Who is Riz Ahmed? Is he an actor? Is he a rapper? A writer? A poet? A filmmaker? A producer? In the last 12 months alone, the 38-year-old has been every one of them.
He has twice starred as a hard-rolling musician whose destiny is undone by disability – in the sensory Berlinale-premiering indie Mogul Mowgli, which he also co-wrote, and in the critically acclaimed Sound of Metal, a feral drama tipped to sweep the lead-acting categories come awards season. He broke a little more than the internet when he released The Long Goodbye, a concept album that reframes the xenophobic politics of the Brexit as a personal breakup story. Accompanying this album was a freestyle short of the same name, which he wrote and starred in. And then he has exec-produced Flee, an astonishingly captured Sundance 2021 documentary winner that combines hand-drawn animation, intimate memory and archival footage to tell a poignant Afghan refugee story.
In the last 12 months alone, Riz Ahmed has been every one of them – and none of them.
A nod to who he really is can be found in the language of The Long Goodbye, the 12-minute short that launched his irately eloquent hip-hop album. The film opens with a bustling Muslim household in the UK preparing for a wedding. A charged-up Riz is busy doing multiple things – he clowns around with his young nephew, argues with his old father and organizes the cluttered space while his sister, the bride-to-be, gossips with her friends upstairs. The elders are typically hassled, the atmosphere is anxiously festive. There’s always something or the other to be done. Suddenly, a far-right militant gang attacks the neighbourhood, invades their home, wreaks bloody havoc on the family in the middle of the street, leaving the Riz character maimed by a bullet. A not-so-dystopian Britain is punctuated by the images of white neighbours impassively looking on. This is statement filmmaking – the kind that relentlessly immerses the viewer into a visceral wartime nightmare. The camera trembles with rage, a frantic hip-hop track underscores the brutal racism.
Once the chaos subsides, just as we expect conventional end credits to roll, an injured Riz locks eyes with the camera. He stumbles to his feet. It’s a strange break of form. Over the next few minutes, as he goes on to recite what can best be described as a biting spoken-word monologue about the South Asian immigrant experience (“my tribe is a quest from a land that was lost to us, and its name is dignity”), it becomes clear that the short film itself was a smokescreen. The cinema of it all was a red herring. The visual storytelling – structured solely to numb the viewer into intellectual subservience – was a front to deliver a more direct message. As if to say: Do we have your attention? Good. Now listen to this.
In many ways, this narrative subterfuge is a reflection of Riz Ahmed’s multifaceted 15-year-old career. We know him as a performer and musician of unique intensity and cultural intelligence. We know those wounded eyes, that electrifying sense of physicality (a gift he shares with good friend Tom Hardy), and that disarmingly lyrical hold of rhythm. We’ve seen him break out in the role of an underpaid hustler in the nocturnal LA of Nightcrawler, break out again in the role of a Pakistani-American student put through the justice system ringer in the grimy New York of The Night Of, and break out 4 times over in 2020, even though he has been steadily breaking in – with his academically fluid stream-of-consciousness rap (on bigot knuckles) – since 2006. But his art has in fact long been a ruse for his activism. His creative identity has been a front for his untiring exploration of ethnic identity. He steals our attention – and then makes us truly listen to him. The Oxford PPE graduate has worn several hats, so that the world learns to like a good hat as something that transcends religious congruence.
So who is Riz Ahmed really? The brown kid who rose to the top rung of Hollywood is the simplistic story we love. But the British celebrity of Pakistani origin who speaks for the Rohingya and Syrian refugee causes, calls for representation in the House of Commons and resists the Western studio culture for its South Asian stereotyping – that’s the legacy enabled by the story. It is the fact enabled by all the fiction.
In 2017, Ahmed won a Primetime Emmy for playing Nasir “Naz” Khan, the boy-to-man prosecutorial tragedy of the HBO series, The Night Of. It was a slow-burn of a performance, epitomized by a profoundly subliminal transformation from naive student to hardened jailbird. The kid from the first episode is a vague memory of the scarred adult in the last. Ahmed beat out John Turturro – who had the more idiosyncratic and crowd-pleasing role as the eczema-infested defense attorney – to the coveted long-form prize. The plaudits flew with ethnic asterisk marks – the first Asian male to win an acting Emmy, the first Asian to win a lead acting Emmy, the first Muslim to win a lead acting Emmy. One short of the first Exotic Human to upset the Hollywood status quo. Given that Naz Khan’s arc was a symbol of the subtle racial prejudice rooted within the porous pillars of a nation’s constitution, the social specifics of this adulation felt a bit ironic. But then again, irony is the cornerstone of the visual arts – where skin colour is the style of lens rather than an adjustment of technique.
We know him as a performer and musician of unique intensity and cultural intelligence. We know those wounded eyes, that electrifying sense of physicality, and that disarmingly lyrical hold of rhythm.
On that note, Ahmed has been nominated for his second Golden Globe for Sound of Metal. He has already won almost every Critics’ Guild award so far. And an Oscar nomination is as certain as another London lockdown. Incidentally, of his two stricken-musician performances last year, and of all his artwork across mediums, Sound of Metal is the only one where he plays an ambiguously American drifter. His ethnicity is an afterthought: tattoos hide his dark skin. The man, a hard-metal drummer and ex-addict named Ruben Stone, struggles with the onset of deafness and the embracing of a differently abled lifestyle defined by sign language and community survival. In a sense, he resists the label of a minority – misfits operating on the outskirts of civilization, preserving their own identity and honour of living – by choosing to strive towards a future with cochlear implants. He thinks that love drives him, but it really is the fear of not being heard. He opts to leave the bubble of sight and reclaim a life of reaction. It isn’t the same though – gurgled, filtered sounds assault his head through the little machine. In the final shot of the film, he sits on a bench in Belgium, disoriented by the din of the world in front of him. It closes with him yanking off his implant, relieved by the deafening silence. And freed by fate. Ruben Stone submits.
However, the Muslim actor playing the bleached-blond drummer is seldom afraid of confronting the cultural cacophony of the world. He chooses to consume the static before translating it into language. It isn’t always coherent or pretty, but replicates the urgency of a hat that doesn’t rely on the whiteness of rabbits to make magic. Most of all, he isn’t afraid of listening to – and producing – his own voice. The sound of disorientation, for better or worse, is his art. The din is his stage. Riz Ahmed may be having a moment right now. But it’s infinitely more likely that this moment needs to have him.