Riz Ahmed is alone in the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco’s legendary concert venue. He knows we’re watching him, however: It’s part of a livestream of The Long Goodbye, a half-hour performance piece adapted from his acclaimed live show, which was itself inspired by his 2020 album of the same name. (You can catch the performance piece on BAM’s website through March 1st.) For those who know the 38-year-old only as an actor — an Emmy winner for The Night Of, and currently building Oscar buzz for last fall’s Sound of Metal, in which he played a punk-metal drummer losing his hearing while battling heroin addiction — The Long Goodbye boldly displays Ahmed’s musical side as he raps ferociously in this empty space about racism in his native Britain. Part spoken-word confessional, part political protest, part hip-hop concert, it’s a dazzling demonstration of Ahmed’s mic skills, even if he’s never felt so exposed before. “I always had a show to hide behind,” he intones at one point, “but this is showing me.”
The actor has never been afraid to open himself up or be raw onscreen. But it’s in his music where Ahmed really shows himself. And in recent months, between the album and this electric new livestream, he’s been more willing to reveal that side. “As an actor, you sometimes think, ‘OK, this is this kind of character,’ or, ‘The director wants this from me,’ ” Ahmed says, speaking over the phone. “But then I think, ‘Well, actually, rather than putting on a mask to represent an archetype, how can I take the mask off and just present myself?’ ”
Born to parents who moved from Pakistan to the U.K. in the 1970s, he grew up in a household that spun Bob Marley records. “In immigrant families, kids are [normally] discouraged from pursuing careers in the arts,” Ahmed says, his words tumbling out in bunches. “But the one thing that we have when we come over is our culture — our music, our song, our dance, our food, our costume. That is the one thing that we are rich with. Every immigrant is, in a way, an artist. You’re building something from nothing.”
He quickly took to hip-hop, whether it was battle-rapping as a youth or recording the 2006 viral sensation “Post 9/11 Blues,” using anger and Eminem-style wiseass humor to condemn the War on Terror’s targeting of those with brown skin. (“We’re all suspects so, literally, be watching your back/I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack.”) Ahmed put out material under the pseudonym Riz MC and as part of the hip-hop collective Swet Shop Boys, but the Long Goodbye album, which dropped in March right before the pandemic took hold, is the first time he’s released music with his real name. Still, Ahmed swats away any suggestion that he has a chip on his shoulder about showing fans he’s more than a Hollywood star.
“When you’re a younger artist, you’re really driven by trying to prove people wrong,” he acknowledges. “But by the time you get to my age, if you’re still doing something — particularly something that doesn’t really make you any money — it’s usually for other reasons. I make music because it’s part of who I am. It’s how I work through ideas. It’s how I metabolize my emotions. It’s how I process what’s going on in the world.”
“The one thing that [immigrants] have when we come over is our culture — our music, our song, our dance. Every immigrant is, in a way, an artist.” —Riz Ahmed
Over a musical bed that encompasses jungle, South Asian rhythms, and dancehall vibes, he speaks frankly on The Long Goodbye about feeling like an outsider, no matter the success he’s garnered as an actor. His rhymes are candid, funny, and vulnerable. “I put my truth in this sound,” he raps on the album. “I spit my truth, and it’s brown.”
“It’s scary sharing your intimacy, your privacy, your insanity with people,” Ahmed admits. “But I’m realizing more and more that that’s the point of this. If you can name your pain, it heals you, but it also heals others. The ritual of performance is healing. It’s medicine.”
Although he put out Microscope in 2011 as Riz MC, Ahmed was already gaining more attention as an actor, thanks to roles in the dark satire Four Lions and the tabloid-news drama Nightcrawler. But it was his casting in 2016’s The Night Of, in which he plays a New Yorker accused of murder, that inadvertently helped reinvigorate his musical career. To prepare for the role, he reached out to a pal, Himanshu Suri (better known as the esteemed rapper Heems), for guidance. “Since I’m an Indian kid from Queens whose dad drove a cab, I showed him around Jackson Heights, and he met my family,” Heems recalls of the process of helping Ahmed understand his character’s background. “But then, maybe a year later, he came to me and was like, ‘I was thinking about this project, the name and everything.’ ”
That project became Swet Shop Boys, which raised Ahmed’s hip-hop profile — the group played Colbert — while drawing from Bollywood soundtracks and qawwali influences to take aim at bigoted TSA officials and commiserate over feeling disconnected from one’s roots. “Riz is very meticulous about his music, very focused, very driven, very obsessive about his craft,” says Heems, “whereas I’m a bit looser and tend to shoot from the hip a bit more. Riz comes from battle rap and spoken-word poetry — he has the ability to find something and then turn it into an inspiration very quickly.”
Sound of Metal’s music milieu would thus seem to be a natural progression, as well as a merging of Ahmed’s two passions. Playing the role of a drummer who must deal with a life without his hearing, however, meant facing a steep learning curve. “I really have not been big into metal, punk, or hardcore at any point of my life,” he admits. But as he trained for months to become a pulverizing drummer, he found a common sonic language. “One point of big connection between me and my drum teacher was drum and bass, and jungle music — that was always a point of contact between me and metal drummers, who play crazy rhythms. I grew up in London, and we have this incredible Jamaican influence of dance-system culture. From old school to hardcore to jungle to drum and bass to garage to grind to dubstep, it’s an amazing lineage.”
As a musician, the prospect of going deaf, which sends Ahmed’s character into a downward spiral, would seem terrifying. But the actor saw this musician’s physical ailment differently: “I guess I’m just interested in the idea of surrendering control: how it can feel like a curse, but sometimes it’s also such a gift.” Sound of Metal director Darius Marder encouraged Ahmed to embrace that loss of control, filming the performance scenes in front of genuine metal fans in an actual club in order to amp up the realism. “Hip-hop is a very intellectual music for Riz,” Marder says. “It’s about words and thoughts and ideas. I think what he felt in the playing of the drums was the exhilaration of something that is visceral and outside of that frontal lobe. Whether or not he loves metal now, I don’t know. But I do think that he will never forget that feeling of that primal immediacy of that music.”
Immediacy is also the allure of the Long Goodbye livestream, which provides a great showcase for Ahmed’s rapid-fire style, and the feverish careening of lyrics from self-examination to societal critique. His grandfather was a poet, and he credits his mom for having “a gift of the gab,” but he also thinks that his love of words came from his family’s immigrant journey. “It’s inevitable when you speak multiple languages that you’re interested in the space between words,” he suggests. “Things that words can’t express. Things that only certain words in certain languages — or in certain mouths, even — can express. How do you articulate the thing that can’t be articulated?”
Although he’s focusing on the award-season push for Sound of Metal, the livestream serves as an attempt to articulate his South Asian identity and his fears of never being accepted because of his skin color in Britain, a place that he dubs “no man’s land” on on The Long Goodbye. If his acting gives him the opportunity to bring to life different characters, his music allows him to let the mask slip. And on The Long Goodbye, he wants the world to see him so it can understand how unwelcome he often feels in a racist society.
“Zadie Smith talks about this: All I want to do with my work is stretch words like ‘black’ or ‘British’ to make them big enough I could live inside them comfortably,” Ahmed says. “But I’ve come to a different place recently, which is that, maybe our home is in the art. Maybe that’s what the role of this work is — to make no man’s land, which so many of us find ourselves in, habitable. Maybe this work is a map to home. Maybe you can belong within the work itself.”