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Kosar Ali: ‘Immigrants are the sauce and seasoning of Britain’

Kosar Ali was thinking about lunch when a chance audition at school changed her life – four years later, she took home two Bifas for her performance in Rocks. Now, she’s exploring roles that tap the complexities of belonging in contemporary Britain

Taken from the summer 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

For Kosar Ali, the idea of being British feels a little “weird”. The British Somali actor, best known for her breakout role in Sarah Gavron’s 2019 coming-of-age film Rocks, sees national identity as nuanced – something that can only be understood through lived experience. “My version of Britishness is putting the kettle on, then adding qorfo and hail [Somali for cinnamon and cardamom] to my English breakfast,” she says with a grin. “Or cooking baked beans but with seasoning.”

As a second-generation immigrant raised in east London, Ali has grown up surrounded by many cultures. It’s 10am when she throws a hoodie on and turns her camera on for our interview. “I’m not a morning person,” she confesses over Zoom. But her fresh face and beaming smile tell me otherwise. “I had never given it much thought before I was 11 years old,” she reflects on her British identity. “It was the first time I had to fill out one of those government forms by myself: prior to that my older sister had done it for me. When she got to the section asking her to state her ethnic background and nationality, she blanked. I was so confused because my first thought was to select Somali but that wasn’t an option so I sat there for a minute. Then my sister said, ‘You’re British, select British,’ but being second-generation Somali it just wasn’t my immediate thought.” 

This idea of existing between two worlds, dancing the line between multiple cultures and traditions, is something many young people in the UK can relate to. It was also a prominent theme within Ali’s screen debut, Rocks, in which she played the warm, mischievous and fiercely loyal school girl Sumaya, best friend to the film’s titular lead, played by Bukky Bakray. Like her character, also a British-Somali teenager, Ali has an infectiously playful nature about her. Although quiet at first, she comes out of her shell during our conversation, and it’s not long until she’s cracking jokes, the kind typical of Somali diaspora kids on TikTok.

The opportunity to audition for Rocks came when Ali was just 13, during the final weeks of her summer term in year eight at Chobham Academy in Stratford. She recalls how her drama teacher called an assembly for all the girls, where he announced the invitation for them all to audition for what he described as a small film being shot locally. “He really downplayed it, so we all thought it was going to be a little YouTube short,” says Ali. “I remember sitting in the atrium and having no interest in what he was saying at all. I was just thinking, ‘When can I go and eat lunch?’” She remembers sitting at the back of the room when the casting director told her to get involved. “I did and I ended up really enjoying myself. I remember coming home and telling my sister I’d had so much fun.”

Ali took home two prizes at the British independent film awards (Bifas) for her role in the film, but prior to her breakout, acting wasn’t something she had ever really considered for herself. Sure, she had participated in a few primary school musicals and was obsessed with anime – Hayao Miyazaki is her hero and she’s still a self-confessed Studio Ghibli nerd – but she’d never dreamed of going to drama school or appearing on-screen. Perhaps, she reflects, it was because she’d never seen anyone that looked like her anywhere in film or TV. “The best part about winning at the Bifas was receiving so many lovely messages from other Muslim people who felt seen,” she says. “I was the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to win but when you’re in a moment like that it’s crazy – you don’t realise how important that win is and what it represents. Getting those messages just made me so happy.”

“I was the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to win but when you’re in a moment like that it’s crazy – you don’t realise how important that win is and what it represents” – Kosar Ali

Two of the 19-year-old’s upcoming projects dig further into the complexities of identity, belonging and acceptance in contemporary Britain. In the BBC-backed MUNA, written and directed by Warda Mohamed, Ali takes on her first lead role, while adding the title of executive producer to her CV. The story follows the experience of British-Somali teen Muna, as she navigates girlhood amid a life of limbo between her existence at home with her conservative Muslim family and societal pressures to fit into British culture. “This film explores so many different layers,” says Ali. “Generation gaps within families, the idea of grieving someone you don’t know, the dynamic between Somali mothers and daughters, and conflicting identities.” Playing a character that shares so much with her own life meant Ali could draw on her own experiences for both her performance on-screen and as a producer.

This summer, Ali will also be making her theatre debut in Word-Play, a Royal Court Theatre production written by Rabiah Hussain and directed by Nimmo Ismail. “The play is about Islamophobia and it explores the importance of language, how it seeps into the public consciousness and how weightful it can be,” she explains. “Without giving too much away, there’s a scene in which the prime minister makes an Islamophobic comment and how that comment catches fire across the nation, affecting the lives of various communities. It displays the impact it has on people’s minds and their psychology. It’s very provocative and thought-provoking.” 

Word-Play holds a mirror to the state of modern-day Britain and the political tensions brewing within it. It takes us back to the question of ‘Britishness’ and what that means for someone like Ali, a Black, hijab-wearing Muslim woman, navigating life in a country that has told her in more ways than one that she doesn’t belong. “There are a lot of scenarios in the play that I can relate to, whether I have experienced it personally or witnessed it happen to someone close to me,” says Ali. “Being in Britain can feel like you’re an alien to someone like me sometimes. It’s like you’re a resident but not a permanent one. People are telling you to ‘go back to your country’ or that this isn’t your country but I’m like, ‘I was born here.’” Still, she feels conflicted, adding: “Part of me also thinks they’re right, it’s not my country; I have a whole other history and an ancestry that’s attached to me that isn’t from here. Sometimes it feels like this isn’t my space or my land but that I’m just existing here, and there are a lot of people who are angry or feel animosity towards me because of that.”

“Being in Britain can feel like you’re an alien to someone like me sometimes. It’s like you’re a resident but not a permanent one. People are telling you to ‘go back to your country’ but I’m like, ‘I was born here”

Last October, a report by the House of Commons showed Islamophobia up as the most common form of religious bigotry in the UK, with 42 per cent of all hate crimes reported to the police being attacks on Muslims. While she aims to shift narratives and portrayals of what being British looks like through her work, Ali isn’t interested in being typecast. Her performance last year as Victoire in the American period drama Dangerous Liaisons, a prequel to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel, proved her versatility. Shot in Prague, the adaptation saw her take on the role of a perceptive chambermaid with epilepsy that she struggled to see herself in at first – especially as she would play the part wearing her hijab. “We didn’t really have much in common – she was a white woman and a prostitute and from a completely different world,” she reflects.

The extravagant costumes by designer Andrea Flesch, she says, lured her towards the prestige American drama. “I’m drawn to fashion. I’ve always had a little eye for it because of my mum, she was my fashion icon growing up,” says Ali, who lived in Kenya with her mother as a child, and spent long days watching her sew and tailor garments in the textiles shop she ran. Today, Ali is a front-row regular at Alexander McQueen and cites the late British designer as one of her fashion favourites, alongside Ferragamo and Schiaparelli. “I love what Maximilian [Davis] is doing at Ferragamo right now and I’m really interested in Daniel Roseberry’s couture house designs. I also can’t wait to see what Pharrell does at Louis Vuitton; I was such a big fan of Virgil [Abloh].”

As we speak, Ali is preparing for her first trip back to Somalia in 10 years. “I’m so excited, I was only nine years old when I went the first time so this will be my first real experience,” she says. “But I need to brush up on my Somali, I will get absolutely ruined by people there if I don’t sound right when I’m speaking it.” When she gets there, she anticipates being labelled as the ‘British girl’ by locals. Ironically, she says, it’s when Ali is in Somalia that she’ll feel the most British, no matter how flawlessly she may have mastered her mother tongue. “Immigrants are the people that make this country what it is,” she says. “We are the sauce and the seasoning of Britain. Without us, there would be no culture here.”

Hijab styling HUMAIRA WAZA, make-up HILA KARMAND using REFY, nails CHIARA BALLISAI at THE ONLY AGENCY using CHANEL BEAUTY, photographic assistants CALLUM TOY, FILIP SKIBA, styling assistant MIA DI LORENZO. All shoes and bags worn throughout JIMMY CHOO ICONS

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