioned in parliament in PMQs [by Bradford West MP Naz Shah] – to me, there's hope in that," he says.
Optimism permeates every aspect of Ahmed's creative life – from pushing back against being typecast by rejecting roles as shopkeepers and taxi drivers, to shaping an album about trauma into one that's equally triumphant. So his optimism for life after the lockdown isn't surprising, as he tells me he's confident The Long Goodbye tour will be rescheduled. In the meantime, he's been hosting "The Long Lockdown" – a weekly online festival that livestreams Ahmed's films and music videos, as well as discussions related to the album, where audiences are invited to ask questions.
He goes on to muse on the opportunity for change across all facets of life, and it’s hard not to share in his belief that there's grounds for hope, no matter how bleak the circumstances.
"Livestreaming pop stars, digital dinner dates, personal trainer sessions. Why do we have offices? We don't need them. We're never going back after this pandemic," he suggests enthusiastically. "What I really believe is that art has a role in framing those conversations."
The Long Goodbye is out now via Mongrel Records.
You can get involved / catch up with The Long Lockdown on YouTube.