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BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts, because it's late, I'm sipping a little wine as we record is. All right.
Hello, I'm Louis through and welcome back to another episode of my podcast series for BBC Radio four, grounded with Let Me Through.
This is going to sound good for your recording in which I get to spend time remotely with people I've always wanted to meet. It's from Spain, some kind of red wine today that someone is multiple award winning actor, director and musician Riz Ahmed.
Hello. Hello. Hey, there he is. Good. How are you doing? Not bad.
Good to see you. Riz hails from Wembley in north west London, but is currently in the US with two new films just released and a recent album, all of which I was hoping to talk to him about here.
Should we should we just do some housekeeping if Sarah Jane's looking at me?
Yes, we're thinking about sound.
Oh, no, I destroyed my laptop Bustamente on it. I don't have a second device, but then he's gone.
That was too good to last. Where would we be in the lockdown world without technical issues? I like technical difficulties, but he's back.
It keeps you up with a series of boxes. Yeah.
Riza's music, broadly speaking, falls under the hip hop umbrella, a genre I myself am a bit of a fan of.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Oh, great.
Sounds good. Some strong language ahead. So fasten your seatbelts. I'm very happy you're joining us from sunny Los Angeles, I believe now from cloudy Oakland.
OK, in northern California. Yeah, that's a grounded first. I don't think we've ever spoken to anyone in Oakland, home of the Oakland Raiders.
M.C. Hammer, that M.C. Hammer. True. Yeah, from Fremont. That's great knowledge.
I saw Jodeci perform in Oakland. I'm trying to remember remember Jodeci, one of my favorites ever.
Boy. But seriously, I mean, what's it's top track we're talking to straight up three.
Can you I couldn't you way ahead of me, even though I said I'd see them. I saw as a friends plus one. Sure. Like this was 1992. And she said these guys are going to blow up. And I think they were supporting someone else. And she said, look, forget the headline. I don't think the headline was Hammer, but it might have been I so vague in my mind. I'm now starting to dump my my memories.
That sounds like a legendary bill M.C. Hammer injuries. And you didn't even appreciate you and your friend gave you one of these special tickets.
Well, you're a little younger than me. 92. You were probably ten years old, but Hammer was on the down side of fame at that point. And the mood in the room, if he was if it was the mood in the room was very much we're feeling Jodeci and we're not feeling hamma. You know, that kind of when a big star is slightly outlived his moment.
But I'm not speaking from experience or maybe I am and people to kind of say, oh, don't you?
One more Bay Area hip hop thing I saw in Palo Alto, Digital Underground in 1992.
You remember them? Yeah, I could name a couple of their hits. Could, you know, not really sex packets of it. For a Jodeci guy, Humpty Dance is your chance.
Do that dance. Do it now. Now, you know, the two pack was one of the dancers.
Really? Yeah. That's how he started out on the scene.
Oh yeah. Wow. That's true, isn't it.
So I don't know if at that time he was it'd be crazy if I saw Tupac, but he didn't rap. He just danced around to the Humpty Dance. That would be I mean, that is actually probably what happened.
It would be too good for me to check. I don't want to check and find out he wasn't there.
Legendary stuff. Thanks for doing the podcast. Appreciate it. And I'm sure you're busy. You've got a lot going on. You've got a couple of movies out, one of which you also wrote, both of which you star and you got your album.
You know, sometimes a lot of stuff comes out at the same time, but you actually made it a couple of years ago. So I'm really, yeah. Feeling really pleased to give everyone the illusion of productivity when actually I've been just kind of sad. I mean, not that, right?
Yeah. You've got you do you do a good impression of someone who's got an incredible work ethic and is highly productive. You may be being falsely modest, but I'll take you at your word. How how have you been just to sort of deal with the acknowledge the elephant in the room, which is that we're living in the midst of a disastrous pandemic, which shows every sign of spending even further out of control. And parenthetically, I think we're going to put this podcast up next week.
If I could do a date check, it's January 5th, as I record this, the numbers are looking terrible and and heading in the wrong direction.
How are you doing where you are? What's going on with you in the sort of here and now? All right.
Here and now. I'm headed to L.A. for some work in about a week. Yeah, L.A. feels like it's kind of the new epicenter. I heard crazy stuff there, like one in 20 people have.
It is weird, isn't it? Because you kind of see all this stuff we read about all this stuff. But if you are lucky enough to be, you know, in a way and, you know, bubble in your house, if you're lucky, you have to leave the house or whatever, you kind of feel insulated from it all, from the true madness and the true horror of it all. And you hear stories or you might see things online, but it does feel like a weird twilight zone, a weird limbo, a purgatory that we're all in.
Like hell is just on the other side of that door, you know, but where we are home is more purgatory.
Well, interesting that you say that I was talking to my mom about and saying maybe it's a bit like being like in a hotel and someone's being tortured in the next room, but you don't really know that it's happening. You just have been told that it's going on. And so there's a surreal sense of dissonance with what you acknowledge to be the facts, but how you experience them. But since we're in this lockdown, I and my immediate circle are more exposed to the stress.
My kids are no longer in school. Close family members have got the virus, although they're younger on the younger side. And so they experience is a sort of nasty form of flu, essentially.
But if that's good, I'd read that you'd lost two family members.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I lost two family members in the first wave.
Yeah, it's crazy, isn't it? I guess it's like you don't you don't think it necessarily affects your family directly and then all of a sudden it does and it just happened so quickly. Very strange. I mean, I guess in all of the normal. A grieving process doesn't really apply. So I'm wondering what it does to people's grief and their ability to process it. I think so much of that seems to happen in community and through gathering and through some of these rituals and practices.
And much of my family is in this one cemetery. And I always think it's kind of interesting or strange that most of the people in that cemetery from my family never thought they'd been buried in England. I think when my grandfather, Boyd's family, over to the UK, it was just for a short period of time and they always planned on going back. And when my dad came over and married my mom, he was like just for a short time that we plan on going back.
So as we're now seeing, like, you know, so many members of my family kind of scattered across this corner of London, again, I didn't get to go to that, go to the cemetery. And I didn't get to carry this coffin, didn't get to gather at people's houses. Makes things worse because you can't process it. You can't look at it. You can't really digest it in person.
Do you are you out there for work?
Out in California, I was I was here from September, managed to come and shoot a film. And it's kind of very limited number of actors. And most of it was outdoors with a couple of kids. Actually, the first time I worked for a long stretch with with with children. And so, yeah, I came out, we were filming all over California, up and down the state. And when it finished, I decided to stay up and stay in the Back Bay Area.
My wife's family is from here, so it just made sense to stick around. But I am kind of anxious to get back to London. But again, it's kind of weird. It's I want to go back and see friends and family, but I wouldn't get to see friends and family now more than ever. I guess, you know, you can be doing this podcast from anywhere. Where are you recording from right now? From London.
I'm recording in West London, funnily enough, not that fondly, but not a million miles from Wembley where I knew. I know you grew up in Brint.
Yeah. Which which was a covid epicenter, certainly in last June, was a particular hotspot throughout Britain for various reasons.
You mentioned a wife and I feel very embarrassed to say I didn't realise you were married before. Before we jumped on this call, I Googled. I want to risk his personal life might come up.
I don't know what his dating history is, but is that is that how long have you been married? Not very long, actually, I think is the first time I've ever mentioned it in an interview. So congratulations on it's incredibly exciting scoop.
But yeah, I mean, I guess I don't really feel is generally that relevant. So I don't really kind of delve into my personal life or my dating history or even family life much. And to be honest, the main reason I decided to kind of share more publicly about, you know, my uncle Shaquille who passed away and my Mopar puppy as well and passed away, was because I felt like there were a lot of people who had taken a covid seriously.
So I felt like talking about it and say, hey, this is a real thing, it's affected me and my family, you know, talking about it and I've spoken word piece you kind of touched on touched on that as well. Yeah, I guess I don't feel like it's unnecessary to go, hey, here's everything that's happening in my life.
You know, you're going to say you're quite a private person. That's the phrase that was Hoving into view with that. Would that be accurate?
Yeah, maybe. But the thing is, you know, as that phrase was looming on the horizon, that kind of turn left because I thought, first of all, a horrible cliche. But second of all, isn't it kind of bullshit, isn't it? Because if I was quite a private person, I wouldn't be doing a podcast with you. I'd check out these fields. I'm on Twitter, although I guess it's just about having boundaries, right?
Like you just have boundary.
Here's me on Instagram. Please look at me swanning about with my swag and my wonderful clothes, by the way. I don't know. That's what you do on Instagram.
Check me out being really private.
Hey, go check me out here, but don't be too interested. Yeah.
Congratulations on your nuptials. Thank you. Feel free to share as little or as much about that as you like. Thank you for privileging me with the exclusive is mainly what I want to say. That's exciting.
But do you live in London or. I live in London, yeah. Yeah. Just out here for a bit. But give me a postcode. Give me a postcode or.
I grew up in Wembley, but now I live in the kind of Shepherd's Bush kind of area. Twelve feet. Can I just ask you about you just even are you actually in Cricklewood then.
No, I mean Willesden Quilp it's I could hang out Lecia this check goes but Brendan Harrow was it. What about Alberton. Alberton was exciting because that's what Chicken Cottage was.
And this is one chicken cottage was kind of new and rare. Is that where are you going to go to get halal KFC style? I'm sure there's one in Hulston. Oh, there's loads. They're everywhere now and I don't hate on that, but it's kind of like a little bit like, you know, your rap group, they became really successful. Now, I don't go there as much anymore. When it was an underground thing, I was a chicken cause I've never eaten in a chicken cottage.
But now and now I don't know whether to try it or whether it's too late.
The magic's gone. It's like you've missed the boat. It's like it's like seeing M.C. Hammer in 1992.
We should talk about this so much to talk about.
What do you want to talk about? See, I don't know how to define you like you.
Let's talk about that. It's hard to know what to come in on because you've got a lot of strings to your bow. You're an amazing actor. You're also a very talented emcee. This is me buttering you up. But it happens to be true, like obviously I've seen for Lions the Chris Morris film Nightcrawler I watched when it came out. And then The Night Off is an extraordinary TV series for which you won an Emmy. And then more recently, you've got two films out, Sound of Metal and mogul Mowgli, which you also wrote.
You got IMDB up on your screen here, just running down the bits that I've seen.
Those are just the ones I've seen. But you've also got your music, right? Sure. Yeah. Yeah.
You've got an album that dropped, what, beginning of last year?
Yeah. So, yeah, I released an album just before we locked down. We were going to do a tour and I'm kind of interested in more and more in trying to bring in all these different things together that you're talking about. So we wanted to do a live show for the album that was also like an immersive kind of experience and actually did a version of just that. Ten years ago. We took over Fabric Nightclub for two nights and then we also took over a latitude festival.
And it was this kind of kind of bonkers cartoon version of Blade Runner high concept sci fi that, well, a green screen should the audience behind green screen and magicians and trapdoors and kind of version of a gig. But this we wanted to do a much more sensible and not just, hey, look, toys, bells and whistles version of that, but in covid knocked down, everything got canceled. But we did finally manage to do a live stream just here in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago.
And in the end, we did this gig theater experience as a kind of One-Man show in this abandoned venue. And I filmed it myself on an iPhone. It's interesting, isn't it, when you have all these restrictions and parameters, it forces you to really distill the idea down to its bare essentials.
And the album is called The Long Goodbye. Yeah, it was called A Long Goodbye.
And I read you referring to it as a as a breakup album. Yeah. The idea is it's the story really of feeling like your country is breaking up with you, which kind of the feeling that I had, you know, around the time of Brexit and xenophobia and the aftermath of that. But also I think a lot of people in America, a lot of people I know in India, all kinds of countries feeling like, you know, we're living in very interesting times and there's a lot of kind of.
Tolerance and seems like a lot of these countries are kind of because there's a battle taking place for the soul of what a lot of our societies represent and who they welcome and who therefore and who belongs. If it's a concept album, I guess about. Yeah, going through a breakup with with Brittania Britney. And, you know, this relationship starts off back in the seventeen hundreds of them as kind of like friends with benefits and the whole thing gets a bit too intense too quickly and they have this big breakup and then no she asked for his help to come back and build her back up.
So it takes, you know, takes place on those two levels of a of a kind of love story, toxic relationship, really, and this feeling of being broken up with the country that you call home. And the reason why I chose the relationship to frame it is because it's not about giving people a history lesson. It's about letting people understand how it feels. And it does feel like a heartbreak to suddenly wake up and realize that maybe you're welcome in the place you are.
You know, it's a feeling that my grandfather fell in India in 1947, a feeling that my uncle would have felt in the 70s and 80s in the UK.
Your grandfather was displaced by by partition. Is that correct? When partition took place under British colonial rule and British India became India and Pakistan? Yeah, he was he and his family were forced to move in that way.
Yeah, that's right. Yeah, yeah. They kind of had some of their land seized and there were kind of they were kind of being harassed and he actually didn't want to leave. He wanted to kind of like plant a flag and and kind of stick it out there.
But circumstances where abouts in India wasn't in northern India and up Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tessera in the north.
And so he left with his family. Initially, they went to Calcutta actually, and then from there they ended up going to Pakistan. And interestingly, you know, that ethnic group, North Indian, Urdu speaking Muslims, they became known as maharajah's. So our ethnic identity post 1947 in Pakistan and to this day is Mohammadu, and that means refugee. So the name of my ethnic group is refugee. And so I thought is something interesting about that. I tried to kind of frame and this album is yes, this is about me being broken up with by Britain now, but it's also.
Partition, it's also the 70s in England. It's also Trump's America is this cycle that we seem locked in, you know, feeling like home is always in the next place. And belonging is something that is hard to come by. But ultimately, you know, the album has this kind of almost different stages of grief, anger, denial, bargaining, depression. You end up in a self-love. And I guess this idea that you belong to yourself or that you belong in this no man's land is a place that you can maybe cultivate with the work itself, that maybe these songs and these stories are a place that we can belong in themselves.
It's quite a heavy thing to talk about. And actually and I don't wanna get too literal with your with your metaphor, but when you think about, you know, in the opening wrap on the album, forgive me for not remembering the opening track is called Shika.
It's called The Breakup Records. Secure and Secure is a reference to a poem by a nomadic band who's the person who coined the phrase and the concept of Pakistan. Similarly, feeling on one welcome in the country, calls on wanting to imagine through his poetry a new place that he can belong.
Correct me if I'm wrong. And in that opening track, you the you come home, you find the locks have been changed, right? In other words, you've been rejected in a sense. You've been told you're not welcome. You're the party that's been pushed away. Right. Is that a sense of the atmosphere that you feel? Yes, certainly the atmosphere.
But I think I remember the real seed of the idea came from when I was having dinner with a couple of mates and I might been in New York. And it was like people are really quite diverse range of different backgrounds, East Asian, South Asian, black, Jewish. And people were saying, you know what, by the time it gets to our grandkids generation, will we still be safe here? In the country that we grew up in and I remember feeling surprised or shocked to hear that, but also not surprised at all to hear that in a weird way, I recognized that for as one of my own thoughts, I recognized that as something that my parents said, you don't cause trouble, keep your head down.
And, you know, the more he guests here and this idea of of kind of building your pitching a tent on quicksand. And unless people misunderstand, I mean, it's not so much that you're rejecting being British, because I've seen you describe it, you know, Britain is your home like, you know, and you've told me you live in London. It's more an attempt to do something more subtle, I think. Is it like to comment on your feelings?
Is I'm glad you said that because I remember doing an interview with BBC like it when the album came out and they were just like, why is rejecting British don't don't break? And I was like, what? It was really weird, though. Also with the misunderstanding, it is the idea of feeling rejected, unwanted, broken up with rather than the idea of saying I'm out of it. I don't want anything to do this. And that's why it's a breakup album, because it is heartbreaking to feel that way when it is a place that you love, a place that you call home, you know, not a place is perfect.
I'm not a kind of flag waving that nationalist or anything like that was smiling. And that's where I'm from. Some of my friends and family is like what I'm used to. So you can't there is no there is no separating these threads in a tapestry. You know, you can't pull this thread out of the rug and say, yeah, we love Britain. But without these bits, that's what made Britain. That's what holds Britain together. And interestingly, I think that's what we saw with the pandemic.
And covid is that the album describes this toxic relationship, this cycle of rejection. And then actually, no, come back. I need you to save me. We saw that again in the pandemic, didn't we? And we saw, you know, everyone coming out to clap. The carers, of course, you know, a hugely disproportionate number of NHS frontline workers are from ethnic minorities or immigrant backgrounds. And I just thought, you know, it's just the same pattern playing itself out again, really.
Can we talk about you grew up in Wembley, but you also went to Oxford. Right. So I'm curious about that journey. And in fact, I've done a little research. Forgive me. You went to a school called Merchant Sailors on a scholarship, is that right? Yeah.
I mean, my parents were just very focused on education. Their kids, rather than going on holidays or anything like that, we can try and get a tutor in to kind of get ready for the entrance exams, is that kind of thing.
And what kind of work were they doing? So my dad started off in the Pakistani Merchant Navy, so was travelling alone. And then once he left that he went freelance. So it was kind of a shipping agent. You know, someone's got cargo, someone's got to share. People kind of try and put them together.
And so many travelled a lot doing that. And my mum was raising us after my after my grandma passed, she gave up her job to kind of raise us and yeah. Just work very hard to try and work out how to get us into the schools or private schools and were in many ways like a culture shock to begin with, just like Oxford was also kind of training. I think it's like so much of navigating life in Britain in most rooms where decisions are made is about being able to be conversant in that, you know, upper middle class English.
You know, and I don't just mean in terms of how you talk, but just being comfortable in those spaces, which took me a long time. I still sometimes find myself confronted with that discomfort, you know, that sense of imposter syndrome if you're not to the manor born. And so in many ways, it kind of prepared me for navigating. I feel like the film industry as well, and film and TV in the UK, which I think is rife with the same kind of classism.
And it was a weird experience, but also I wouldn't trade it for anything, as I think it kind of instilled in me, particularly being Oxford, this idea of like, you know, I've thought about leaving quite early on, that I felt very isolated and alienated from the whole vibe there. And then I thought, actually, the place where you don't feel like you belong is maybe where you belong, is where you should be, is maybe where you can contribute something new, where you can grow, where you have to learn to be comfortable with the discomfort of that.
And, you know, I ended up having a great experience where I did a lot of kind of acting in the plays there.
And I put on a club night that helped pay my way through that and was an opportunity for me to really continue practising going on the mic as an emcee at a time when Black Radio One Extra was just starting. And you, Rapides, you ask who was coming out? And I just started getting on pirate radio stations and I was really mourning my separation from London and from that scene.
But, you know, it's usually the ways that the challenges of the gifts you mentioned that you had a moment, Oxford, where you decided maybe you'd had enough and you went back to London.
What was that about? Just feeling like a fish out of water, feeling I didn't belong there, feeling like an imposter from a racial and class perspective and also feeling like, man, I can to you need to have fun. Where is everyone? Holy shit. You serious? There in the library then. If I signed up for this. Yeah. Just feeling very much like an outsider, you know, in a way that was quiet and yeah.
Very explicitly kind of receiving people's kind of judgment and weirdness in a way that was like what was going on. So that's what that was about. But as I said, I think kind of sticking with it, sticking, pushing through was one of the best decisions I ever made. I think kind of, you know, and in a way not to try and, you know, in a smarmy way bring it back to these films. But that's something that's kind of come up again and again, as I like to think and talk about both these films, both Mogel Mowgli and Sound of Metal.
It's this idea that, yeah, the challenges of the gifts, once you abandon the illusion of control, you realize you don't control anything if you don't even control your own body, that maybe everything is a gift.
But it's worth pointing out that both the films, while very, very different, have in common the fact that the central protagonist deals with a major medical event.
Yeah, and it's weird that I mean, you won't believe me when I say if I wasn't really deliberate, I guess is just certain things I was thinking through or working through. And I guess, yeah, one of those things is, is the illusion of control and the loss of control. But having that control taken away from you is something I'm kind of interested in just as a creative person, but also be able to create a bit of a control freak where I find that actually my best work happens when I might be very prepared, but actually when I'm able to put myself in situations where I'm overwhelmed so I can't control.
And so I guess I know it's just something I'm interested in. But you're right. Monogamously and sound mental with a very different films, very different directors, very different, very different aesthetics, very different cultural milieus.
But yes, the central protagonist has this unbelievable life changing medical event that in one we know because it's in the publicity, it's not a mental central character loses his hearing and in Mowgli is a spoiler alert.
Yeah, but it's just I mean, what is weird, as well as both those films coming out this year, the year of everyone being in a health crisis that has taken away their illusion of control, you know, when they're forced to reassess what really matters. So I think it's been resonating a lot with people for that reason.
On the subject of. So you mentioned Oxford. I want to go back. I'm not obsessed with Merchant Talus.
I'm a little bit why it was it was interesting to you. It was founded in 15th. I is.
I'm just wondering. I think because I went to private school, I also I find it quite a big transition. I started in primary school.
I was pretty young when I went to when I went into change from state education to private education, I found it quite traumatic.
And so that's part of it. And also, I looked it up and it's very illustrious. Merchantable is founded in 1960. Do you remember the school motto?
Is it only Pahlevi raise Krischan or something? You're giving it to me in Latin, I only needed it in English. I get bonus points. Small things grow in harmony. Among the alumni going back is the Elizabethan Jacobean poet Robert Herock, the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Kidd, and the Elizabethan comedian Michael MacIntire.
Hey, did you know that I didn't know about Michael MacIntire. I mean, it's interesting, isn't it? I think there was a kind of battle for the soul of the school taking place that fell in many ways, like a microcosm of what was happening in the country. I started that school right at the time of the year just after Stephen Lawrence was murdered. And he's 93, 94, just after you'd been in Oakland driving to hammer M.C. Hammer.
And it was like a weird one because it started off as a as a school at a boarding house. And a lot of kids with double barrel names and children of diplomats, foster kids there and on and on Clothes Day, everyone was wearing like rugby shirts when I started at the age of 11. And very quickly, it suddenly became like a school that was 50 percent Asian. And it was a school where Jewish and Gujarati accountants would send their kids because they wanted to give them a leg up.
And on clothes day, everyone would try and wear an eclipse and Stussy and spiffy jeans, if you remember those. And and so it was an interesting transition. I think that they were growing pains for that reason. I think there was an old guard and said, look, some older boys, they didn't appreciate that there were some staff, they didn't appreciate that. And it kind of kicked off quite a major way at the school. So it was it would require a lot of cops and there was lots of like magical things happen.
I tried to rig, not rig, but I tried to fix that vote for head boy so that it was like all posse that had been expelled or suspended where it was all this kind it was all very contested in a way. It was it was it was interesting. It was a microcosm of what was happening in the country where this country was coming to terms with the reality of multiculturalism. So was that school. And I had some amazing teachers in particular and a teacher, Mr Rollerbladed, who was a Jewish guy from Wolverhampton who grew up around Sikhs and so spoke Punjabi.
And he was really kind of Robin Williams Dead Poets Society type guy, teacher Ginzberg and Hamley in like and alongside rap and stuff. I probably should have been expelled a few times from that school. But the kind of my mother, my mum's charismatic kind of defense of me and amazing teachers that that, you know, kind of changed my life really meant that that didn't happen. And I'm so grateful for that.
You made a short film called Daytime's, which follows a young it's only, what, 12 or so minutes long, but it's a kid and even of Asian heritage. And he's at school and he's dealing drugs and kicks off with his teacher and he kicks the teacher in the shins and then you punks off school and goes to a nightclub. Anyway, I won't give you you made it.
So I think he goes to a nightclub in the daytime because Asian raves in the 90s would happen in the daytime because a lot of girls weren't allowed. And I still sat. Right. Yeah. So that's why there is a daytime it's a daytime raid, which is a big part of South Asian subculture, particularly in the 90s. Coaches will come down from Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, down to the Zenith nightclub in palm oil, which is now kind of pure jam, I think.
And you go there and yeah, it was like the whole deal, man, and it was his own haircuts, his on cause. It's on dress codes. You know, Pakistani kids wear green and white Reebok Classic and see kids would wear orange and black Adidas. You know, it was its own kind of weird little rumblefish world, you know what I mean? And it's but it's on music with speed bhangra, which is banging on the garage and all of that kind of stuff.
And so it's trying to kind of show a glimpse into that world as well as a journey that's more personal and drawn from some of my experiences.
How about that? So that was all going on in Port Royal. Yeah, just up the road from where you are now, though. Yeah.
Were they playing any Bhangra muffin?
They were playing a little bit of maybe Apache Indian, but I kind of I think was more like I'd be blessed by the GIAMPAOLO, you know, mezze tricks, these kind of Asian scene of like gay marriage or Bollywood remakes of hip hop like, you know, the famous Punjabi emcee Nightrider tune. I mean, that was like 10 years older than when Jay-Z jumped on it. That was an amazing track. Yeah. But also kind of carige mixing Bhangra and stuff like that.
Do you think we missed a trick earlier when we were talking about the opening track and because we don't play clips. Right. Normally, we'd cut to a clip of your truck. I'd like to invite you to spit some of your verses from that. Would that be appropriate or not?
At least because the opening lyrics, I think maybe if you play it I mean, I've got to be honest, I might not remember it right off the top right now. You might screw it up.
What about the opening couple of lines? Well, of of the album because you do in both films. Yeah, well, the one where you go on the break up and it's broken up with me.
We had our ups, but now it's broken down. Let me break down the whole fakhoury. He's turned toxic, intertwined. Now we got kids built are up. She left me broke. I can't believe I let her fuck with me. Yeah. Oh, you want to keep going.
OK, well, that's good stuff with around this time in the 90s when you were you were getting into hip hop as well. Maybe this all falls under hip hop, does it or not?
Really that no. I guess it's all kind of heavily influenced by black music and, you know, in the UK with Jamaican sound system culture and, you know, definitely drawing from, you know, even on the agency and mixing with Bhangra and stuff.
But yeah, I d when I started getting more into it and I remember going backstage at a daytime and meeting the legendary producer Balley Giampaolo, we did a big track or just Sony, which was basically the Brandy and Monica Boyers, my riff off like that. And it ended it and ended under a Bon Jovi ballad. And I met him and I remember I snuck in backstage and I just said, like, can I rap for you? And I did.
And I remember I was just really hesitating to do it. Or when I finished, I was like, I know that was rubbish. I mean, he was like, listen, don't ever so itself short. And I was like, wow, is that first like a person whose only rap and told me I was good and he gave me a number to call and said, call this guy. But I never did because I was too nervous to.
But I ended up being Rishi Rich, who then worked with J. Sean. No way.
And did all of that stuff I did.
If I could have got my hands on those beats. What year are we talking? This is probably just before the millennium, probably since the late 90s.
So you you're in your late teens. So 16, 17, 18, 15, 16, 17. Yeah.
I should mention for the older audience, this goes on radio for as well as being a podcast, I have to remind myself. So Apache Indian, many people will have heard on the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack way. Yeah. Because Boom, Shaka Lack is just dumb and Dumber and Dumb and Dumber two. Wow.
Wow. Garlock that's as far as I'm not going to attempt to replicate his inimitable vocals.
And you've also said that hearing UK Apache not to be confused with Apache Indian was a formative moment for you.
Yes. So UK Party obviously is a nice guy and probably one of the if you sent a time capsule into space to represent what UK rave music and culture is, then you'd probably put this track in its original Nutter show effects in UK Pache. And it's just interesting because UK Apache is Brierre original. Notah Yeah exactly.
That was, that was good. You actually sounded more like Apache Indian then. Less like UK Apache.
I tried that earlier today to see if I could to pull it off. You know, you're switching codes. Yeah.
It was a bit more Apache. Indian. Yeah, almost a bit shaggy in a way.
I'm getting lost. Shaggy, what was Shakey's. It wasn't me. It wasn't me. Yeah. Yeah.
But anyway, UK Apache is just, you know, is British Iraqi from Tooting emceeing in Jamaica ATWA and London Cockney. And I just think in many ways like represents what's so special about London. Definitely. Yeah. So I don't know, I just remember loving that, but I didn't know of his background, really understand those details until I look back later and dissect it. But I think is a formative moment because it's just such a banging tune.
It's one of those songs where it's got a longish intro, it's got a Goodfellas sample talking about one day the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother's groceries all the way home. You know why it was out of respect.
And then when the beat drops, it goes crazy. Yeah.
So in your teens, you weren't thinking, I want to be an actor. You were thinking, I want to be an emcee. Probably.
Yeah, well, I mean, I don't think I was thinking about long term career plans, really. I was just kind of yeah. I was quite an add restless kid with a lot of energy. And I think I just enjoyed the hyperactive, intensive, you know, energy to rapping and emceeing and of garage of drum and bass or writing rap lyrics. It was just very much a kind of cathartic dear diary kind of way of. Processing some of that pent up energy that I had, I don't think I ever really thought that I could do either of these things professionally for a very, very long time, even after I'm doing it professionally for a while.
Any minute now was felt like a natural way to express oneself.
Do you remember any of those old verses? I do. One of the first verse I ever wrote is actually in Mongolia, where there's a scene where this character and I play a protagonist who is very closely based on or inspired by my own life and experiences. And to the extent where, you know, there's that scene in Mogel Mowgli where I get booed off stage in the middle of a rap battle for replying to a rapper in a way that is misconstrued as being a racist kind of dig.
But it wasn't. And that actually happened to me. That's actually a real incident happened to me. Jump off, spin the mic in 2005. And so we there's all these things where I kind of really drawing directly from my own life and my own kind of crazy past. And there's a scene where I listen to these these lyrics on a cassette of my younger self. And he was saying, boy, better what? Your back is back where we could chat no matter how the lyrics attack one type show one way when I enter inside the arena dressed to impress is all designer R.M., I guess Versace, Dolce and Gabbana, Moschino, Valentino, Polo, Gucci and Prada.
CALM's good and proper, garms, good and proper.
So you know, I'm a pretty straight from a young age. Think clothing garms.
I've never heard Gomm without your coinage. Or did people refer to clothes as God.
No. We used to say garms all the time.
We used to say always come up to come on garms and we say, Gonzalo, what was the misconstrued lyric in the rap battle that was construed as racist?
Well, basically I started doing ballads after I finished university as a way to kind of get on the back on the ladder in London and managed to do OK and won a lot of them. But Spindel spin the like jump of that kind of battle haunted me for ages just to drop the spin.
The might jump up. Was that a TV show? No, it was a it was like they used to have these rap battle competitions, kind of like Eight Mile. If you see that Eminem film, the early YouTube days, I mean, Jump-Off is how Professor Green, the UK rapper, made his name and how he came up through that. And he was like the kind of the champion of that. So basically, I got there the only kind of South Asian kid at his battle.
So I'd get a lot of kind of racist things. You know, the aim is to just insult and humiliate each other in rhyme. So what would happen is, you know, they'd say, you know, your mum, that Kabab cornershop smell, you know, whatever, just the whole deal. And so I was up against a black rapper who was saying this to me. And so I said, was your and I remember it because we've had to do it in the film, which is you're so ignorant calling me an immigrant.
You obviously haven't seen your own skin pigment. As if to say, like, why are you being racist, you're a minority as well, but I think the crowd kind of did it didn't quite learn how it intended, maybe was trying to be too clever, wasn't clear enough, and it got booed off stage and it was done.
And yeah, you can go watch it if you're interested in rhythm, see spinner mic jump off or. Yeah, I remember the guy was rapping against his name which was his face. That still that still haunts you. Well, to the extent we're 10 years, 10 years later, about to make a film and kind of portray it in a scene or I drive, it haunts me psychologically. But it was just like people would stop me in the street.
I haven't seen that gone. But usually when people stop really going to. You shouldn't have. It was not fair, man. That shouldn't have happened to you. So I was like, thanks.
I think Wikipedia mentions it and said something along the lines of in a fairly because it was lost in the final. But many, like the producers, acknowledge that it may not have been a fair result or something like that.
Yes, and they didn't trace that Wikipedia editor back to the day. No, I don't think so, but you never know. I'll be checking that there's a good line. Maybe they'll cut this out there in the film mogul. Mowgli is in this battle.
And then he says to his opponent, who's who's been directing, should you go, I guess, stereotypical slurs at your character and your character says something along the lines of your mom, my kebab. And she swallowed the curry.
Yeah, I mean, we're talking about Shakespearean levels here, and I think it's important that we give this bit of time to digest and exactly what we're dealing with.
I enjoyed that. That's all from from the actual bell.
You can. Was that a real line? We just took all of it from the actual ball and turned into a kind of nightmare sequence for the character when he's kind of confronting his identity, among other things.
Hello. You're listening to Grounded with Louis through and I'm speaking to Riz Ahmed. And I wanted to talk to is about his acting and his new films, one of which sound of metal follows a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. But first there was the subject of his earlier work.
The first time saw him in was four lines, which I took extra interest in because I've been a fan of Chris Morris, his groundbreaking show, well, satirical show Brassai, and this was his big feature debut.
And it follows four kitchen sink jihadis who slightly hapless launch a terror bomb attack. Obviously, this highly sensitive, controversial theme.
Can you tell me how you came to be involved in that was funny, because when you describe it on paper, it does sound highly controversial, sensitive and like a kind of hot button thing. But actually, it's just a very hilarious, relatable film. And I think that's what's so disarming about you coming with these preconceptions in the film actually explodes them or, you know, you just it's about these people as people, as hapless humans who are kind of looking for friendship and love and their version of salvation like all of us.
And it just kind of shifted. It happened to be really their chosen profession of terror, which kind of is really subversive and how it humanizes these characters, basically at a time when there's so much demonization going on. How I came to be involved was because Chris saw my debut single after I've been doing a lot. These battles was called the Post 9/11 Blues. And so as a kind of satirical rap track, that was a kind of a joke track over a joke beat almost, but became a MySpace hit and got temporarily banned from radio.
So people started writing about it. And so we did a music video and Chris saw that video. And I guess now looking back, it's kind of in line with what is viable. As you know, as a kind of satirist, he's a lot, much more high level than what I could muster. And he basically, like you, just reached out and said, I'm interested in developing something in this kind of area. And joining me up for a chat, I didn't know his work.
I didn't know about a legend. He was probably better for it as well because I was desperate for acting work like wouldn't stop humping his leg. But I was just like, oh, slightly weird. Interesting dude who wants to meet up every few months for a chat. And I connected him with friends of mine from up north and who became his researches and we'd meet up over three, three, three, four years. Just became mates and we just discussed shoot the shit about the post 9/11 Circus Fair and and then we and then he kind of gave me a script, at which point I'd almost forgotten that that was a thing.
And I said, no, thank you. I don't want to do it because I was eager to kind of get to a place where I wasn't playing characters that were shackled to the post 9/11 narratives around a lot of the time. The fact is that me and my background kind of break through that. But ultimately, Chris convinced me.
Want just to just unpack that a little bit. Yeah.
So, I mean, I always think it goes in stages, like stage one of representation, which is like the stereotypes, the caricature is, you know, the taxi driver, the terrorists to Blacula, the drug dealer or whatever. If you're, you know, East Asian kung fu or whatever. And then you get to stage two. And that's kind of it takes place on culturally specific terrain. But it's subversive and it's trying to undercut dominant narratives is jumping on the bandwagon to overturn it.
So post 9/11 blues, I would put in that territory for lions. I would put in that territory TV drama queen Kosminsky the Brits, or my debut film, The Road to Guantanamo with Michael Winterbottom. I put them in that territory and I'm proud to have done them. As I said, that they're trying to kind of stretch people's preconceptions a little bit and push back against some of the toxic narratives out there. But it is also stage three, which is you just unshackled from any of that baggage, you just a guy and that guy might be named Bob or Dave or that guy might be named ACBAR or Rizvan.
And I wanted to get to that point. I just done a film called Shifty, which was I felt like was my first taste of that. I wanted to carry on down that road. But Chris luckily convinced me to do the film. I honestly didn't think anyone would see it and just thought it would be a laugh.
I was just so so there was a moment of thinking maybe you were on to mine for a little bit. Is this what you're saying? And then for sure. Yeah, which I couldn't understand.
I said, no, I wasn't to mind. I said, no, thank you. I'm not going to want to play a terrorist, but I love you man and good luck. And he said, lets me up. He said, this isn't that thing. This isn't what people think is going to be. And honestly, I just loved him and he's such an inspiration. I don't know if you've ever met Chris.
He's just a couple of times. Yeah. He's a brilliant guy.
He's he's he really is. That is the word for him. He's brilliant. He is like a huge brain, huge heart, just an inspirational leader who leads through fun. You want to be in his gang because this is where the fans are and you just can't say no to him. So luckily, he convinced me to do it.
And he spends he interrogates his choices. The time interrogate may not be well-chosen, but he absolutely thinks everything through, which is why he spends, what, five, six, sometimes years or longer making his films right.
And it sounds like you lived you lived that I mean, he lived about I've got to have a front row seat to it and love him. He's an amazing guy watching the film.
I remember what intrigued me about it was it sort of in two different keys, like there's quite broad comedy in it. And in fact, two of the wannabe jihadis are kind of it's a ridiculously hopeless and all over the place.
But your character is like a rather sensitive, thoughtful young man. And the scenes with his family are very tender. And it's odd. It creates this almost queasy dissonance, that dissonance again.
Yeah, well, maybe that was something that you brought to it, like your acting, but it must be in the writing as well.
No, no, I think so, Chris. And also Jesse Armstrong, you know, went on to write Peepshow and Succession and Jesse Armstrong and S-Bahn and so on that script. They just did such amazing work. You know, I'm just interested in films that kind of like rearranging mental furniture a little bit, I think for Lions does that. I think Nightcrawler does that in its own way. And hopefully, you know, the night of as well, it's like just trying to kind of lean into your bait, you into your preconceptions is just flip things on you a little bit.
And yeah, I guess the scene in particular, I think a lot of people kind of baffled was that this guy sat at the dinner table with all his family and they're all cheering him on in this kind of, you know, mission to pull off a suicide bombing. And it's interesting because, like. In his head, he's a good guy in their head, he's doing he's fighting the good fight. So if you're going to inhabit their perspective, you've got to fully inhabit the perspective and there's something that is kind of you find yourself weirdly rooting for this like band of bumbling, you know, suicide bombers, quite powerful stuff.
And what I like about it, as well as a kind of, you know, powerful thing about comedy is it bypasses the brain, the straight to the gut. You're laughing with someone you laugh in and someone is just there if you you know. And so you have to empathize on that gut level.
You know, they've been quite a few documentaries about the phenomenon of ISIS or whatever you choose to call what that was or is and and what you don't tend to get with them is is the feeling of of how seductive that ideology can be when experienced by, you know, certain kind of person, like the person who feels dislocated and lost. And I think, of course, people aren't actively seeking out. To be on the wrong side, right in their head, everyone's a good guy, right in their head.
Everyone is doing the right thing. Everyone's doing the right thing for the right reasons.
And the good guy there is that 100 percent.
How are you observant, you're an observant Muslim and you really define it, and I'm not sure by whose standards, but I would describe myself as a Muslim, I think praying five times a day and keeping from observing Ramadan.
You sound like my parents did for you.
Do you look just and far be it for me to explain it to you, but you're putting me in a difficult position. This Maliki is between you and your conscience. Let's leave it at that.
Do you think you know, I don't want to kiss your bum too much like it's not. All right.
I think you're a tremendous actor and you and I think that having seen your thank you, I'd seen obviously quite a bit of your stuff before.
But then Reexperience didn't see new stuff. But this is going to be this might be the stupidest question I've ever asked, like, is that something that comes naturally to you? Like what do you do? You seemed very natural and organic. It's in both the new films that are out this moment of heightened emotion. There are no false notes, from what I can see, like you appear to be experiencing those emotions in terms of your self-expression, your body language, your tone.
You make it look quite easy. And I just don't think it could be that easy.
So kind of, you know, I mean, I think it's just you have some easy, easy days and scenes and other ones. Right. It's just constantly I think that's what keeps us coming back to doing what we were. Our obsessions and passions are is probably the same reason we keep going back to Facebook and Twitter followers. Randomized rewards, right. It's like some days you hit it, some days you can't. And it's can be maddening to try and work out what the finish line is and how you can create some consistency and evenness in those results.
I think that kind of ultimately comes with time and also with kind of letting go what we were talking about before letting go of control, which is what, you know, I think both these films mogul Mowgli and Sound of Metal are about. They're both about artists. They're both about creatives that are like. Try and control every aspect of their creative process and career and life, and I guess for me, the lesson I keep learning to answer your question more directly is it's never it is the thing that makes it easier is kind of realizing you can't control it.
I think not sound like too much of a hippie, but I feel like every time you play a character, the character teaches you something. And at a time when I took on both sound of metal and monogamously, I think I was a place where I was ready to bring more of myself to my work. I think growing up, the way you described it was implied when we discussed it, the way I grew up grew up code switching a lot between family situation, schooling, situation of friends, situations portrayed very explicitly in that short film.
You mentioned daytime wearing Sean Parker and speaking where were wearing a uniform, speaking the Queen's English at school, then changing into the classics and speaking with the inmates, listening to UK Apache. So this acting, I guess, came naturally to me in that sense, shapeshifting or code switching, but that always involved leaving part of myself at the door. So Chameleon is a to some extent always came natural to me as a survival mechanism. That's why I was able to think and go into acting, something that came naturally.
But I think what I'm trying to reach for now in my work, and I think both these two films are an attempt is to not leave any of myself in the door, not to take off the shelf. I used to put on the uniform and take off the uniform. To put on the Reeboks is to try and bring the whole wardrobe, bring all of myself to to work. And it's a hard it was a hard obstacle for me to get past, because when you internalize these messages implicitly and explicitly for that, you don't go long enough.
You know, the right shape, size, color, accent, whatever you do, shapeshifting, outreach to people, please, you know, to belong of become good at making masks and wearing them for other people. I don't want to do that anymore. I just want to take them off now. That's why, in a way, I was drawn to playing two characters who are on that journey and think I was drawn to it because I'm on that journey.
I'm trying to kind of walk down that path a bit more.
Now, am I right in thinking you think that it's easier to make it as a person of color in the acting profession in the US as anything in that?
I don't know, man. I mean, I think there's it's a bigger industry here.
So there's more. Opportunities, but I also think that, you know, the official narrative, the national story in America is different to the national story in the UK and neither of them really necessarily, Talita, the reality on the ground. But the official line in the UK is like, you know, the story UK tells itself to the world is it's about the royal family, it's about capacity and it's about Downton Abbey. And that's our export. That's the image that we export ourselves.
Actually, the reality of the UK or London is UK Apache, you know, whereas if you look at America, the reality on the ground here is that you find that cities are much more segregated here than they are in the UK. But the media is exploiters of a kind of, you know, the salad bowl, multiculturalism. You know, the Obama narrative is like a tapestry woven out of all these different coloured threads. And so because of that, I think that the story that gets told over here is one that is a bit more diverse.
But, you know, what was interesting for me about SML is that doesn't even come into it. You know, anyone could have played that role. And usually someone it's not a person of color would have played that role. And so I'm playing someone whose race doesn't come into the film at all. And yet the film is about in a way it's never referred to as a critical ruban.
It's got a mum we know who moves around army bases.
The director said they interviewed 75 people. He wasn't really thinking of you for the role and he liked your stuff. You came along and after meeting you, he's like, no, you're the guy.
You know, we definitely clicked and connected. I think he know Darius's is an amazing director. Bolivianos his first narrative feature that he's directed. And, you know, my first meeting with him, he said, look, we're going to play this role, is going to really learn the drums, learn to play the drums. When you're playing the drums on screen, that's going to be real, not cheating. And we'll play this role is going to learn sign language because the character ends up fluent in American Sign language.
And I just got so excited by that. I was looking for something to sink my teeth into that would overwhelm me. Go back to not being able to feel the bottom of the swimming pool. And when he laid down that kind of challenge, I just thought, wow, that's something that I can get lost in. I can be overwhelmed. And that's something where there's no chance of me being able to control that process. And so interesting things might happen.
And Darrius made that decision me also. And I know if you checked out a sound design in the film, but I made some really bold choices in the sound design that, yeah, the sound design is made up of recordings from inside my body, in my throat.
And extraordinary, the sound design is almost like a character in the film. You lose your hearing. We know that. And then it's what toggles between the perspective of the non hearing person and then and then the world around him. And then without spoiling too much, that's different sort of bits of reality that you saw subjectively experienced through sound.
I see an Oscar for that. I'm calling an Oscar for you for that. And I'm calling an Oscar for best supporting for what's the guy's name?
Who's your race, your sponsor. He always he's going to get an Oscar, isn't he?
I hope so. You know, he's the way he puts himself is I've spent 35 years as a day player coming in to do one scene for one day on films. Basically working in Def Theatre is culturally deaf, is code to deaf parents.
Yeah, extraordinary performance. And this is his first time he's been asked to do anything on screen where I want to I'm putting money on him to win.
Do you think that I could actually make some money on that?
He's definite. I think you should try and do it and nomination 100 percent. Let me know when. Probably 100 percent. I know we're out of time.
Let me let's we have to wrap up with something. Let's say so how?
You know, we started with some quite big stuff at the beginning to do with the strange cultural moment that we're living through, which is complex, but which you refer to in your music. To what extent are you optimistic? Like, you know, you're out there in 2012, you're recently married. It's hard to feel positive in some ways with everything going on, especially with covid.
But where do you see your role in all of this?
Well, I see my role in all of this. Jesus Christ. I mean, we all, I guess, trying to get through the day, get through this merge moment and try and get as many people around us through as well. I mean, I guess I feel like something has been really laid. And they did that spoken word piece I was telling you about. I miss you after my uncle died, which is about I feel like this is laid bare the lie of individualism.
You know, you know, all the things that individualism asked us to chase and all the things that matter in the end. You know, I know about this recently. This idea of apocalypse doesn't mean ending. It means a revelation. And I hope that all of our roles in this moment is to accept the revelation that is being. Presented to us all. Oh, nice. OK, there we go with that. That was really good. I know you've got to go.
I could talk to you for another hour. We haven't even.
I mean, I've got all my little notes, but you've got to go, right? I do, unfortunately, man. But, dude, it's been really great to talk to you. I love your work. I love what you do. There we go. Yeah. I hope to meet you in West London or elsewhere at some point.
See you on the Oxbridge road. You've been listening to Grounded with me. Louis, through my guest, has been the actor, director and musician Riz Ahmed. This has been a momentous production for BBC Sounds and radio for the program was produced remotely by Molly Schneider and Sarah Jane Hall. But if you can't wait until next week's episode, there's always the back catalogue to catch up on on BBC Sounds with Jon Ronson and KCI, Gail Porter and Rylan Clark Neil.
All available now for your enjoyment, your search for Grounded with Louis through on the BBC eye player. And just a reminder, you can hear Grounded on BBC Radio four at the new time of 10-15 on Saturday night.
This is how the pandemic ends, not with a bang, but with a shot or rather billions of shots.
I'm Tim Harford, the presenter of More or Less and 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. And in a new podcast series from the BBC, we'll be covering the defining story of the crisis, the search for a vaccine.
We look at the cutting edge biotechnology behind these vaccines and the underrated business of fridges and vials and Portakabins that will be essential in a huge public health campaign.
And of course, there were the other questions he was going to pay for this. How will we persuade people to take the vaccine? And who gets to go to the front of the queue of several billion people? That's how to vaccinate the world. Available now on BBC Sounds.