A few days ago, Sadiq Khan was sworn in as the new mayor of London and the media was quick to trumpet the city's "first Muslim mayor." Khan's win is seen as a coup in an era of visible Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric in Western nations, but it doesn't erase the political reality of daily life for many brown and black people living in the U.K. Last summer, journalist and FADER contributor Kieran Yates published British Values zine to push back again U.K. political rhetoric that prescribes "a set of values that British people should employ and protect." Grime musicians and personalities are calling out institutional neglect. And now, Rizwan Ahmed—better known as Riz MC—has put out a new mixtape, Englistan that's as much about demanding more from the government and media, as it is documenting the in between tensions of being British and Pakistani.
It's Riz's first release since his 2014 project with Heems, Swet Shop Boys—and it's much more personal, too. Englistan's nine tracks include on-the-ground stories of double consciousness, economic stagnancy, and technology with contributions from producer Jakwob, singer Tawiah, and singer-cellist Ayana Witter-Johnson. The fast raps and the jerky, throbbing production peak toward the end, when Riz slows his flow and unplugs the synths for the penultimate track "Benaz," about a woman who was the target of an honor killing in 2006. It's the 3D truth: 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.' A spoken word outro from the perspective of a racist follows.
Riz has been rapping and acting for a while now—you might remember him as the bugged out Rick from 2014's Nightcrawler—and he put out Englistan to accompany the release of an autobiographical short he wrote and directed called, Daytimer, about his childhood in '90s London. In addition to a new album later this year, Riz will appear in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue and HBO series The Night Of. Stream Englistan below, and read Riz's thoughts on bringing a lot of "fucked up shit" to attention.
Englistan is about exploring "multiculturalism not as a buzzword, but as lived experience." Can you expand on what you mean by that?
RIZ MC: Multiculturalism is usually spoken about in abstract terms by white middle class commentators, and debated in headlines as a philosophical question. It's not as often explored as a reality, on a human level, with all its complexities, by the people who that term concerns the most. For us it's just life, it's not a label or political approach to be debated. Debating multiculturalism is like debating whether or not people like me should exist. Well fuck off, 'cos we do. So get past that word and start to understand us.
Some already do understand it, obviously. Lot of kids have reached out saying 'thank you for saying this, this is my life.' British soldiers have hit me up to say 'thanks for making me understand a little more,' and that makes me feel good. So to humanize people beyond their labels, I guess that's what I mean by [that statement.]
What does it mean for you that the new mayor of London is Muslim?
It means a lot to me: not that we elected a Muslim, but that people refused to see him in that reductive way. They elected him because they like him. They saw the man, not the labels or smears that the prime minister tried to put on him. So, yes, I think it's a message against state-sponsored Islamophobia but I also think it's an example of how when someone connects with people that can transcend those reductive labels.
But there's also a gap between the discourse and the reality, in terms of how big a thing it is. In terms of debunking the narrative in the papers, of clashing civilizations etc., it's a big deal. But in terms of the daily reality of London life, which is more culturally diverse and mixed up than ANY city in the world, this feels like a pretty normal thing. Go anywhere in London and you'll see how mixed up it is; it's far less segregated than any other European or American city I've been to.
Why was it important for you to make a song about Benaz Mahmod?
Mainly because I found [her story] so moving: the way she escaped a violent marriage, the way she kept asking the police for help and they did nothing. I tried to write it in 2007 with Nitin Sawhney but it wasn't ready in time. It's been on my list of stuff to write about since then. I was nervous. I cared about it a lot so I didn't wanna mess up, so I put it aside and wrote it seven years later. When I decided to use her story as inspiration for a fictional version, I felt more free to do it.
In the end I realized that I had to tell this story because if we don't, it's told for us by people who don't understand, and because [that narrative] is the best summation of the tragedy that underpins life in the diaspora: when you're crushed between worlds like that.
And, finally, because there's some fucked up shit going on that we need to talk about, and I want to bring attention to it and confront the way the minority male's quest for self-respect can sometimes come at the expense of women. It's hard to air dirty laundry when you feel like we're under attack, but it has to be done.