These days, the personal feels political. "Identity politics" are sneered at by those on the right. Conversations around who we can and should see feel constant. Being visible becomes a radical act. For actor-rapper-writer Riz Ahmed, whose identity seems to always involve a hyphen, this couldn't be any clearer. As the British son of Pakistani immigrants, his massive year in 2016 felt like a statement of defiance in the face of Brexit and Donald Trump-style nationalism. And, with my conspiracy theory feelers tingling, it seems like more than coincidence that his biggest role to date shows him aiding a rebellion in Rogue One.
Along with a breakout performance in HBO's The Night Of, last year Ahmed offered up his view of the world on solo mixtape Englistan and – alongside Heems and Redinho – on Swet Shop Boys' album Cashmere. And that's all very well and good, but there's more to Ahmed's impact than some big tunes and a few major roles onscreen. With the odds stacked against him, he's also become a voice for "third-culture children" – those who don't completely fit in with the cultural customs of their parents or the places where they live – that resonates around the world. Labelled a perpetual foreigner in his own land, he turns being a misfit into a way to see the world through a wider lens.
As an actor, Ahmed is particularly memorable for that look in his eyes that says he knows something you don't. While it's perfect for fuelling fan theories about his role on The OA, it's also familiar to anyone else who's used to switching different parts of themselves on and off to fit in. He says as much on Englistan highlight "Double Lives", capturing the juggling act of maintaining a strait-laced image for his strict Muslim community while also participating in western party life. "Is it best of both or two lives I live?" he asks. "At home, take comfort in culture, religion / When I'm out then I flout it, fuckin' and pillin'."
Sure, doing drugs isn't compulsory – *turns to wink at camera* – but as Oscar Wilde once said, "the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it." Our parents came to new countries so that we could have more opportunities, but didn't know how much we'd take advantage of them. Calling himself "Rizzy Frankenstein" on Swet Shop Boys' "Half Moghul Half Mowgli," Ahmed conjures a fitting metaphor for the how identity can feel like a patchwork, not unlike the two-sided football shirt he wore on Englistan's cover art. He explores how to be a whole person when he's constantly being told that he's not English enough, not Pakistani enough, not Muslim enough – but he's all of those things. Ultimately, he can only live up to his own moral code, knowing that it won't hew exactly to any system he's been taught. As he says on Cashmere's "Phone Tap", "I hold down a high standard but I stand alone."
This is a classic part of third-culture kid theory (a term coined by American sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem). It's the sort of experience that kids who never lived in the countries where their parents were from, or left their "home" country before they could properly read or write would recognise.
I first watched Dev Patel explore that same struggle almost a decade ago, playing Anwar on Skins, dutifully praying his way through hangovers on the show and wondering if God could see how many pingers he'd popped the night before. This was one of the first hints I got as to how that sort of duality would rule my own life. Since then, we've seen more depictions of cultural confusion crop up, particularly in the US with shows like Fresh Off The Boat and Master Of None, but there's still no definitive handbook on how to navigate life as the child of immigrants or the child of a diplomat who moves country every two years, unsure of what life you "should" or "could" be leading.
It was around this time I first came across Ahmed, when he starred in the jihad satire Four Lions, one of numerous roles he's played that adds nuance to the post-9/11 conversation rather than dealing in cheap stereotypes. As much as he made me laugh, I couldn't have predicted that I'd someday have an equal respect for this man's life-giving bars and address to Parliament on the need for diverse representation in British media. As Scarlett Johansson tries to position herself as a feminist leader while starring in a Ghost in the Shell role that could have been played by a person of colour, Ahmed seems to just naturally get it right. For me and my mates who have only recently started to see families that look like ours onscreen, we've naturally gravitated towards Ahmed and the way he stands up for all of us.
Following his more recent successes, I've gone back through Ahmed's history, reading of how he started his own club night to break out against the stuffy confines of Oxford – incidentally, the city where I first experienced a strange man shouting "Konnichiwa, Chinese princess" at me. In a white-dominated academic environment, he made himself more visible instead of shrinking down. He has done this throughout his career, showing that it's not too late for me and others like us to assert our identities instead of turning off or camouflaging the traditions that our parents taught us. In the current sociopolitical climate, this has become even more of a necessity.
Along with Heems, whose previous work with Das Racist helped me articulate my anxiety and isolation at university, Ahmed says it's normal to feel uncomfortable all the time. He doesn't take his status as a role model lightly. Earlier this year, he set out this advice for an aspiring actor of colour: "To anyone who sees themselves not represented in the culture, on screen, on stage, in magazines, I would say the place where you feel like you don't belong or you don't fit in is exactly the place you should be. So, it's really on you to kind of try and insert yourself into that culture, without waiting for the culture to tell you that you belong there – because it might not."
Look, I know that being Chinese-American means my experience obviously diverges from Ahmed's. But though he writes with a South Asian and British specificity, his descriptions of disconnection translate to other hyphenated identities, particularly those that exist outside the typically black-or-white way we look at ethnicity. When I listen to "Double Lives" and "Half Moghul Half Mowgli," I think about how I haven't been to my father's native Hong Kong in 20 years. I think about being rejected by Asian-American men for not being traditional enough. I think about my uni neighbour who thought "Asia" would be a cute nickname for me.
Ahmed's glo-up sparks hope in the face of intolerance, proving that there's room for many identities, even within one person. Hyphenated stories exist across western societies (and beyond), and he constantly uses his art and status to make sure they become more visible. Like he told the House of Commons, "representation's not an added extra, it's not a frill. It's absolutely fundamental to what people expect from culture and from politics." As Ahmed's career continues to grow, he's pioneering a future where those like him – people of colour, the children of immigrants – can create their own lane and thrive in it.
You can find Katie resisting the urge to watch Four Lions again on Twitter.
(Lead image via PR by Chris Bethell)