Perspective: Riz Ahmed makes politics a personal story

The Long Goodbye is a masterpiece of an album, combining themes of identity, empire and the desire for belonging in a divided Britain. Ahmed takes the feelings of the diaspora and converts them into hip-hop verse that far exceeds expectations of the much-awaited album release.

The album is accompanied by a short film which depicts a violent reimagining of Britain today, rooted in a reality of living life on a knife’s edge. The ‘future Britain’ shown is one of increased ostracization and polarisation. The film shows the harm of silent bystanders, prejudice perpetrated by the media as well as complacency of those in power, as they fail to protect the very citizens that they are meant to represent. The short also features the standout track of the album “Where You From”, which delves deep into the feelings surrounding identity and answering the age-old question  “so, where are you really from?”. What should you do when nothing feels like the right answer? Many people in Britain are intrinsically bound to the fabric of the Empire and this track is a starting point in Ahmed’s personal exploration of the complex relationship between Britain and its former colonies.

Throughout the album, Ahmed uses upbeat rhythms and catchy beats to capture the listener’s attention and draw them into the narrative that he builds throughout. “The Breakup (Shikwa)” begins by turning Britain into his former lover “Brittany”; Ahmed uses this storyline to delve deep into the history of the British Empire and walks through the repercussions of such actions on the “brown bodies” of today. Through the personification of Britain, Ahmed explores a feeling of heartbreak that he admits he can’t quite explain. A sense of loyalty, attachment and love even though his heart is breaking. The longing to feel like he belongs, in a history that is being erased; this is coupled with the disappointment and sadness of feeling let down by a country that he wants to call home. Ahmed explores the complexities of British identity alongside the influence of the media in fueling anti-immigrant rhetoric, further heightening the vividly described break-up.

The Long Goodbye also features intermittent soundbites from the likes of Mindy Kaling, Yara Shahidi and Hasan Minhaj, amongst other famous people of colour, who each add their two cents to the narrative of the break up that Ahmed continues throughout the album. Tackling the so-called ‘benefits of colonialism’, the verses communicate a vivid retelling of a 200-year history that inextricably binds Britain and the Indian subcontinent. The track not only reveals the role of India’s troops in the British army during both the First and Second World Wars, but also touches on the harrowing effects of Partition, which carved the Indian subcontinent into three new states – India, Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This separation came with a heavy price; not only were many lives lost at the time, Partition resulted in a religious division and hostility that survives till the present day — more than 70 years later.

Ahmed makes politics and conflicted voices a personal story. Through his eyes, I feel my own conflict with what it really means to be British. The album is powerful spoken word poetry, each line purposefully curated to explore what it feels like to be rejected by a country that is meant to be your own. Some of the tracks are explosive and jarring in their use of rhythm and sound, others more poetic with the undertones of traditional regional music, mirroring the conflicted feelings and the nuances of Ahmed’s journey through the album. Political music such as this gives us a stepping stone to better educate ourselves; it takes the exploration of history out of the classroom and into the realm of a personal narrative. The nuanced feeling of identity politics is uniquely explored in ways which succinctly articulate the feelings of belonging and loss. 

When your mere existence is political, your history is intimately intertwined with that of the British Empire. This existence does not afford you the privilege of not knowing your history or the luxury of being politically blind. There remains a colonial legacy about which British schoolchildren are never educated, creating a population of people who have a poor understanding of their own history, and in turn the whole world’s history. This lack of awareness is apparent when trying to understand the events occurring in the world today, many of which are coupled to a blood-stained colonial past. Partition left many millions dead in it’s immediate aftermath, with the regions of Jammu and Kashmir still fought over, as tensions between the two major states of India and Pakistan continue to rise. Furthermore, the sour taste of the Empire creates a conflicted modern-day Britain in which many of us are yet to find our identity and voice, whilst navigating this vast history of two strikingly different cultures. 

Politics doesn’t answer the question of where I’m really from, but The Long Goodbye does open a world of possibilities.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr