You get the sense that Riz Ahmed doesn't want to be misunderstood. After a testy interview in The Guardian a few years ago, Ahmed bristled against the interviewer’s labelling and pigeonholing of his career. So it makes sense that music is an outlet where he can offer his compelling spin on the way British society is headed.
With his first EP MICroscope and collaborations with Heems on the Swetshop Boys, Riz has consistently explored themes of national heritage, identity, and what it means to truly be ‘English’ in a globalised world. These themes are potently realised on his latest EP, Englistan, where he riffs on racism, living in a post-multiculturalism world, and hybridity. If rapping about these isms seems daunting for the listener, Riz never lets his bars get too verbose and heavy-handed. It’s an album that acts as a pivotal snapshot of British life that revels in the perspective of an artist who’s had to deal with that internal dichotomy of cultural identities.
The amazing interplay between the bansuri and the pulsating drum beats in the eponymous title track, is a stunning example of Riz mixing his influences freely in a track that makes you think and dance at the same time. Critiquing the minutiae and contradictions of British life from “Racist beef/Cakes and tea/All go together like do-re-mi…” he challenges that we’re all in this chaotic world together, even if our differences are stark. The deceptively clever chorus lays this out perfectly:
God save the Queen
Now she ain’t mates with me
But she keeps my paper green
Plus we need a seat
On this little island
Where we all survivin’
Politeness mixed with violence
That idea of being caught between cultures is apparent throughout the album, where Riz lays out his personal experiences on Different and Double Lives. On Double Lives, he’s joined by vocalist Aruba Red, where they cook up a track about that internal dichotomy of living it large outside of the house with girls and drugs, and obeying your parents and their sacrifices while at home. It’s so rare to hear a song that just gets that lived experience of leading that double life. That also included the inevitable point when it all blows up: “Get caught, the family lose face/Mum has a heart attack her heart breaks/Dad disowns you, sorry is too late/Girls get married off or turn up in a suitcase.” It’s a stark reminder that the generational clash hasn’t changed much from Riz’s day to mine.
Different is a woozy garage number that delves into how Riz dealt with that cultural confusion growing up. There are name drops to the daytime rave scene that he explored in his short film Daytimer to learning about how hybridity influences all the labels he chooses for himself. It’s a hyper-literate song that makes a Cultural Studies major like me go gaga about, because he keeps it contextual and clever!
The sardonically funny A Few Bob, reminds me of the second-person narration used in Mohsin Hamid’s 'How to Get Rich In Rising Asia' where Riz steeps you in the fictional Bob’s life as the banks and financial meltdown screws him over. It’s an interesting track with Tawiah’s stunning vocals, showing that Riz’s has got a scathing wit for every subject.
Throughout the album, Riz showcases his unique take on modern British life, but it’s when he revels in the personal that the album shines, because he knows how to sketch a scene. That’s evident in Sunburnt, where he explores dealing with depression with an extremely frank and powerful stance. Layering his vocals with Tawiah’s gives us another side to Riz, and he’s quite a good singer. Calling himself a prick for not putting on a happy face, Riz hits at that frustration of yoga or gymming not working or well-meaning advice that doesn’t solve the problem.
It’s the last two tracks of the album that leave you in awe of Riz’s unbelievable lyrical strengths with Benaz, and I Ain't Trying To Be Racist But... . Benaz made me weep, because it was so beautifully rendered through its winding tale of Benaz Mahmod, a Birmingham woman who was murdered in an honour killing for loving a man from outside her community. Bearing witness to Benaz’s life, Riz pays tribute to her enduring love story, where it’s the little nuances that are so poignant from meeting in a TESCO checkout line, or nicknaming each other Smurf. Riz spins this into an epic lament, and his tone is nothing but tender as he details their story. Singer Ayana Witter Johnson breaks up the 11 minute song with her soulful interludes, as Riz ramps up his tempo and frustration in the last third where the finale leaves you speechless. With cutting bars like, “But soon they're seen by boys from the community, who go out and fuck white girls with impunity/O.G. misogyny meets old school hypocrisy/'What we do is fine but our women must live honestly,” he’s delivering the unblemished truth foremost. It’s a standout track with so much depth, humanity, and power.
In I Ain't Trying To Be Racist But... Riz takes the position of an EDL supporter who's been brainwashed by the propaganda of the far right. It’s a spoken word track that recites the veiled attacks of immigrants spouted by the UKIP ilk, and the outright xenophobic rants from the EDL types. While it could’ve ended up as a simple screed of insults, Riz turns the concept on its head as the guy investigates Britain’s own tangled history through Wikipedia no less, and learns of the intermixing of culture from the Norman Invasion to colonial Empire. He cuts the needlelike tension with a twist near the end of the 7 minute track, where you can’t help but marvel and laugh at the irony.
Englistan is one of the most powerful albums of the year since it goes beyond name-dropping theories and concepts, and tells of how that impacts the lived experiences of Riz and so many people in England. It’s definitely not a chilled out album that you can put on in the background, it’s themes stay with you to be challenged, investigated, and problematised. Take a bow Riz MC!