Riz Ahmed Is Rethinking What Matters

Riz Ahmed Is Rethinking What Matters


When Riz Ahmed decided to make an album and a short film about “being broken up with by the country you live in,” he had a landscape of inspiration to choose from: Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, state-sanctioned violence against Muslims in India. Ahmed has long made smart, playful music, from the single “Post 9/11 Blues,” in 2006, to the album “Cashmere,” from 2016, which he released as part of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys, with the Indian-American rapper Heems. But he may be best known for his exhilarating work as an actor, in films like “Four Lions,” “Nightcrawler,” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and in television shows like “The Night Of” and “Girls.” His début solo LP, “The Long Goodbye,” came out in March, as the coronavirus crisis swallowed most countries’ other concerns, including the matter of Brexit. But Ahmed has not lost sight of the underlying conditions that the pandemic has brought into relief. He begins the album with the lines “Britain’s broken up with me / We had our ups / But now it’s broken down / Lemme break down the whole fuckery.”

The album’s extended breakup metaphor goes in emotional, reflective, and often funny directions. In one interlude, Mindy Kaling leaves Ahmed a “voice mail” encouraging him to take half in the breakup; in another, Mahershala Ali tells him not to let rejection and hate get him down. Ahmed also spends time wrestling with the idea of home. His family hails from Pakistan, but Ahmed was born and grew up in northwest London, and he went to Oxford for college. (“Did they ask you where you from? / No, where you really from? / The question seems simple, but the answer’s kinda long,” he raps on the album.) In lieu of an album tour, he has been hosting a series of discussions about art and mental health on his Instagram account, and hopping on his friends’ online events, such as an open-mike night hosted by the poet Rupi Kaur.

But, like many of us, Ahmed is also restless at home, releasing the evidence of his quarantine buzz cut and nostalgically posting his fight scenes with Tom Hardy from the movie “Venom,” while joking about the days of being able to touch others. He’s riding out the lockdown in the U.K., which he still considers his only home. We spoke via FaceTime at the end of April; I was in my apartment, in Brooklyn, and Ahmed was at his place in London. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

My condolences about your uncle. He recently passed away due to complications from COVID-19, right?

Yes. Thank you. I’ve lost two family members now, my uncle and my aunt.

I’m sorry to hear that.

Thank you. A lot of people are facing unexpected losses.

The first thing I wanted to ask you about is something you posted recently. You were encouraging people to sign a petition called the Solidarity Pledge, which would help insure that poorer countries are not outbid by wealthier nations for ventilators, vaccines, treatments, and essential supplies. Is that something you’re concerned about?

Yes. In some ways, national differences seem more inconsequential than ever, because viruses don’t respect borders, and we’re going through this as a collective human experience. On the other hand, different communities, in different countries, have different levels of access to resources. I’ve been reading a little bit about what’s going on, for example, in refugee camps, where there’s little to no resources, such as ventilators, and little to no possibility of social distancing. So I think it’s time to try and pull together the best we can.

Can you take me through the process of coming up with the concepts, lyrics, and music on “The Long Goodbye?” Was it inspired mostly by the political situation and things that had happened to you personally?

It was a mixture of things, like most creative projects are. For me, the idea of a breakup album addressed to your country started taking root in the spring of 2017. I’d floated it as the concept for a track on the Swet Shop Boys album that we were recording that April. We thought we’d get around to it, but we didn’t, quite.

The concept itself came from a number of different sources. I always hesitate to describe my music as a response to political circumstances, because I’m not a politician. I’m an artist; I’m just responding to what are personal matters. How you feel walking down the street in your home town is a very personal matter. The dreams or nightmares that keep you up at night, that’s a very personal matter. Some of it was a response to those emotions in the wake of Brexit and the election of President Trump. When we played our first show in L.A., it was actually on the night of Trump’s Inauguration. There was a really intense energy that night. People were in tears, people were getting really drunk. It was like being at a wake or something.

The reason I decided to frame that emotional response as a breakup album is partly inspired by Qawwali music and Sufi music, and by the kind of Sufi poetic tradition where you often use the metaphor of estrangement from the beloved, or rejection by the beloved, or the beloved being obscured from you, as a metaphor for your relationship to the divine. It was taking that frame and placing it into what I do. You see it also in the broader Urdu poetry tradition, where you have poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Muhammad Iqbal, who would engage with the idea of home or the homeland.

So had you had that experience of walking down the street and not feeling welcome, or having nightmares about what was going on?

Yeah. Something that really stood out for me was, I was at dinner with some friends in New York, and it was quite a mixed group. There were Jewish people there; there were black people there; there were Muslim people there; there were East Asian people there; and the topic of conversation that came up was whether it’d be safe to stay in the United States. I’d heard similar conversations in the U.K. and in Paris. This idea of, O.K., we’re born and raised here, we’ve always seen this as our home. But by the time we get to our grandchildren’s generation, will they curse us for not having left when we had the chance? Is this Berlin in the late nineteen-twenties, and we just don’t realize it?

What surprised me about that was two things. One, I hadn’t really heard people of my generation who were born and raised in these countries speak like that before. And second, I recognized it as a thought. It was a conversation that was, on one level, surprising to me, and, on another level, incredibly familiar. I wanted to unpack that question—“Are we together or not?” The album plays out the metaphor of heartbreak because home is a place that you care about. It’s a relationship that, for better or worse, you define yourself through.

Another question you raise in the album is: If you did leave, or if other people left, where would they go?

Yeah, exactly. I think the album can be captured by a quote from an artist who passed just yesterday, Zarina Hashmi. I was deeply moved by her work and by some of her interviews. She said, “I learned early on in my life that home isn’t a physical place. It’s an idea that you take with you.” Rather than the question being, should I stay as an African-American post-Ferguson, or should I stay in the U.K. post-Brexit, the question becomes: Who am I relying on to make me feel at home? Whose acceptance am I looking for in order to feel like I have worth and value?

The album is trying to find that self-love and self-compassion. I used to think that people who say “The real work starts with yourself” were being lazy, and that the real work had to take place on the front line. But if the coronavirus is showing us anything, it’s that much of the work we can do to insure a fair world is actually work on ourselves—it’s developing compassion in our voices and compassion toward ourselves, so that we can become building blocks for a better world.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t material injustices that we need to address. But the things that we were told are fundamental, like ambition and productivity and status, have been revealed to be hollow. We always knew that, but we’re feeling it on a visceral level now. The things that are fundamental are family, health, and our interconnectedness.

Absolutely. I was rewatching the short film for “The Long Goodbye,” and it’s shocking. We see intimate scenes of a Muslim family who are suddenly arrested and then killed by what look to be militants or state security. On the song “Mogambo,” you rap, “They want to kill us all.” Why did you go for that extreme visual approach? Do you think that kind of violence is possible?

Well, I think it’s been shown to be possible by what’s going on in India right now; what’s happened in Europe in our lifetimes; state-sponsored violence in America, Russia, Myanmar. I think there’s an extent to which this isn’t really a work of speculative fiction. On the other hand, it’s also not designed to be a documentary. It’s a projection of what’s going on in my mind and in the mind of the filmmaker, Aneil Karia. I’d say not just Muslims but people from around the world are staring down the barrel of this rising intolerance and wondering, What’s the logical conclusion of all this rhetoric? I do think that this is the other pandemic we’re facing, this intolerance and hate. In a way, to go back to your question, it didn’t feel to me to be a shocking approach. It just felt honest.

But as much as I wanted to portray the truth of those fears, I also wanted to reflect the truth of domestic joy. People have really responded to the nightmarish part of the film, but there’s also been a massive outpouring of recognition in seeing those scenes of domesticity. Those scenes of quotidian conflict, joy, family life, are so woefully absent from our culture. There’s something bold in how joyous the film is, not just in how confrontational it is.

In the U.K., Brexiteers, like many Trump supporters in the United States, say that they want their country back. And you rap, memorably, “Or if everyone just gets their shit back, then that’s bless for us. / You only built a piece of this place, bruv, the rest was us.” Much of your album goes back to this idea of Britain being what it is because of the labor of its former colonial subjects. Can you talk more about that?

Again, the virus is showing us just how interconnected we are as a species. It’s interesting: at certain points in my life, I would say that I’m British Pakistani, to try and convey the complexity—not the contradiction—of my own identity. But I realized that British should be enough. Not because I’m trying to negate my history, but because my ancestors helped to build Britain before they’d ever even set foot there.

Britain was built by colonial subjects in the Global South. What could be more British than giving your blood, sweat, and tears in World War I? Or your life in the Bengal famine? What could be more of a contribution to qualify you and your ancestry as British than that?

Your song “Where You From” is so good at describing a common feeling. Many people have heard that question: “Where you really from?” Now, amid Brexit, we’re in a pandemic, and immigrant health workers have been on the front lines. The first three doctors to die in Britain were Muslim immigrants, which was really striking.

I framed the album within the specificity of my British experience, to really personalize it. But it’s been interesting to see how widely its messages resonated. Many Indians related to the sense of heartbreak in the album—of feeling unwelcome in their own country, of it becoming a country they didn’t recognize. People drew parallels between the pogroms and the short film, as well. I do think it’s interesting when people think this is an album about Brexit Britain. It really is not. It’s about feeling heartbroken by the country that you call home. To that extent, it’s a very American experience.

To speak to what you’re talking about, with the virus—what we’re seeing in the States, and also over here, are working-class communities and communities of color who are unable to self-isolate, because they need to sustain themselves, or because they are often overrepresented in those front-line-worker roles that are being hit the hardest. They’re the people who are keeping the lights on and keeping the hospitals working and saving our lives. I think that there is often this yo-yoing in a toxic relationship, and that’s what the album explores. I saw some graphs yesterday saying that public concern over immigration is at a low point. The last time it was this low, I think it was in the early nineties or early two-thousands, I can’t remember. But in a toxic relationship you have these moments of, “Get out. I hate you. I never want to see you again.” Then, when you find yourself in a position of need, you say, “Please come back. I need you. Please come and fight for us. World War I is about to kick off, we need a million Indian troops.”

I think we’re seeing another one of those moments right now. Does that mean that the relationship is inherently toxic or must remain toxic? Absolutely not. I really hope that this situation is an opportunity to break some of the negative patterns that have guided our societies. One of those patterns is an economics of endless growth that values luxury goods over schools and hospitals. Another one of those patterns is a criminal undervaluing of immigrant communities, people of color, working-class communities, the very people who we’re depending on for our collective survival right now.

Speaking of things that are connecting us worldwide, Ramadan began in April. I don’t know if you fast, but does it feel different for you this year?

It’s certainly different, because Ramadan is a time of gathering and family and feasting and worship. It’s also the month of revelation of the Quran. I heard the other day that “apocalypse” in Greek doesn’t mean ending; it means revelation. It means uncovering. It does seem apt that this is a moment when so much is being uncovered, right? Not only the crazy imbalances in our societies, but also, for so many people, the contents of their own mind and their own programming.

So it’s different. But we might also be closer to the original intention of the month, which is to be a time to reflect and to receive our own personal kind of revelations, even if they’re incredibly painful.

You had to cancel your tour for “The Long Goodbye.” But, in its stead, you’ve been doing “The Long Lockdown”? How did that come about?

Well, we were all geared up and ready to tour, and fans bought tickets everywhere. For me, at least, music is all about that moment of connecting with the audience. When we decided we were going to call off the tour, I still—selfishly, perhaps—wanted that moment. But I wasn’t sure what form it should take, so I threw it out to the fans. We got a variety of responses, so we’ve had a variety of live streams. One of them was a discussion on mental health with my brother, who’s a psychiatrist. Another was a discussion about what home is, and how home is a place that we can create through fiction, with Fatima Bhutto, Rupi Kaur, and Nikesh Shukla. Also, a discussion of the intersection of art and activism and ambition, and how mutually exclusive they might be, with Guz Khan and Hasan Minhaj. I did a live performance of a track, “Any Day,” with Jay Sean. We’re just finding ways of staying creative.

I saw that performance with Jay Sean. How did you guys make that work?

Pretty much like this. I FaceTimed him on my computer and walked around with my phone, just rapping here. It was pretty lo-fi. There’s something quite interesting about creating online performances. It’s a leveller of production values. I think it captured a mood; the song has a kind of melancholy energy, and we were in the third week of lockdown and wondering how long this would last. The sun was setting and there seemed something honest about it. I think a space has opened up for some real honesty in performance.

What is it like making art, or not feeling like you want to make art, during a time of grief and turmoil? How are you feeling about it?

It’s really tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, the creative process can be a therapeutic one. On the other hand, it can be quite intense. I think we’re all just working it out. I wish I had something more insightful to say, but some days I feel like I just really can’t focus, and other days I feel quite inspired. We’re all reimagining what productivity is. We’re all reimagining what our purpose is. I think there’s something spiritually profound about what we’re all living through. Insofar as I’m envisaging work, I’m thinking, What does work that I make purely for myself look like and feel like? And I’m not sure. As a writer, I don’t know if you’re finding it possible to sit down and focus and write.

It’s hard. It’s very hard. In the beginning, it was impossible. It’s become a little bit more possible now, but it’s definitely been hard to focus.

It is. I think we’re all experiencing this trauma, really, and so many of our mental and emotional energies are going toward dealing with that. I’m also kind of reconsidering what an act of creativity is—mealtimes, for me, were usually just throw it all in a blender and throw it down your neck on the way to the next meeting. But I’ve been cooking up some ambitious food, by my standards, and that’s an act of creativity that nourishes you, that calms you. With a lot of these terms, like being “productive” or being “creative,” we’re really expanding their definition to include a more humane view of the world, rather than just a capitalistic one.

How you are hanging in there? What are your days like?

It changes. Some days are good, some days are bad. I guess the consistent thing is that inner voice that’s telling me that I should be more productive, that I should be doing more, whether to help others or to make work. That voice is louder than ever because I don’t have the distractions of all the other things that would tune it out, but also because I am doing probably less than I ever was by those old standards. By the standards of the world that stopped existing two months ago, I’m unproductive. It’s like emerging out of some kind of cult, with your eyes wide open.

So one of the consistent elements of my day has been that psychological shadowboxing with myself about what I should be doing. And I’m really starting to investigate where that voice comes from, who it really serves, what it defines as productive. Is taking care of yourself and your body and your loved ones, is that valid? Is that productive? Is it useful? Day to day, how I’m feeling can vary. But I’d like to hope that if there’s an arc to this journey, it might be starting to interrogate and challenge some of those mantras that we all inherited.

I have to ask, what are you cooking?

I’m cooking different South Asian dishes. Asma Khan is a friend of mine, an amazing cook, and she’s got a book, so I tried to make one of her dishes—this chicken chaap, which is like a yogurt chicken dish.

Usually, I don’t really eat South Asian sweets, those luminous sweets that look like they give you instant diabetes. But I found myself, in a desire for childhood memories or comfort, actually making some of that myself. I made a kind of egg halwa yesterday. So yeah, man, I’m mixing it up a little bit and feeling very grateful, privileged, and lucky to be able to spend my time doing that. My brother is a psychiatrist and is working on the front line. As I said, we lost a couple of family members, so it’s definitely something that I don’t take for granted.

Absolutely. What’s keeping you sane and entertained? I read that you had been enjoying shows like “Love Is Blind.”

I binged “Love Is Blind” on, like, day two of lockdown. It was a very prescient show, a very quarantine-y kind of show, actually. I’m watching the Italian TV series “Gomorrah,” which I think is great. What else? I know a lot of people are watching “Contagion” and “12 Monkeys.” I haven’t got around to that. Honestly, I think I’m probably watching less news than ever before. In the beginning, I think a lot of us were in that pattern of being on the news-cycle hamster wheel, but it doesn’t really do any good. I’ve been working out a little bit, that’s definitely been a big anchor, just doing some exercise to start the day off.

Are you going outside for that or staying in?

No, I’m doing that at home. It’s interesting, though, because in the U.K., I think it’s more of a lax lockdown, certainly more than most other European countries, apart from the ones that have already gone back to a version of normal. It’s strange. Sometimes you think nothing is different on a sunny day.

Are you Zooming a lot with friends, family?

I quite like Zooming. I do think some elements of our life won’t fully go back to the old normal. I think the digital dinner party kind of thing is here to stay, and why not? Sometimes it takes months to find the time when you can meet up with friends.

You’ve lived in different cities, like New York. Is there meaning in the fact that you chose to quarantine in London, in a country with which you are still working out your relationship?

I sometimes travel and stay elsewhere for long periods, for work, but I have always lived in London. It’s the only home I’ve had. To me, my Britishness is not in question. The album is in part a response to the fact that, for some people, it still may be.