Skin Deep meets Riz Ahmed

Written by Skin Deep

Image by Sylvia Hong

04.11.15

Skin Deep: Do you have fond memories of growing up in Wembley?

Riz Ahmed: Wembley kind of went through a lot of transitions in the time that I lived there. It went from being quite a lower-middle class white area to recently becoming an Asian immigrant area. And then I remember in the 90s it became very Somali as well. By then a lot of the white people had left. Then you start getting a second wave of Indians — particularly south Indians and Tamils — and Poles. So I guess the interesting thing about that area is every immigrant wave manifests itself there. You get to see the changing face of London but also Britain.

I have fond memories of it. I guess it’s mixed. There was some kind of sense of community there, amongst some of the Pakistani families and all that kind of stuff. But I always went to school outside of that. I got assisted places and scholarships to go to private schools slightly away from the community. I always felt like an insider-outsider within that. Also, when I was a little kid, I mean I remember we suffered quite a lot of racism in that area as well.

I feel like my experience of that neighbourhood illustrates the journey of race relations in Britain. You start off in the 80s getting bullied by skinheads, end up today where no one speaks English but kind of just get along.

SD: How did you find the transition going from a school in London to studying at Oxford?

RA: Well, the school I went to was a private school but it wasn’t like Eton, or one of these schools that feels like a very neat transition. It was very much an aspirational private school – for the kids of Jewish and Gujarati accountants, that kind of thing, you know? It was not old English money and diplomats’ kids.

So Oxford was a big culture shock in many ways. I still remember — I’ve told this story far too many times now — the first person I met there. I knocked on my neighbour’s door to see if I could borrow a phone charger. I felt immediately as though this was something kind of different — people walking around wearing bowties and straw hats — and I knocked on this girl’s door and said in my best possible voice, if she could lend me her phone charger. She laughed in my face and said, “Ah, you remind me so much of Ali G, it’s amazing!”

SD: You serious?!

RA: Yeah! I was like, what’s going on here?

To be honest, the first week or so I was thinking: this is a joke. No one has a clue about anything. I was kind of a cocky little London boy, thinking this is gonna be funny, I’ll just have fun and just run circles around everyone. It was a weird kind of arrogance I had, that ‘this will be silly but fine’.

Then after fresher’s week, everyone disappeared, and I didn’t know where anyone was; I thought everyone was hanging out in some secret place without me. I realised everyone was in the library. That was strange to me. Seeing my brother and all my friends going to university in London, I felt like first year was meant to be a doss really, you’re just meant to hang out. So I guess it was a culture shock in that sense as well, not just in terms of like race or class, but also being in this place where you are conducting yourself like a mid-30s professional from the age of 18, where you fill your diary by fitting someone in for a coffee at 4.15, before running like a politician to something at 4.45, and then like being a journalist at 5. In some ways that culture shock was quite constructive and enriching; it made me get on top of stuff and follow through with the stuff I wanted to do.

But it didn’t start off that way. The first term I just became quite depressed and isolated and I felt like I was unable to relate to many people. We were different on a very basic level; I spoke and dressed differently. I felt like to some extent it was in my own head, the usual suspicion. The college system also makes it quite tricky to break out and meet people. So what I ended up doing was I emailed my tutors and said that I was done with Oxford, that I thought I might leave, because I found it to be quite isolating.

And then I thought – what would I like to see exist here? Why don’t I just make that happen? So I literally just went to the computer room and printed out pages of A4 paper saying: drum and bass night, at a certain club — I didn’t fill in what the name of the club was — and I just went to different night clubs with these things in my hand and said ‘I’ve got thousands of posters and people ready to come to this night, I just have to write down what club the party is at. So I started a club night called ‘Hit and Run.’ It drew in quite a mixed crowd both from the universities there and people who lived in Oxford, who had nothing to do with being students. I guess it became a kind of meeting point for a lot of like-minded people who also felt that they didn’t fit into the dominant culture, which is very much a kind of elitist, white, dinner-jacket culture, the black-tie culture. That really saw me through it, both financially and socially. It saved me really, taking that punt and doing that.

SD: Did you start acting at uni, or before then?

RA: I started acting when I was at high school. I used to get into a lot of trouble. There were some people there who were overtly racist and allied with some racist groups at school, and I guess I was kind of associated in some peripheral way to the Asian gang culture that was going on at the time. In the 90s, pre 9/11, it wasn’t about being Muslim, it was about whether you were a Paki, or a Tamil, or a Gujarati. So there were different crews along these lines. And so there were clashes between the Asian gangs, and also against the white racists, both in and out of school. It broke out into quite a lot of fights. And I would just be disruptive and unruly.

At some point, a teacher told me, “If you can muck about on stage, you get a clap for it, not a suspension”. When I tried it, I loved it. But then at Oxford, again I felt very much like an outsider to the dramatic society. It was all very classical and white and — I don’t know. I felt like everyone’s dad worked in something, and they were all just steeped in it. I just felt very much like an amateur.

I fell in with a group of people who, like me, didn’t see themselves as part of the bread and butter, staple of the Oxford drama scene. We kind of put on different plays. I remember one play we put on was Stephen Adly Guirgis’ ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train.’ It was probably one of the only plays, or the only play, in my whole time at Oxford where it had two lead actors that weren’t white. And it made a real impact, that play. It was good. Then I directed ‘Colour of Justice’ about the Stephen Lawrence enquiry. So I guess that school and university were both good preparation for the film industry where there are similar issues with diversity and representation, and feelings of who owns the space, and I guess having had that experience of feeling like an outsider meant I was able to replay some of those brain pathways. Like OK, so that means you need to be here, you should knock on the door again, unpick the lock somehow and get in there.

SD: Changing the narrative by doing it yourself, and being there.

RA: No one person can do that, you just got to get involved and it makes a difference incrementally I guess as more people do it. Depending on how you look at it, not seeing yourself within the culture can be seen as an invitation for you to insert yourself within that landscape, because really, there is something not being voiced there.

SD: The parts you play in your early films, like Omar in Four Lions, are incredibly funny. What do you think the role of humour is when tackling these issues, like race or prejudice?

RA: I would like to do more comedies actually. I guess I use it a bit more in some of my music with like the first song I did, ‘Post 9/11 Blues,’ or recently I did a fake EDL rap: ‘I ain’t racist, but…’ I feel it’s my own personal taste; I just love comedy. It cuts more effectively to the bone, you’ve got more leeway to take risks, because there is something very disarming about laughter. It drops people’s defences or at least piques their curiosity. It just opens them up in a different way, making them more willing to hear things that might be challenging. So I kind of think that it is really important, otherwise people get really preachy, sincere and boring.

That’s not to say there is no place for being serious and honouring the real weight of a lot of these challenges — you know, the kind of challenges Skin Deep is dealing with — but it’s like there is also something joyful about having a challenge that you know means something. You have been dealt those cards and playing with that challenge rather than letting it play with you, you know?

SD: Yeah, I get what you mean.

Reading your twitter, you are very vocal about the politics of your industry. You recently tweeted an article about David Oyelowo, who says: “roles in the UK for black and minority ethnic actors are worse than ever. I was pushed out of the UK by lack of opportunities for non-white actors.” What advice would you give to aspiring actors from ethnic minority backgrounds trying to make it in your industry?

RA: I think that you’ve got to be prepared to try and at least be part of the engine for change, rather than just kind of riding the bus to where you want to get to. You know, we see a lot actors of colour that are kind of making their way and are kind of involved in making their work. And I think you have to be prepared to at least explore that and develop your own stories. Because I think one of most important things is people tell stories they recognise and know, and so we have to ask ourselves who are our storytellers? Who has the megaphone? Who has the platform? And the answer to that question is that it is a very socially skewed group of people; it isn’t particularly diverse. So you’ve got to build your own megaphone a little bit. I think we are seeing more voices coming through.

In a way I kind of feel this isn’t so much a problem for people of colour in the West. I mean it is, but that problem will become a smaller and smaller one as more and more quality voices come through and the planet fornicates itself into different shades of beige. I think it’s more of an issue for the brand of ‘England’ — how we portray ourselves to the world needs updating.

You know, we have an obsession with period drama here because it sells well, and it’s brand recognition, it’s a unique selling point, something we can do and sell to America, and that’s great. But I kind of feel like in the UK we are sitting on a multi-cultural goldmine, and we need to tap into those stories as well. I think we are deluded if we think Great Britain is a great power in the world anymore; we’re not. But we are a great cultural power. And I think that one of the strongest aspects that we have in our culture is our multiculturalism. It allows us to speak to the world. It’s quite a unique situation.

Everywhere I go around the world, any city I go to, I feel like nowhere touches London in this respect. People talk about New York being multicultural, and it’s great, but American cities are very segregated. People share space here in a way that they don’t in other cities. There are some places where this happens by accident, like Rio, where you have the favelas right next to the posh [parts] and the beach. But you have council estates in Chelsea here, you have Dulwich next to Brixton. That mixing of class and culture breeds amazing, unique stories, and it’s in our own interest to just tap into the goldmine that we are sat on.

SD: You also tweet about British politics, and followed Corbyn’s campaign for the labour leadership.

RA: Yeah, I feel really hopeful and excited about it. You’ve got to be optimistic. Lots of people are getting engaged in politics, and are hopeful and optimistic about making a change for a fairer society — how do you not sign up for that? I feel it’s really refreshing to try and change the tone of the conversation in politics. I was also at the Occupy protest in New York and in London, and I just thought there was something really interesting happening there. It seems to all be linked to me, there’s this movement for a fairer way of running things.

But you know one thing, it’s tricky because in New York, at Occupy, where there is no established political Left, people were there going, ‘Look, I don’t know quite what I mean, but I just feel like things could be fairer.’ It’s like, yeah mate, it’s called socialism. Check it out. But because people weren’t drawn from some established, entrenched political end of the spectrum, you had like army veterans, truck drivers, teachers — you had a real range of people getting engaged in politics for the first time. And I think that the challenge in Europe is that we have an established political Left, or at least we have historically. In London, when I went to the Occupy movement, I found it to be actually quite an internal conversation. There was a lot of people you would expect; there was a lot of socialist workers party, a lot of SOAS students. That’s great and that’s important, but I didn’t feel like there were people being drawn into the conversation for the first time.

SD: That’s interesting, because this relationship with our heritage of social justice in politics is something that came up in the formation of the Black Student’s Union in Oxford recently. Its formation under that name led to discussions about the politics of names themselves. We spoke about how the name might come across to the outsider who doesn’t know about the history of black politics in the UK in the 70s and 80s –

RA:  Yeah, and the re-appropriation of that term –

SD: Exactly. How does one locate themselves within that history, whilst simultaneously finding new ideas to deal with what’s going on now, you know?

RA: Yeah, I think that’s also an example of having access to a heritage, but also being encumbered by it. That’s harking back to the 70s and 80s when you were black if you were Irish, you were black if you were gay basically! It somehow broadly meant ‘outsider,’ ‘on the left,’ whatever, but obviously also meant black, let’s not forget that. But yeah, my parents would have been considered black. And because you’ve got that heritage, you want to tap into it and kind of revive some of the politics and solidarity around that – it seems usefully inclusive.  But you are also encumbered by the fact that this social movement of a broad “black” left is something that already happened and kind of fell apart in the 80s. The failures haunt us.  And also, have we just moved on? Is ‘black’ an appropriate term?

The more time I spend in the States — and there’s always pros and cons when you weigh these things up — I feel like the conversation around race is quite advanced at least amongst people of colour themselves. Even the term ‘people of colour’ is one that is widely used. And obviously there is a much bigger black middle class — also Muslims in the US are generally very, very comfortably middle class — and so you have super educated, politically-engaged people, having all these conversations about identity and race, and magazines like Skin Deep will exist there. And they exist on every student campus, and these conversations take place on a local and national level and that’s really exciting, but they take place in quite an insular way. Muslims are more equipped to make social change for their situation there, but no one is really listening to them. The conversations take place amongst those communities themselves, amongst those activists, amongst those thinkers and artists. It’s vibrant but it’s segregated, or it least it seems that way to me.

I feel like here in the UK, the conversation is just not as developed. Minority sub-culture is not as developed here because in a way we haven’t landed on race as a defining feature of our society. It is, but we tend to think more along the lines of class and stuff. So I think we can learn from and borrow from some of the conversations about race that are taking place in the States as well.

SD: They have the notion of intersectionality of class, race and gender that we are only just adding to our vocabulary. They are so much more aware that you can’t talk about race without talking about class, and you can’t talk about class without talking about gender.

RA: How UK-focused is your magazine though? I just realised we are talking too much about Britain!

SD: It’s based in the UK at the moment, but we want it to get as far and wide as possible, because we can learn far more if we share experiences from different parts of the world. The formation of the magazine has come through the experiences and efforts of people who live all over the place, and American politics and history have played a big part in our personal educations about race and identity.

RA: [In America] It is a different conversation with a lot of similarities, and I think one of the biggest obstacles to having an open conversation about race in this country is that we are reluctant to talk openly about the past — we don’t want to open that can of worms. Obviously America has the fuckeries of Jim Crow and slavery to deal with; race is a lot more present and in-your-face and its wounds are more recent as well. But I mean, you don’t have to go that much further back to look at similar issues in the UK. So I think that’s one of the big reasons that we dance around race, because if we really start that conversation as a nation, then we are gonna be unravelling a lot of what this nation at least thinks makes it great.

But I don’t think what makes this nation great is the past. I’m more optimistic. I think what makes Britain great is all the potential that it has. I believe our best stories are ahead of us, not behind us. Which is why I am more excited about what’s going on outside our doorsteps now, than what happened in some old period drama. And I kind of feel like the world needs to hear it ‘cause what we’re dealing with in our multiculturalism is unique and important and really cuts to the heart of the question of “Can we all get along together, is there a future where we can all just get along?” I realise I sound like too much of a hippy, man, but that’s what I think!

I guess one thing I would say is I’m sad to see the conversation about race often exclude questions of religious discrimination. Because the racialization of religion is something that is a very well-established phenomenon, and often there is an intersection as well between religious and racial minorities. So even as I feel excited to see a lot of these conversations around race gather momentum, whether it’s about diversity on screen, or white feminism, the one thing I often see unchallenged is the creation of the new bogeyman: and he looks like me, he’s just got a bigger beard.

I think it’s difficult because obviously people on the Left — people who stand for racial equality, all the activists — will often be social liberals, and so their values won’t chime necessarily with socially conservative religious Muslims who might be coming up against very similar issues of discrimination. We had something similar go down in the early 90s, where a lot of that broad, black, socialist coalition fractured after the publication of the Satanic Verses. Where you had groups like the Southall Black Sisters saying, “No, we are actually going to go to the protest pro Rushdie, because it’s free speech.” And you had people from the mosque going “what are you talking about? They are shitting on us again!” So you have a fragmentation that takes place along those lines of social conservatism, liberalism — but there is still a common fight to be fought, which is about fighting discrimination and allowing for diversity in our culture in a meaningful way. I know there’s a lot to make it feel like they are different fights, but I really feel like it’s the same challenge.

SD: Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Mandela and Patrice Lumumba were all called terrorists. They were defined by their revolutionary acts and their fight for freedom, and referred to by the state as terrorists. Having had that definition put on them, you would think there would be a sense of solidarity in being defined by something outside of their struggle. I wonder how that cross-cultural and cross-generational understanding of oppression will manifest itself.  

RA: Yeah, of course there is a lot to separate us, but there is also a lot to link arms over, and I feel like we need to link up.

SD: Do you think the word terrorist could be usefully used?

RA: Usefully used? The thing is people will find uses for it, and people have done. I remember when I was doing research for Four Lions, one of the popular mobile phone wallpapers I would see Asian kids with was a photo-shopped picture of Bin Laden and Tupac together – throwing up like a Westside thing, a hand gesture. And I think that says it all really. Terrorist or jihadi or mujahideen becomes interchangeable with ‘gangsta’ for some kids. I mean if both Western media and jihadi propaganda caricature complicated international relations into goodies and baddies, and super-villains and superheroes, then people will latch onto that in simplistic ways.

The fact is we have created this bogeyman in our imaginations, this sweeping super-villain entity rather than breaking it down. Like, OK, what are the Charlie Hebdo attacks about? Yes there’s radicalism at play. But the Charlie Hebdo attacks are also about French guys that grew up in the French foster care system. This is about Algeria, this is about the legacy of that and about disenfranchisement. Denmark? There’s something slightly different going on there. OK, and what’s going on in Tower Hamlets when Bengali girls are going to join ISIS? If you break it down, you get a very messy picture that is about socio-economics, and it’s a mosaic. It’s complicated. But rather than breaking it down into the constituent parts and differentiating with different countries, we just say it’s Islam, and treat is as this big blanket phenomenon like with the Red Threat during the Cold War.  

So I don’t know if I think it’s useful, but that cartoonish depiction of what’s going on right now, whether you call it ‘Jihadis vs Civilization’ or ‘Islam vs Imperialism’, is  being appropriated and bolstered by both jihadis and hawks in the West. They both want to paint the grand picture of good vs evil.  

SD: What advice do you have for us, as editors of a magazine about race and identity, and for our audience?

RA: Abandon any attempt to be polite.