As Usama Kahf explains in ‘Arabic Hip Hop’, “Hip Hop is a unique form of expression that has crossed social, cultural, and national boundaries in the last couple of decades […] While it was brought to life by the African-American community in the United States, Hip Hop’s ruptures into different cultures around the world were not driven by any of the homogenizing […] forces of western culture that usually seek to take over local and indigenous heritages […] Instead, hip hop continues to locate its narrative space in the margins of each society.”
9/11 was the pinnacle of the dissent of the Brown Muslim Male’s image. Even the name Ahmed invites terrorist jokes, resulting in a name-changing game well known and commonly played in our communities. One of the many strong lines Ahmed delivers on his most recent album, “Riz doesn’t like Rizwan bro he hates him”, articulates a self-hatred so profound within British Muslims growing up in a colonially-romantic white Britain that we start changing our names just to fit in, despite being made to feel like our place in Britain is less valid than that of our white counterparts.
‘The Long Goodbye’ live show was due to premiere in Manchester in March 2020 but was postponed due to the UK’s lockdown, so Ahmed took his art online. The livestream performance had its online premiere with Manchester International Festival in December of last year. It followed Mogul Mowgli, a stunning feature-length debut from Director Bassam Tariq, co-written with Ahmed and based very loosely on his own experiences as a Pakistani-British rapper. The film is available to watch on BFI player (which you can access with a free trial).
‘The Long Goodbye’ album sees Ahmed break up with a Britain that doesn’t love him; a sentiment echoed by Muslim rappers across the diaspora; “I don’t think my country even love me back” [Narcy, 2017]. Using the one-take shooting effect, the live stream opens in an empty, haunted San Francisco theatre. The recording feigns an improvised look into Ahmed’s backstage rituals – he picks up the camera and supposedly talks us through his pre-show ritual. But what slowly unravels is a faultless, and clearly very carefully scripted performance in which Ahmed cuts between his family’s experience of Partition, streams of thought on notions of Britishness, and visceral excerpts of tracks from the album, giving us a taste of each song as it would be performed on stage. The result is invigoratingly beautiful, haunting, and refreshing.
There’s a hilarious scene in ‘Mogul Mowgli’ that fleshes out the issues of alienation in more depth, in which the all-too-familiar cousin at family gatherings [also known as the Muslim family’s staple Haram police] explains to Riz’s character Zed that he’ll be naming his baby Assfuk, rather than committing the treasonous act of reducing a culturally rich name such ‘Zaheer’ to ‘Zed’. Zed says naming a Brown child Assfuk in the UK is child abuse. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why.
More than offering some comic relief during an otherwise tough watch, the scene quietly yet powerfully illustrates the post 9/11 Britain that many Muslims occupied, forcing communities to engage in a sort of hiding-in-plain-sight. Those with fairer complexions could perhaps get away with pretending they were Latin American or Other, but those that look starkly Arab, Pakistani, and even Indian, adopting a new persona was the best bet. Playing the ‘I’m more British than the British!’ card became commonplace, proving that your place in the UK was ‘well-earnt.’ Ahmed beautifully encapsulates the crux of this limbo state in the first lines of the livestream, taken from my favourite track, “Where You From”:
“They ever ask you where you’re from. Like, yeah but where you really from? / … / I could tell ‘em Wembley but I don’t think that’s what they want / … / See, Britain’s where I’m born and I love a cuppa tea and that / But tea ain’t from Britain, it’s from where my DNA is at.”
In other words, how does the British Muslim reconcile naming Britain as a home when their makeup, all the beautiful parts of their identity, is from a place that basically defies Britishness? You can’t, is the simple and honest answer. You just learn to live with the condition.
In ‘Mogul Mowgli,’ Zed is struck down by a degenerative illness which can be read as his identity crisis; the nurse delivers the diagnosis that his body is attacking itself because it doesn’t recognise itself. Zed stares into the mirror; he doesn’t know himself. The illness serves as a segue into explorations of how Partition both physically scarred Muslim and Hindu communities in India, and the lasting generational scar such trauma has carved into British-Pakistani identity.
Riz Ahmed isn’t the first or the only Muslim rapper by any means. He was inspired, no doubt, by a long list of legends; Busta Rhymes, Q Tip, Mos Def and Rakim, to name a few. However, these artists often either had to conceal their Muslim identity to some extent or adopted the religion later in life. More powerful examples of resistant and politically induced Muslim Rap today can be heard from the likes of Mustafa the Poet, Lowkey, Omar Offendum, and Felukah, to name just a few. Diasporic Muslims are sharing the mic, using Hip Hop’s inherent authority-aimed anger to voice the pervasiveness of their troubles and the beauty of their oftentimes conflicted identities.
Heems, the other half of Ahmed’s Rap duo ‘Swet Shop Boys,’ articulates his post-9/11 experience in the US, where tensions were heightened tenfold, as; “that moment after 9/11 when things felt kind of unsafe for the brown community. We immediately went to buy these… flags to hang in our windows or outside of our home, so our neighbours who we had lived with for 20 years knew that we were American, that we were proud to be American and that we did not support terrorism.” My favourite track of theirs, ‘T5’, details a painfully familiar airport security ‘random search’ scenario.
Ultimately, Riz Ahmed’s work is a testament to the strength of Hip Hop as the dominant genre of resistance music. Riz spits his bars with fury, pride and self-assurance whilst opening wide a deep wound left by an identity crisis, giving power to the vulnerability many British Muslims feel. Living in a country that views you as a threat is obviously conflicting, and Ahmed, as any other Brown Brit, has had his fair share of difficulty. He articulates the thoughts and worries of generations of Brown British Muslims through a lyricism so rich and so ripe with imagery, emotion and intelligent word-play that it’s hard not to fall deeply in love with the rapper’s music.