“I'm not joking when I say it feels like the 1930s right now,” the actor and MC Riz Ahmed tells me down the phone. “Back then you had rising inequality, a financial crash that worsened it, the discrediting of the political establishment, political instability and economic decline, the rise of the far left and right – and that was all held together by the scapegoating of minorities. I used to save speaking about these matters for my music rather than my interviews, but now it feels do or die. If your country is going in a worrying direction, you gotta stand up for what you believe in.”
That response, to my very first question, kinda set the tone for the conversation I would have with Ahmed when we spoke one afternoon back in July. Brexit – a word with such grand consequence yet overuse that it’s almost become boring to write – had just caused a 42% surge in hate crimes in the UK, and as the dust settles on the initial blast, the long term social consequences don’t look much better. This week, the number of kids excluded from school for racism reportedly rose by 20%.
Most people know Riz Ahmed as the lead in the British comedy Four Lions. Or perhaps as Jake Gyllenhall’s protégé in Nightcrawler. If you’ve watched the new Bourne movie, he’s in that one too. If you're a proper TV buff and are onto HBO series The Night Of, then he's the lead in that. Oh, and when the new Star Wars film Rogue One comes out, an Ahmed shaped Star Wars figure by the name of Bodhi Rook will go on sale. But he also has a side hustle many are less familiar with: in one sense he’s Hollywood, but in another he’s about as North London as they come.
Since 2006 he’s been rapping and producing music as Riz MC, and his debut track “Post 9/11 Blues" was initially banned from British airplay because the lyrics were deemed “politically sensitive”. More recently, he’s become one third of rap crew Swet Shop Boys – featuring himself, Heems (formerly of Das Racist) and the producer Redinho – a project that looks to explore the diasporic immigration experience across continents, from Europe to America, India to Pakistan. And in April this year, he dropped the solo mixtape, Englistan, which, over South Asian inspired rap beats, explored code-switching, bigotry, the conflicting expectations of traditional family and contemporary life, ‘honour’ killing, depression and England.
So for Ahmed, there were many reasons something like Brexit woud leave a bad taste in his mouth, but one was simply down to the fact that he’s lived through a better Britain. He grew up in north-west London, the son of working class Pakistani parents, and though he would go on to attend Oxford University on a government grant, his formative years were in Wembley. In his teens, he witnessed a supersonic British-Asian cultural boom, as musicians like Asian Dub Foundation, Bally Sagoo, Talvin Singh, Badmarsh and Shri, Fun Da Mental and Nitin Sawhney found wider audiences and even scored UK number ones. He was immersed in the simultaneous and under-documented British-South Asian rave scene, which he’s since made a short film about called Daytimer (which you can watch here).
So, with post-Brexit Britain still reeling, and the Swet Shop Boys dropping a new album in October, it felt like a pretty good time to have a conversation with Ahmed about music, politics, identity, and the lesser known side of 90s rave.
Hi Riz. So, where did the idea come from for the Englistan shirts?
Riz: I want to escape the binary of English/Pakistani or religious/secular or coconut/ghetto boy. I want that Englistan shirt to stretch the flags. That's what the Englistan mixtape is all about too. We've almost sold out of these shirts and over half of those sales have been to white people. This isn’t about brown people coming over and taking over; it’s about trying to find a way of repurposing and refurbishing those symbols. It’s taking the St George's Cross that I grew up seeing as a symbol of hate and racism, and trying to repurpose it. Englistan is just Hindi or Urdu for 'England'.
Music has always felt to me, in London at least, like somewhere identity is able to thrive.
Yeah, it’s a little different. Especially in the 90s. The 90s was a heyday of British-Asian culture. We had Prince Naseem and Goodness Gracious Me, and Bally Sagoo in the charts. We used to go to day time raves, and we reclaimed the word 'paki' for ourselves. We had something. It was like Atlanta in the late 90s for African Americans. The UK was the South Asian diasporic lighthouse. Then 9/11 happened and it evaporated. Overnight, my little cousin’s generation went from self-identifying as Pakistani to self-identifying as Muslim.
The surveillance culture and demonising of Muslims that followed 9/11 and 7/7 made those kids pick sides, and made them double down hard on that identity. For some that meant just being religious and shunning pop culture. For others, flirting with more extreme views became a way of rebelling, but in a kind of not-thinking teenage way. Either way, it meant the retreat of some of the Asian identity from British music and pop culture.
So, where would a young Pakistani kid go out in London in the 90s?
Daytime raves used to take place in London, typically somewhere like Zenith nightclub (which is now an MMA gym) in Park Royal. They happened during the day, sometimes on the last day of term so kids could bunk off school and not get into as much trouble. We'd take a change of clothes [to school] and then duck out early. People came from all over the UK. Coaches would be organised down from Manchester, Birmingham, everywhere.
This was before mobile phones really took off, so a lot of it was through flyers. You'd get given a flyer that just had ”Harrow – see Dev” or ”Northwood – see Raj” written on it. Basically, you would just go to the main man in every manor and he would be selling tickets. You also had paan stores – they started diversifying and selling tickets to raves and British-Asian mixtapes. The seminal one was Bally Sagoo's Bollywood Flashback album, which ended up charting quite highly. This scene and this music was a very specific way of bridging and healing that cultural gap we felt growing up – are we British or are we Asian?
What was the music like?
The music was Bollywood remixes and speed bhangra and, you know, that one hit everyone knows by Punjabi MC. People like Mets and Trix from up in Manchester, DJs like Hanif (H Bomb). You had big scenes in Birmingham too, especially coming out of the Custard Factory – like Manga and all those guys.
What happened to the scene in the end?
The scene started to splinter and peter out for a number of reasons. But a really big one is what 9/11 did culturally in terms of the self-image of South Asian communities. You went from all being Asian – from having solidarity across the religious boundaries when it was small, fledgling and artsy – to it being fragmented. In the 80s we were all black, then in the 90s we were all Asians/Pakis, then post-9/11 it fragments further to Sikh, Hindu, Muslim.
So, is your Swet Shop Boys project an extension of that early underground mentality? One that celebrates solidarity across religions, the coming together of different South Asian cultures in a diasporic setting?
Definitely. It's about celebrating where you’re from and fusing it with where we are at now, which was a big part of the 90s ethos. But the difference is back then it was UK focused. The idea with Swet Shop Boys is joining the diaspora dots. The first time I came to USA and met Asians there, it was like a parallel universe – people share that hybrid identity and its a gift and a curse, but their experience is subtly different to ours. It kind of opens up your horizons and makes you feel less alone.
How are Swet Shop Boys received in America?
We might be bigger in America than in the UK. The diaspora there is a little more artsy cos they're more middle class. So the kind of lyrics and beats we have connect more there. Our community here is a bit more hood. Also I think there’s a thirst for expressing South Asian identity and immigrant identity really explicitly in the USA right now, because of everything going on politically. We had that moment in the 90s more in the UK, but 9/11 shut that down a lot more in the UK because our more working class communities were more pre-disposed to getting really religious after that.
I feel like that ‘rudeboy to religious’ story is a fairly common one across a lot of different faiths?
That's definitely been one of the patterns in our story. I’m not saying all religious young men who are Muslims were ex-thugs – not even a high percentage were – but it’s definitely something you see with the old thugs that were on the scene at raves; in music and shotting. When you hit the glass ceiling with street celebrity or gangsterism, how do you continue to do something counter cultural, but that feeds your soul after all the petty arms house and small time glamour loses its shine? Religion, and that's where a lot of the neo-salafism and neo-wahhabism stuff came in.
We should talk about how this applies to present day. 7 out of 10 muslims voted remain in the EU referendum – do you sympathise with or understand those 30% who voted leave? Is it simply that older immigrants also feel threatened, economically, by newer ones?
I think, quite simply, people were misinformed in a very deliberate way. They were told public services and their lives would improve [if they voted to leave] and that's appealing to a lot of people of all backgrounds. I also think, as one of my tracks talks about, there's a consistent theme in our history of immigrant groups being made to feel they have to compete with each other for jobs, resources, and acceptance into Britishness. That somehow the new ones are giving the old ones a bad name, and they might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. It is born from making consecutive immigrant groups feel especially insecure about their position here. That's what systemic racism and xenophobia does. It enables this divide and rule.
You've stated that Englistan is "an unflinching portrayal of multiculturalism not as a buzzword, but as lived experience." Words like diversity and multiculturalism can become meaningless after over use. What is your definition of British multiculturalism?
For me personally, it was defined by experiencing different cultures and worlds within the course of my day, like in Daytimer. We aren't perfect, but our multiculturalism feels less segregated, at its best, than some other European countries.
In Daytimer, the main character goes from being picked on by white kids at his private school to a South Asian daytime rave. You’ve said this is autobiographical. Was it difficult for you to navigate these two worlds growing up, even in London?
I grew up code switching between those worlds of traditional Pakistani family, a relatively posh school, and that Asian scene we talked about. So, navigating social codes was a feature of my life from early on. Firstly, I thought, write a film about what you know. But second, I felt like I want that kind of story to be a valid British story that takes its place in our culture.
Scorcese brought the Italian American experience to the centre stage; Spike Lee did it with the African American experience. As Asians we are part of this country's DNA – I want to bring that story on stage too and not as a niche thing, but as a real British story. When people ask me where I'm from, part of the response is: “Oi, fam - look at this Englistan shirt". That's why I made it because I don't want to have to choose. But in practice my response has always been "London". And that's not me trying to erase my heritage. That's trying to get people to recognise who actually built London. The Empire built London. My ancestors built this city before they ever set foot in this place. So when I say London, that's what I mean. My blood is in these bricks from day.
When I did a Pitchfork Radio takeover and they asked for my London track I had to choose [Shy FX and UK Apache’s] “Original Nuttah”. To me that says it all. It's an Iraqi British Muslim, chatting in Jamaican patois over a jungle beat. That's UK: that’s multiculturalism to me. Now if you wanna hear UK Apache spitting bars, it’s in a mosque, preaching. That's a beautiful thing too, I'm not criticising it. What I am saying is I want to escape the binaries. Too many people are forced to choose.
You can follow Kit Caless on Twitter.
Swet Shop Boys debut album is now available to pre-order.