“No, where are you REALLY from?” is a question most immigrants are often uncomfortably asked. A simple “North Carolina” or “London” will not do; the questioner wants to hear “India,” “South Korea,” or “Pakistan.” But you think to yourself, your ethnicity is not your nationality, and now your idea of home is completely distorted.
We live in a tumultuous time where politicians of powerful countries are against immigrants. Policies are placed to disrupt the lives of minorities, the people who make up the core of nations. In the last few years itself, we have seen Brexiteers in the UK, and Trump supporters in the US, speak up about wanting their country back. Regressive policies and actions around the world, much like ICE raids, have meant that people had to say goodbye to a country they grew up in and have been betrayed by the place they know as home. It is hard to process the political shift as a minority. With laws, big words used by potent politicians, and the compelling nature of media that has oversaturated us, we often forget that it is real human beings who are tragically affected. Riz Ahmed, a British actor, musician, and activist, responds to this political oppression with, “If you want me back from where I am from then bruv I need a map.”
In March of this year, Riz released his Hip-Hop/Rap album “The Long Goodbye” and a short film with the same name. The concept album is one about a toxic relationship, breaking-up, longing to reconvene with an ex but also finding compassion for yourself. What is interesting, and is made clear from the first song itself, is that Riz’s ‘ex’ is used as a metaphor for the UK, the country he grew up in. While Ahmed’s parents are originally from Pakistan, he grew up in Wembley, London. In this album, Riz raps about issues such as colonialism, Islamophobia, hate crimes, and most importantly, the idea of home and belonging somewhere. An article in The New Yorker stated that Riz was mainly inspired by “Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the state-sanctioned violence against Muslims in India.”’ With his dual identity prevalent, Ahmed uses a mix of both western and eastern sounds that include UK garage, electronic D&B, but also Qawwali Sufi music, a form of Islamic devotional singing. Known South Asian figures like Haasan Minhaj and Mindy Kaling also make cameos on the album.
“Who made you cool? It’s me. Who gave you jewelry? Gave you real food to eat. Mughal turned Mowgli.” This is what Riz raps in his song “First Lava.” The hypocrisy of Brexit, as a Pakistani or Indian, is evident throughout the album, since South Asia was under British colonial rule for so long. It is made clear that Britain was built by colonial subjects in the global south, and that contribution should be enough to have the right to live there. In his very first song, “The Breakup,” Riz says, “She [Britain] moved in, I was a guest unwanted in my own home.” India was not only robbed and exploited by the British but fighting for independence also resulted in a partition and the creation of Pakistan. When Riz says he needs a “map” to know where he is from, he is referring to not only having an identity crisis in Britain but also his supposed homeland. Around the world, colonialism has cheated citizens and many countries have not been able to recover from it. People have had to flee their nation in search of a better future and refuge. The United States itself is a country full of immigrants, but instead of celebrating a future of mixed cultures, the idea has been politicized and used to instigate fear in the name of propaganda.
“They say the airport search is random, but if it’s always me then it ain’t random.” This is another line Riz raps in his song “Mogambo.” Following the tragedies of 9/11, many South Asians and people from the Middle East, especially Muslims, have been racially profiled at airports due to increased security. What was done to create safety makes a whole group of people feel unsafe and unwanted. Along with this album, Ahmed also directed and starred in a disturbing short film that essentially deals with ethnic cleansing. The film starts with a family and their mundane life. Their routine that is filled with laughter, happiness, and normalcy is suddenly disrupted when a group of armed men come into their home. This Muslim family is suddenly filled with terror as they get shot and eventually killed while screaming, “Why do you hate me?” and “I know who you are, you racist.” This film is hard to watch, and its themes seem like some sort of dystopian future; however, the scenes portrayed are the reality of what is happening in many countries around the world. Examples are the Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Darfuris in Sudan, and the Uyghurs in China. We are all a victim of consuming mainly western media, and these genocides are not always covered or prioritized. It was upsetting watching this film, but it is even more upsetting to watch the world, including myself, be ignorant and desensitized to such issues.
“Tryna put Pakis on the Telly, growing up there wasn’t any. Now we either ISIS or Emmy’s. Rep till they represent me.” In order to negate stereotypes, representation is vital. People want to see themselves in the entertainment industry and even in politics. Representation means diversity in thought and stories. In an interview with Time magazine, Riz said that at times he feels like an outsider in Hollywood but also reminds himself that “the place where you stick out, is the place you can contribute the most.” He also reminds us that popular American Sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” are allowed to delve deeper into the plot line without really mentioning a lot about the characters’ ethnicity and background. When it comes to shows like “Black-ish” or more recently “Never Have I Ever” a big part of the plot is about the characters’ ethnic background and minority status. While representation matters, the right representation matters. Riz hopes to break boundaries and stereotypes with his art. He has been in films and shows such as “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Nightcrawler,” and “The OA” as characters whose personalities extend beyond their cultural background.
“We don’t need to hide, done with all that code-switching. Own my shit, let them smell us.” This is what Riz passionately raps in one of his later songs “Deal with it.” Immigrants often have to code-switch between personalities when they are with different groups of people. They might act one way with their parents, and they try to hide their ethnic identity from their non-minority friends in high school. This can be exhausting and create a big identity crisis, making some ashamed of their heritage. Many minorities feel pressured to assimilate to the dominant culture and change themselves to fit in and be more “white.” However, at the end of the album, Riz preaches self-love and acceptance. He says, “Now my face is everywhere, so look who won.”
So, before you ask someone, “where are you REALLY from?” know that they are battling an internal identity crisis, and they deserve your acceptance and understanding. For those of you who are asked this question, remember that while it is important to give homage to your roots, you should shamelessly claim the culture you were born into as well.