Riz Ahmed: ‘This is for the Mosque and the Mosh-Pit’

Zaki Rehman 19 November 2018
Image credit: WikimediaCommons

Riz Ahmed is a British Pakistani artist whose popularity is booming. Despite being duly recognised for his acting success in TV shows like ‘The Night Of’, his music is something that is yet to receive sufficient attention. In light of his new single ‘Mogambo’, this is something that needs to change. Performing as a solo artist as Riz MC, and as part of the ‘Swet Shop Boys’, Ahmed makes hip-hop music infused with South Asian samples, accompanied by politically charged lyrics that draw attention to the British Pakistani experience today. On ‘Mogambo’ he proclaims ‘this is for the Mosque and the moshpit’. His bold lyrics, placed in the setting of a widely popularised and accepted musical genre, explore the currently explicit ‘otherness’ of the British South-Asian experience, and strive to show that it doesn’t have to be so.

In his essay ‘Airports and Auditions’ (in The Good Immigrant) Ahmed talks about his desire as an actor to progress from playing stereotypical South Asian characters – such as a terrorist in the ‘Four Lions’ – to being able to play any role. He is trying to escape a place where as a Muslim living after 9/11 he is pigeon-holed as the big, bad and bearded terrorist. His music is directed towards this ultimate goal of allowing South Asian idols to exist in the western cultural sphere, whilst not being tied to the stereotypes that have come in the ‘Post 9/11 Blues’ (a banned early single). Songs such as ‘No Fly List’ illustrate the idiocy of Islamophobic ‘bogeyman narratives’, and the importance of having ‘brown’ cultural idols in the UK fighting the forces of the ‘Muslim peril’ cannot be underestimated. Riz MC provides a powerful voice to people that are feeling marginalised and unwanted, as he raps on ‘Mogambo’ in reference to airport searches – ‘if it always me it ain’t random’.

The case of race and hip-hop in America demonstrates how through music, one can ‘fight the power’ whilst simultaneously becoming part of that power. A helpful comparison is that of Kendrick Lamar, and his albums ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and ‘DAMN.’. These albums not only served to highlight the racism African Americans face, but also became unqualified American classics (shown by his Pulitzer Prize), thus fighting the culture whilst simultaneously re-defining it. I would argue that Riz MC is doing something very similar in the UK with South Asians. In fact, comparisons between the two can be seen even in the cover art for their albums; ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ shows powerful and unashamed African Americans claiming the White House, whilst Ahmed’s album ‘Englistan’ portrays a cricket shirt that is half the green of Pakistan and half the white of England. As Kendrick has done, Riz MC is trying to forcefully integrate his oppressed people into mainstream conversation. Ahmed speaks of himself as the ‘brown step-son of the black panther’, as a lack of relatable cultural idols caused him to look to America. This is something I can relate to. Growing up in the UK with very few South Asian cultural idols talking about issues of race and identity, a close alternative is to look to African Americans that represent a similar experience. This is useful, but not ideal. By promoting South Asian culture in the UK, Riz MC is trying to avoid a repeat of his own personal situation, where ‘my only heroes were black rappers, so to me 2pac was a true Paki’.

Riz MC is doing this by rapping about the specific experience of being a British Pakistani, creating a long overdue mirror in which young British South Asians can find their own reflection. This is demonstrated by the title of his album ‘Englistan’. An example is provided by the track, ‘Double Lives’ which explores the conflict that second generation immigrants face between the duty of cultural preservation and finding one’s own identity. He compares the pressure of younger generations being told to ‘keep your culture, keep your fort’ to ‘some last of the Mohicans talk’, highlighting just how dramatic and confusing the process of cultural assimilation can be. Indeed, he demonstrates the difficulty of finding a solution to this conflict by suggesting that one then has to ‘keep hiding, keep Jekyll on the low’ in both situations. As Afua Hirsch states, one feels ‘Brit-ish’.

This is a lonely and isolating experience, leading to one feeling like a ‘citizen of nowhere’ – caught between familial South Asian history, and the western world that surrounds you. This is meditated upon by Ahmed, who raps on ‘Different’: ‘you never know what your place is / there wasn’t one so I made it / Wembley, Oxford, English, Asian’. Seeing a reflection of such issues of South Asian identity in the UK portrayed in an art form that is considered ‘cool’ in the west is novel, refreshing and empowering. By placing such issues in the ‘British cultural sphere’ he legitimises them as valid British experiences, not just ones that South Asians experience in Britain. Indeed, he declared this when speaking with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show: ‘this is what British looks like now’.

Considering Riz Ahmed functions on two different levels; on the surface, there is the subversive and revolutionary message of his music, the pointed irony of, ‘my shoes off at the masjid, my shoes off at the airport’ (on ‘Shoes Off’). However, what makes his music so powerful is the inclusion of his narrative into what is now the most popular music genre in the west. Whilst he is speaking about ‘losing [his] religion to tomorrow’s headlines’ (‘Sour Times’), he is also normalising seeing South Asian artists in the British cultural sphere, encouraging cultural integration and the idea that a British Pakistani can be just as British as anyone else. Additionally, his acting career has also allowed him to become a cultural idol for many people of different background, through his roles in films like ‘Venom’. This is why Riz Ahmed is so important. His effect is becoming both explicit and implicit. He is expressing the frustration of the disillusioned ‘western South Asian’ youth, whilst simultaneously breaking into the realm of genuine western celebrity despite his ethnicity. He is reflecting what the ‘western South Asian’ cultural experience is right now, whilst modeling what it could one day be.