Being as on-trend as I am doesn’t come easy, and this post is an example of that. Over the last couple of days, I have had an obsessive relationship with a rap album by the actor and rapper Riz Ahmed. For a little while, I thought I had discovered a hidden gem, but it turns out that it is, in fact, two years old and has even been reviewed in Newsweek.
No matter. I love it, and this blog is about things I love. First, though, I need to indulge in a little self-justification.
For many years, I have sought serenity in music, rather than challenge or enlightenment. My escape from the depression and desperation of my twenties and thirties caused a change in my musical tastes. Rock, pop and dance gave way to classical, jazz and (my secret shame) lounge electronica. Ideas are there, at least in the classical and jazz, but they are behind the music, giving rise to it, for the most part; not written into its performance.
Hip-hop and its descendants have had hardly any impact on me. I used, sometimes, to listen to Trevor Nelson on Radio 1 when I was delivering pizzas in the year after I graduated from university, and, I bought Dre Dre’s 2001 in a burst of curiosity after hearing it played by colleagues when I ran a warehouse office, but my feelings about it mirrored the summary on its Wikipedia page: “2001 received generally positive reviews from critics, many of whom praised the music although some found the lyrics objectionable.”
I was a taxi driver in Portsmouth when Dizzee Rascal’s album Boy in Da Corner filled radio with a convincing British rap voice. I was paying off a deep swamp of debts then, though, and living in insecure housing, so buying music was a rare luxury. When I did go to gigs or copy a CD off a mate, it was with a group of students I’d worked with before I got my taxi license, and they favoured the bland brit rock of the time – Snow Patrol, Elbow and Muse – , or the type of American rock that I imagine was what U.S. army tank crews listened to as they shelled villagers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and targeted Arabic journalists: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Green Day, but not Blink 182, whose fifth album, for reasons I cannot now imagine, I broke my self-imposed austerity to buy. Jungle, Dubstep, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Grime; these were for young people living metropolitan lives, and I was no longer young, and was stuck in a provincial city where local radio playlists ruled. Years later, for a year or two, working in the virtual campus in Camp Hill Prison, I was surrounded by young men for whom music was rap, Grime and their subsets, leavened with a little R&B. It was the people who excited me, though: their stories and attitudes, resentments and hopes. The music they championed left me cold, and feeling excluded. I realise the irony of this.
So, I enjoyed the grime I heard on the radio, but I didn’t take it to heart or listen to it in a way that brought it alive to me. Similarly, although I used to occasionally listen to the BBC Radio Asian Network when the taxi I hired had a DAB radio, and was quite a fan of DJ Nihal for a while, I have not really followed the influence of British Asian voices on pop music. I am too old for the anger and lust and demonstrative introversion of pop music now: the season of semen and sin has passed for me, and the pop and rock music that does reach me all sounds so alike, so much a variation on half-a-dozen repetitive themes, that none of it rises above the status of background noise.
Via an interview with him on The Daily Show (for which you’ll need a VPN service unless you’re in the United States) I came across Riz Ahmed’s music, released under the name MC Riz. He and Trevor Noah discussed his first released track, Post 9/11 Blues, which was banned in the U.S.
I searched for him and found he had two albums on Bandcamp. Neither included this track, but I streamed the more recent one and was mesmerised. I paid a fiver, downloaded it, and put it on my little music player, then I took the dog for a walk and listened through the album. I came home, plugged the music player into the kitchen speaker, and played the album through again as I cooked supper. This morning, the first thing I wanted to do was to play it through again.
It’s called Englistan. I’ve embedded it at the top of this page. If you haven’t clicked play, do so now.
n.b.: I’ve transcribed the lyrics in the quotes below as I hear them. I may have made errors.
The album – he calls it a mixtape – is a series of meditations on the pressures of identity. Specifically, he is concerned with the conflict between his Englishness and his identity as the child of Pakistani immigrants.
Since we were small/we’ve been taught a certain way to be is law/It’s deep-seated, like genes are for/”My son, our people came to these shores/with nothing/honour is all we brought/so keep your culture/keep the thought, son”/Last of the Mohicans talk/Since we felt like outsiders/this helped define us/and we made it our choice/but now, I’m just confused/half-Mohican, half-cowboy/Cos life slips/ideas mix/Is it best of both/or two lives I live?
For a white, provincial, middle-aged man like me, for whom mass culture pretends to speak, it is difficult to imagine the specifics of such a situation. Again and again, Riz’s lyrics are revelations.
‘Scuse me moosh/Pardon me/nah, don’t mind me/I’m usually lost/hard to see/…the usual crop of wannabes/all get in the way/hiding me from public view/I’m not included/in any scene as a useful unit/Hybridity gets low YouTube hits…Paki till I drop/UK till I lose it/Never fitting in/Let the beat prove it
However, While that is a central issue, it is only one element in a rich set of themes, and much of the result is broader and more universal than just Asian representation, important and credible as that concern is. The title track, and the first one on the album, sounds, at first listen, as though it mocks Englishness. The chorus says…
God save the Queen/now she ain’t mates with me/but she keeps my paper green/Plus we are neighbours see/On this little island/politeness mixed with violence/This is England
This is not a specific view. Even on the Isle of Wight, his list of grievances about the sheer awfulness and sordidness of the state of England now resonate vividly.
Where the money you make/And the man you are/stand in opposites/so you drink too hard/Where the banks rob you/and the news is half the truth/wrapped up in boobs and arse/Pigs hit kids so/bricks hit windows/and the high street burns/with broken dreams and herb/Only thing you can’t find in Tesco/is that/and a sense of worth/
However, there is affection, and this line gripped me every time I played the song.
Is Britain Great?/Well, hey! Don’t ask me/But it’s where I live/And why my heart beats.
Isn’t that a central conflict in Englishness for all of us: the weary, stupid prejudice of English exceptionalism, constantly being pumped out at us against all evidence? I have felt this; what he says. This stupid myth of British ‘greatness seems to me to be a national leg-iron, smothering the more realistic love that we feel for the idea of a national identity that is at the root of how we are aware of ourselves.
If Englistan had simply stuck to these themes, continuing to explore them, I think I would have found this a fascinating and enlightening album, but on the fourth track, Sunburst, Ahmed changes tack, to a far more personal topic.
I was caught out by this song. I was depressive for two decades, and it has left its shadows, although I rarely think, explicitly, about it now. Nothing that anyone says about depression is new: its mundanity is part of its cruel strength. It is a paper tiger; an ephemeral bully that, when it has you in its grip, feels all-powerful and inescapable. Ahmed tackles it head-on and comprehensively. Inertia, self-loathing, exhaustion and, centrally, the apparent uselessness of all the trite remedies that only work against despair when you are already through the worst of it, are muttered urgently through clenched teeth in just over four minutes. Through it, though, an R&B refrain repeats and builds the only remedy any of us can offer a depressive: reassurance.
I want you to know now/sunburst will soon come/after rainclouds
Riz duets this chorus with the guest singer, Tawiah between two verses of bleak descriptive rhyming, then there’s a break, and he sings a final verse of brave, common-sense defiance and advice.
First things first/don’t beat yourself up/it makes things worse/It’s not your fault/it’s all just chemical/You’re not a prick/You’re sick/it’s medical…You’ll ride it out and then you’ll laugh/Please believe that this too shall pass
Behind this verse, Tawiah’s voice gradually comes to the fore, repeating the reassurance. I’ve not found it easy to get to grips with R&B voices, but her lovely, emotive, crying voice is used perfectly here.
I was impressed by, and drawn to, Ahmed before I got to this track: I felt close to him after I had heard it.
In the next track, A Few Bob, Tawiah features again. This is the first song to use a narrative structure to carry its theme. Bob, a hapless everyman, is caught in debt and the financial crash. Tawiah sings:
When the house of cards/comes falling down/I’m left holding the joker/Did we come so far/for it all to fall down?/I gave you my dreams and you broke them.
Incidentally, last night Amanda and I went to a screening of a film about the NHS selloff, whose most shocking revelation was the degree to which the dismantlement of the U.K. state has been planned by American corporations and their treasonous British lackeys. This song reflects the fact that young people, who don’t share my lingering delusion in the fundamental decency of the British order, have been perfectly aware of this treason for years.
I didn’t mean this to be a track-by-track review of the album, but each song is compelling in a different way, building on what has come before without repeating. I wanted to talk about the production, which is as much a part of my fascination with Englistan as the vividness of the brilliantly observed lyrics. The electronic music is cold, restless and often disruptive, playing a part in the dramatic structure of the arguments or stories the songs tell. Much of it is in minor keys; the musical theme of the title track is one of the few obviously Asian-influenced segments: a looped phrase of, perhaps, bansuri? My ignorance shames me. I know hardly anything about Indian music, and just as little about how electronic music is produced. I assume it’s all done on Cubase on a Mac.
In other tracks, there are string duets and acoustic guitar trills, echoing, to my ears, Philip Glass or Max Richter minimalist loops. On Sunburst, this is reflected in an atonal opening theme, and the song is punctuated by anxious organ tones and percussive bell strikes until what sound like harp arpeggios lay a suggestion of hope and optimism over the darkness. However, it is on the penultimate track that the modern operatic voice comes to its powerful conclusion.
Benaz is theatre as song. Ahmed’s comic acting chops shine in the final track, I Ain’t Being Racist But…, but in Benaz, it is pure, sincere acting. It is a poem-play about the murder of Banaz Mahmoud, an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee who fell in love with an Iranian Kurdish man and was killed by her father and uncle. The true story has been sensitively and exhaustively documented in a 2012 film, Banaz: A Love Story, which, I warn you, makes hard watching. Ahmed’s rendition of the story is an imagined one, and it is beautiful. He takes her experience and makes it day-to-day; how inescapable young love is, even in the context of a life lived subject to tyranny; especially when the love is the only apparent hope of an escape from that tyranny. It is Romeo and Juliet set in pebble-dashed Greater-London terraces and fluorescent-lit Tesco Metros, with the hope of escape represented by woodland and wet grass. Woven through it is the dance of cello and violin, acoustic guitar and restrained electronic chords that heighten the tension.
It should be a story of unrelieved defeat. That it is not is thanks to a refrain sung by Ayana Witter-Johnson. It seems trite typed below, but, in context, it is gorgeous.
If I knew I’d live in shame/Just to be near you/I would do it all again/I would do it all again.
But even with that redemption, it is impossible to escape that this is the story of a reckless, stupid, ugly and bitterly cruel crime against a gentle, kind and brave young couple. Banaz Mahmoud and her lover, Rahmat Suleimani, are in my prayers, as is her braver-than-brave sister, who now lives her life in hiding.
Part of the discomfort of the film about Banaz is the way in which this family and community tragedy became a political theme and then a racist trope. This is expressed baldly in the final track of Englistan, a satirical monologue without music, in the voice of an archetypal (although unconvincingly literate) white supremacist ranter. It is funny, but it is also a catalogue of despair, especially in the context of all that has come before.
In the Newsweek interview to which I linked at the opening of this post, Riz Ahmed is quoted as saying,
I describe it as a love letter to modern Britain, which is multicultural Britain…A lot of people feel like they’ve been jilted by their country recently, or alienated, or wronged. Their country has cheated on them in some way in the past couple of years…Love letters do sometimes contain complaints.
What he has done, for me, is to describe his and my country in terms stripped of all the comforting bollocks: all the mythopoeic fog that is constructed to preserve a privilege-zone of hierarchical certainty for a subset of English identity. I love my English culture, but I know just enough history to understand that culture is not fixed: we remake it every day, and that is a beautiful thing, if we acknowledge the vitality of our variety as a national group. The idea of a fixed and unchanging England, that has been ‘betrayed’ by change is a lie, and it is a lie that hurts us, belittles us, makes us sordid and stupid.
I am a long way from my areas of authority writing about rap, and about British Asian voices. I have approached this review as a fellow-Briton, in admiration for a work of art that has gripped my imagination and touched many of my concerns. If I have said anything stupid, made any dad-mistakes while writing about an artform about which I have barely any education beyond the research I did for this post, forgive me. I mean only respect for an album that has lit the past few days for me, doing what art should always try to do: opening up the world for me, touching something within me and, ultimately, enlightening me.