If you’re brown, woke (whatever that means) or from London, and especially if you’re all three, chances are you know Riz Ahmed to be a Desi messiah. Riz began his trajectory towards this status after appearing in 2010’s Four Lions, a now cult classic comedy following the hilariously misguided path of a group of radicalised Muslim men. Though on its surface the film was a slapstick, brazen, satirical statement, there was certainly a layer of essential nuance and dissociative confusion exemplified especially in Riz’s character. Indeed, this is a contradiction that Riz’s career, be that acting, writing or rapping (the man’s a polymath, a brown Donald Glover of sorts) has always been rooted in exploring. In fact, it all became comically meta when he was beaten and interrogated about suspected terrorist motives upon returning to Luton airport from the Berlin Film Festival in 2006 where his film, The Road To Guantanamo, won an award. That film was about the real-life story of four brown friends from Birmingham who were illegally imprisoned and tortured in Guantanamo. You really can’t make this shit up.
Trouble at airports is one of a lexicon of references that the perennial British Pakistani Muslim identity crisis is attached to. Riz’s art, especially his music (which he creates under the name Riz MC) is unashamedly thorough and open in discussing this world. It’s more than relatable, and that’s probably due to the alienation of seeing so few similar brown role models on a platform as large as his. It’s for this reason, seeing him perform ‘Shoes Off’ (“My shoes off at the masjid, yo/ My shoes off at the airport”) whilst surrounded by hundreds of brown faces last weekend was a real moment for me. That song is from 2016’s Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys, a hip-hop duo that Riz is half of. Influenced by the hilariously nonchalant yet impassioned Heems (the other half of Swet Shop Boys and one third of the former Das Racist goofball trio), Cashmere was excitable, dreamy and decidedly Desi without compromising on realness. Best believe my favourite moment of the concert was yelling out the best line of the project in unison with Riz: “Zayn Malik’s got more than eighty virgins on him/ There’s more than one direction to get to paradise”.
If you really want to get to know the fluidity and imposed restlessness of Riz’s identity and that of his fans, you’d have to listen to his solo album, Englistan, released the same year. The album dissects, narrates and muses on a range of issues: the diverse melting pot of Britishness, having to hide yourself from your traditional family, depression and anxiety, the government’s economic shafting of the poor, psychopathic honour killings and good old racist nationalism. Riz sees all, feeding off the plethora of cultures and perspectives he’s been exposed to. Truly, he is proof that for all its complexities and neuroticism, growing brown in Britain can be a sociological education.