The British hip-hop musician and actor Riz Ahmed talks about the release of his new album, MICroscopes.
Riz MC: why I chose two improbable careers
In the bowels of a bunker-like nightclub in London's bohemian East End, a piece of experimental entertainment has just taken a slightly sinister turn. While a trio of rappers bounce between four different stages, guards in biohazard suits emerge from the shadows, and members of the audience start to faint.
Between musical numbers, short films show the youth of Britain at war with an oppressive government which uses music as a kind of sonic virus, a weapon of mass distraction. Part futuristic rock concert, part immersive theatre performance and part conceptual artwork, the MICroscope stage show is a powerful and ambitious sci-fi spectacle.
Fast-forward six months, and the multi-talented young man behind this show has just released the album version of MICroscope, an impressively eclectic mix of sounds, from techno to hip-hop, club beats to orchestral ballads. Riz MC is the musical alter ego of Riz Ahmed, the 28-year-old Londoner and fast-rising star of several award-winning British films, including The Road To Guantanamo, Shifty and Four Lions. Later this year, he will be seen in Black Gold, an epic historical blockbuster about the birth of the Gulf's oil boom.
But Ahmed pointedly does not want to discuss his screen roles in this interview: it's all about the music. A keen fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, Roots Manuva and Snoop Dogg in his youth, he has been rapping and recording tracks since his teens, persisting with this musical direction even as his film career blossomed. Unusually, he now appears to be achieving success and acclaim in both of these highly competitive fields.
"Ha!" Ahmed laughs nervously. "Maybe I should just give up now. The thing is, I never thought this would be possible. It just seemed wildly unrealistic to expect a career in either, so that's why I carried on doing both. The logic wasn't that I could conquer the world; it was more that they were both as ludicrously unlikely as each other."
Ahmed has already earned respect from his fellow musicians, sharing a stage with personal heroes including Massive Attack, Mos Def and Dizzee Rascal. But the full multimedia MICroscope live show developed later, when the multi-instrumental maestro Nitin Sawnhey invited him to contribute to a mini-festival at London's Sadlers Wells theatre. Working with a costume maker, video directors, sound designers and actors, Ahmed began to assemble an extraordinary fusion of music, theatre and performance art.
"The way I see it, the days of the generic live music experience are numbered," Ahmed nods. "We need to innovate. There are so many artists who do interesting things in the studio, but they don't necessarily give it 100 per cent and really try to engage with an audience. I've always prided myself on being able to present a strong live show. Music is dramatic, the album is dramatic. Drama isn't something restricted to film acting; drama is something great songs should have."
The lyrics on MICroscope are mostly witty, satirical commentaries on London hipsters, the credit crunch, celebrity culture and other wide-ranging targets. But Ahmed also touches on more serious matters with his former online viral hit Post 9/11 Blues, a deceptively jokey rap about the perils of being mistaken for a terrorist in London, and the more sombre Sour Times, a robust defence against criticisms of Islam.
Both are standout tracks on MICroscope, yet Ahmed is wary of admitting any political intent behind the album. He insists both Post 9/11 Blues and Sour Times belong to a "different chapter", having been written five or six years ago. "Rather than being political, it's more about social observation," he says. "Almost all the tracks are written from a personal point of view."
Ahmed's acting career has involved playing British Muslims caught up in the "war on terror", most recently in last year's caustic comedy Four Lions from the satirist Chris Morris. But his most contentious project to date remains the director Michael Winterbottom's docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. Flying back to London following the film's prize-winning Berlin premiere in 2006, Ahmed was detained at Luton airport and grilled about his political views by hostile British police officers. He was eventually released after calling his lawyer, but it was a scary taste of state power.
This may help explain why Ahmed declines to discuss his own Muslim family background in our interview. "That's nothing to do whatsoever with my music," he insists firmly. "Maybe I'm deeply misguided but I happen to think what makes this album interesting is that it is not defined by those labels. It's not a touchy subject; it's just nothing to do with this album."
The youngest of three children born to Pakistani immigrants, Ahmed was raised in the unglamorous north London borough of Wembley. But in his early teens, he won a scholarship to attend Merchant Taylors', a private school on the leafy fringes of London. He then studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, a well-trodden route to a high-flying career in British politics.
However, young Rizwan had already been bitten by the performance bug, after appearing in a school production of South Pacific at the age of seven. In Oxford, he founded his own club night, Hut and Run, where he first honed his rapping skills. After university, drama school beckoned. Given his early academic promise, were his parents disappointed when he became an actor and musician?
"Any parent is going to be sceptical of their children working in careers where 90 per cent of people are unemployed 90 per cent of the time," Ahmed shrugs. "Considering that, I would say they had a very chilled reaction, to be honest. They were very supportive. Maybe because they've already got a lawyer and a doctor in the family, my elder sister and my elder brother."
Recently, the UK pop charts have come to resemble the new British government, top-heavy with privately educated Oxbridge graduates. As an unlikely member of this social elite, does Ahmed ever feel guilty about his own first-class education?
"No, I'm not one of these secret rich kids trying desperately to hide it," he laughs. "I don't come from a privileged, wealthy, middle-class family. I won a government place to go to a school I could never have afforded, and it was a really enriching experience. The same with Oxford, because I feel like I've always grown up between different things, I've always been comfortable not belonging. It confuses you when you're growing up, but you get to a point where you're not confused any more. You're proud of it."
The album MICroscope by Riz MC is out now.