When Riz Ahmed decided to make an album and a short film about “being broken up with by the country you live in,” he had a landscape of inspiration to choose from: Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, state-sanctioned violence against Muslims in India. Ahmed has long made smart, playful music, from the single “Post 9/11 Blues,” in 2006, to the album “Cashmere,” from 2016, which he released as part of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys, with the Indian-American rapper Heems. But he may be best known for his exhilarating work as an actor, in films like “Four Lions,” “Nightcrawler,” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and in television shows like “The Night Of” and “Girls.” His début solo LP, “The Long Goodbye,” came out in March, as the coronavirus crisis swallowed most countries’ other concerns, including the matter of Brexit. But Ahmed has not lost sight of the underlying conditions that the pandemic has brought into relief. He begins the album with the lines “Britain’s broken up with me / We had our ups / But now it’s broken down / Lemme break down the whole fuckery.”
The album’s extended breakup metaphor goes in emotional, reflective, and often funny directions. In one interlude, Mindy Kaling leaves Ahmed a “voice mail” encouraging him to take half in the breakup; in another, Mahershala Ali tells him not to let rejection and hate get him down. Ahmed also spends time wrestling with the idea of home. His family hails from Pakistan, but Ahmed was born and grew up in northwest London, and he went to Oxford for college. (“Did they ask you where you from? / No, where you really from? / The question seems simple, but the answer’s kinda long,” he raps on the album.) In lieu of an album tour, he has been hosting a series of discussions about art and mental health on his Instagram account, and hopping on his friends’ online events, such as an open-mike night hosted by the poet Rupi Kaur.
But, like many of us, Ahmed is also restless at home, releasing the evidence of his quarantine buzz cut and nostalgically posting his fight scenes with Tom Hardy from the movie “Venom,” while joking about the days of being able to touch others. He’s riding out the lockdown in the U.K., which he still considers his only home. We spoke via FaceTime at the end of April; I was in my apartment, in Brooklyn, and Ahmed was at his place in London. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
My condolences about your uncle. He recently passed away due to complications from COVID-19, right?
Yes. Thank you. I’ve lost two family members now, my uncle and my aunt.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Thank you. A lot of people are facing unexpected losses.
The first thing I wanted to ask you about is something you posted recently. You were encouraging people to sign a petition called the Solidarity Pledge, which would help insure that poorer countries are not outbid by wealthier nations for ventilators, vaccines, treatments, and essential supplies. Is that something you’re concerned about?
Yes. In some ways, national differences seem more inconsequential than ever, because viruses don’t respect borders, and we’re going through this as a collective human experience. On the other hand, different communities, in different countries, have different levels of access to resources. I’ve been reading a little bit about what’s going on, for example, in refugee camps, where there’s little to no resources, such as ventilators, and little to no possibility of social distancing. So I think it’s time to try and pull together the best we can.
Can you take me through the process of coming up with the concepts, lyrics, and music on “The Long Goodbye?” Was it inspired mostly by the political situation and things that had happened to you personally?
It was a mixture of things, like most creative projects are. For me, the idea of a breakup album addressed to your country started taking root in the spring of 2017. I’d floated it as the concept for a track on the Swet Shop Boys album that we were recording that April. We thought we’d get around to it, but we didn’t, quite.
The concept itself came from a number of different sources. I always hesitate to describe my music as a response to political circumstances, because I’m not a politician. I’m an artist; I’m just responding to what are personal matters. How you feel walking down the street in your home town is a very personal matter. The dreams or nightmares that keep you up at night, that’s a very personal matter. Some of it was a response to those emotions in the wake of Brexit and the election of President Trump. When we played our first show in L.A., it was actually on the night of Trump’s Inauguration. There was a really intense energy that night. People were in tears, people were getting really drunk. It was like being at a wake or something.
cijilu123永不失效地址The reason I decided to frame that emotional response as a breakup album is partly inspired by Qawwali music and Sufi music, and by the kind of Sufi poetic tradition where you often use the metaphor of estrangement from the beloved, or rejection by the beloved, or the beloved being obscured from you, as a metaphor for your relationship to the divine. It was taking that frame and placing it into what I do. You see it also in the broader Urdu poetry tradition, where you have poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Muhammad Iqbal, who would engage with the idea of home or the homeland.
So had you had that experience of walking down the street and not feeling welcome, or having nightmares about what was going on?
Yeah. Something that really stood out for me was, I was at dinner with some friends in New York, and it was quite a mixed group. There were Jewish people there; there were black people there; there were Muslim people there; there were East Asian people there; and the topic of conversation that came up was whether it’d be safe to stay in the United States. I’d heard similar conversations in the U.K. and in Paris. This idea of, O.K., we’re born and raised here, we’ve always seen this as our home. But by the time we get to our grandchildren’s generation, will they curse us for not having left when we had the chance? Is this Berlin in the late nineteen-twenties, and we just don’t realize it?
cijilu123永不失效地址What surprised me about that was two things. One, I hadn’t really heard people of my generation who were born and raised in these countries speak like that before. And second, I recognized it as a thought. It was a conversation that was, on one level, surprising to me, and, on another level, incredibly familiar. I wanted to unpack that question—“Are we together or not?” The album plays out the metaphor of heartbreak because home is a place that you care about. It’s a relationship that, for better or worse, you define yourself through.