River Runs Deep: Riz Ahmed Interviewed

River Runs Deep: Riz Ahmed Interviewed

"I'm proud of all the work I’ve done, but’s it’s also important we evolve..."

Riz Ahmed has emerged as an unfiltered voice for the marginalised and minoritized, with totemic performances across music and film. For years, Ahmed has embraced the gift and burden of representation.

Now, he’s ready to hone in on the micro.

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Buy Riz Ahmed x Clash print issue here.

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There’s a protracted scene at the end of The Long Goodbye short film where Riz Ahmed glowers directly into the viewer’s gaze. In spoken-word, he recites the lyrics from ‘Where You From?’; his bloodied mien a mesh of fury and anguish, eyes transmitting a hollow longing.

In preceding scenes, Ahmed and his family are partaking in the usual “ronak” – the frenzy – that characterises a typical day in a Desi household; it’s a projection of warmth, colours, aroma and familial noise. Whilst a nagging sense of foreboding pulses throughout, the violent melodrama that supervenes remains etched in the psyche long after initial viewing. “With the short film, I was asking how can you understand this wider social and political fuckery through a very first-person, subjective point of view? How can I portray this vicious invasion of our private space, this world breaking down through a portrait of one character breaking down?” Ahmed says.

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Clash catches Riz Ahmed over Zoom on the promo trail; he’s currently in LA filming for the sci-fi thriller, Invasion. Our transatlantic conversation coalesces into dialled-in observations, unexpected analogies and whimsical detours through a storied career. It can feel like a breathless jaunt as Ahmed stuns you with commentary that reads like a thesis: We cover artists that soundtracked his lockdown - Tirzah, J Hus, Koffee and Jai Paul, to name a few - global politics, art over commerce, the spectre of isolation for an actor who lives out of his suitcase. Ahmed commands your attention, always. There’s no ego, no sense of elevated superiority - just a convivial demeanour.

Ahmed recalls his own history, weaving a binding thread through a career that has for the most part, abjured a mainstream blueprint. Born in Wembley, London, to an upwardly-mobile family who emigrated to the U.K from Karachi, Pakistan in the 1970s, Ahmed remains tethered to his heritage. His family still resides in London; a personal and community-based sanctum he takes with him wherever he goes. “London is home; culturally, and in terms of its demographic mix. It is one of the most colourful cities in the world,” he says with pride.

Still, Ahmed, like many children of the diaspora, is bound by a constant state of the ephemeral. A sense of unbelonging shrouds us in perpetuity - we become one with this ambiguity, and it inscribes our being like a tattoo. Ahmed’s work reconnoitres that sticky grey area, avoiding binary answers for multifarious questions. “We’re people who code-switch, we live between cultures to navigate our daily lives, implicitly and explicitly,” he shifts in his seat, “It’s impossible to bring all of yourself to this interview, this meeting room, this workplace or even a romantic relationship – you have to leave a part of yourself at the door,” he explains.

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From acting in independent films, like the cult classic, jihadist satire Four Lions, to franchise blockbusters like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, demarcating markers have blighted much of Ahmed’s journey: For him, it’s been one long, arduous road through periods of disillusionment. “I’ve been in award-winning productions, I felt I’d proven myself in ways that my white peers hadn’t time and time again. I was broke, I hit a glass ceiling in the UK so many times my head was bleeding,” Ahmed reflects. “Financially, emotionally and physically, I was burned out. It’s something we don’t talk about enough, this visage that we have as public faces. Emotionally you lose sight of what the point is. I’ve been there a couple of times and it does feel like you’re losing your footing.”

A watershed moment came with HBO limited-series ‘The Night Of’. For the role of Nasir Khan, Ahmed mined dramatic tension from a character adapting to life behind bars, in a story that explored the prison-industrial complex, mass incarceration and an inequitable justice system. He conveyed his character’s conversion from a doe-eyed innocent to a hardened survivor with technical precision, his eyes a gateway to his character’s inner turmoil. It’s no wonder, Riz Ahmed became the first man of Asian descent to win an acting award at the Emmys.

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Fast forward to 2020. In a year that blunted the impact of cinema, Ahmed produced two era-defining performances, dominating much of the pre-Oscars hysteria. In Sound Of Metal, he played Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who abruptly loses his hearing. In Mogul Mowgli, he played a role closer to home, that of a rapper, Zed, who undergoes a spiritual reckoning when confronted with the reality of living with a terminal illness - the latter marking his debut as a screenwriter, alongside Bassam Tariq. Both performances revel in life-altering crises: The fall-out when artistic autonomy has to be forsaken is a vitrine for Ahmed, who gives his most nuanced, soulful performances to date. True cinema verité.

“With both of these films, I’m exploring the interplay of art and identity - how crucial our identities are bringing forth our art but also how crucial art is in forging our identities. For both Zed and Ruben, when the disruption of their art disrupts their identities, they have to remake themselves,” he explains. “These films explore the loss of a home. For Ruben, he lives in his RV, his studio – when he loses his music, he quite literally loses his sanctuary. For Zed, when he loses his music, he’s finds himself in a purgatory. He experiences these hallucinations, where he has to confront the loss of belonging and the loss of purpose. I know some of what that feels like.”

This manifest representation of “home” also permeates his solo album, released in the summer of 2020. The concept album is a micro-macro depiction of an ill-fated relationship falling apart at the seams; the allegory of romantic love doubling as an examination of one’s own relationship with the place that birthed them. “I originally titled the album ‘The Great British Break-Up,” Ahmed laughs, “I’m glad I didn’t go down that route.”

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He eventually settled on The Long Goodbye. The album unpacks the psychological toil of colonial trauma: His own personal history set against the backdrop of Partition, the vestiges of Empire and ancestral ghosts that haunt him. Beyond the postcolonial prototype, Riz managed to create a felicitous, universal body of work. In late December, Ahmed brought to life The Long Goodbye with a virtual performance. A technicolour one-man show, he conveyed a full gamut of emotions, distorting the political and the personal, viscerally capturing the estrangement we all feel with a country we’re supposed to call home.

“When people talk about ‘home’, they’re saying where’s the place where you can be yourself? It’s one we all ask ourselves at one point in our lives. The same way you grieve for a relationship or a loss, you have different stages of processing and coping. Each of those different stages really spoke to me not just conceptually, but emotionally, whether it was denial, anger, depression, despair and coming out the other side,” Ahmed says.

In 2016, under his Riz MC alias, Ahmed released ‘Englistan’, a mixtape charting the dissonance between being British and Pakistani. He builds on that foundation with ‘The Long Goodbye’; his impassioned plea for reciprocity with “his lover”, exposing the fallacies of what it means to be British today. This Britain is bleak: An ethno-nationalist agenda lifted straight from an Orwellian novel fast becomes our reality, anti-immigrant panic and islamophobia fomented by cabals of the commentariat obfuscates our sense of truth. This is the age of myths and discontent, and for Ahmed, his conception of a fractured nation, has never been more prescient.

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Ahmed is unapologetically brown on ‘The Long Goodbye’. He foregrounds the specificities of the British-Pakistani diasporic experience through a sound design that integrates Qawwali - a form of Sufi folk music popularised by the Great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Take in the majesty of “Haq Ali Ali”, a rapture of love laced together by repetitious vocal melisma, harmonium and tabla; a kind of trance-like ritual veering perilously close to a fragrant delirium. “I’ve always been inspired by Sufi poetry and Qawwali, which is essentially a love song: it’s about a lover, it’s about heartbreak, it’s about God. I wanted to incorporate and mirror those feelings, as if we’re going through a very long, painful break-up with our country,” Riz says.

‘The Long Goodbye’ builds on the synergistic template of British-Asian musicians like RDB, Bally Sagoo and more recently, the kaleidoscopic sorcery of Jai Paul. Produced by Swet Shop Boys bandmate and long-time collaborator, Redinho, Ahmed vocalizes over his most refined compositions to date, just another “cultivated language” that has taken years to hone.

“If it feels like a straightforward process it’s because of years moulding a sound,” Riz explains. “It’s not just about taking rap and taking South Asian pop music: it’s about going beyond that to devotional traditions, to folk music, exploring the percussion and different time signatures in that: melding that with drum and bass, making something that is hard to pinpoint. Take the track ‘Fast Lava’, what is it? It’s merging hardcore, jungle and footwork with Baloch drumming. There’s layers there and that has taken time to refine.”

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In late Autumn of last year, Ahmed released the Ben Khan-produced Once Kings, inspired by his time making Mogul Mowgli, serving as a kind of creative reboot. The song is Ahmed’s “most personal track to date”; a terse, reconciliatory monologue that sees him part with the incandescent sentiments of ‘The Long Goodbye’, to a place of stasis and contemplation. Ahmed is now open to the idea of a détente and a thawing of the ice with his country, but on his own terms. On ‘Once Kings’, he’s forthright about not having the acuity to untangle the meaning of “home” in a linear sense, believing it to be a Sisyphean task.

It’s this kind of epistolary way of being that Ahmed is now striving for: “What I’ve been moving towards in my own conception of home, that I speak about in ‘Once Kings’, is this idea of home being a place that we make through our art, a place we create through stories. I’m creating time capsules,” Ahmed muses. “We may not arrive at a sense of feeling like there’s any place that can house us but we can put all that complexity in our work. We can use our creativity to cultivate this land and build a home within it.”

Ahmed continues: “What people look for from a piece of work is a feeling of freedom, they don’t want to be anthropologically depicted. If you as an artist, can create from a that space, then the people receiving the work will feel that it. Do you want to represent or do you want to free them? That’s where my head is at now. I’ve been in this business for a minute. I’m proud of all the work I’ve done, but’s it’s also important we evolve. Now, I’m embracing the micro – really embracing the personal, thinking about presenting myself. It’s realising that presenting yourself unapologetically creates a space for others to present themselves.”

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Having just turned 38, there’s a sense the unmapped and the uncharted is not so much a restrictive, but something to engage without fear of reproach. Additionally, as he charts his next career moves, he’d like to move beyond the groundswell of representation quotas and calls for diversification. He wants to commit to his work, his art - to a place where his own appetite for experimentation is sated.

“What am I going to make for my 18-year old self? That can be a healthier bridge to venture down. Where will my curiosity lead me? Where does my need for catharsis fit in? In that mixing desk, is where I’m at. I’m leaning into the specificity of my own experiences and feelings, and trusting that the bigger picture of what others are going through is alive and relatable in that.”

When asked who he wants to be in 2021, he pauses and smile, “Next year, I want to be Rizwan.”

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Buy Riz Ahmed x Clash print issue here.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Noua Unu
Studio Stylist: Jordan Boothe
Grooming: Tiago Goya
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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