The mixtape Englistan and new film ‘Daytimer’ are the latest offerings from an artist that wants to portray a subculture rarely shown – its music, its fashion and its gangs
Riz MC (real name: Rizwan Ahmed) dropped his new mixtape, Englistan, on Friday – just in time for St George’s Day, a celebration of the patron saint of England. Though the real St George hailed (depending on which theory you subscribe to) from modern-day Turkey or Israel, never visited England, and is also the patron saint of countries such as Portugal, Ethiopia and Georgia, that hasn’t stopped St George’s Day from being hijacked by English far-right nationalists, who justify their prejudices (from xenophobia to outright racist attacks) under the vague banner of ‘patriotism’. Englistan makes sense against this backdrop: it’s an exploration of national identity, mixed heritage, and what it even means to be ‘English’ in a globalised world. The mixtape’s key moment is “I Ain’t Being Racist But”, a seven-minute spoken word track told from the perspective of an EDL thug that sees Ahmed dealing with the long history of immigration to the UK.
Ahmed has dealt with these themes across his work, from his early music (such as his 2006 rap “Post-9/11 Blues”) through to his 2011 album MICroscope and collaborations with Heems as the Swet Shop Boys. It’s also something that he explores in “Daytimer”, a new short film written and directed by Ahmed. The film dramatises Ahmed’s life growing up in London during the 1990s, with music from producers like DJ Zinc, Andy C and Bally Sagoo all representing the era. “The short film is very autobiographical,” says Ahmed. “We actually filmed it at my high school and my parents’ house. That kid’s bedroom is the bedroom I lived in most of my life.”
“Daytimer” is far from Ahmed’s first foray into film – he’s had a successful career as an actor, starring in films like Chris Morris’s terrorist comedy Four Lions and Ill Manors, with forthcoming appearances in Jason Bourne and Star Wars: Rogue One set to follow. We spoke to Ahmed about both “Daytimer” and Englistan.
What can you tell us about the Englistan mixtape?
Riz MC: We can all see how much xenophobia there is out there right now, so I decided to dress up in a balaclava and do a fake racist rap called ‘I Ain’t Being Racist But’. And it got a big response – so I thought, ‘Lemme do a mixtape on this theme.’ Englistan, as a mixtape, is about stretching the flag so that it’s big enough for all of us. It’s about identity – from what it means to be English today, to what it’s like growing up living a double life, or feeling like you don’t fit in. There’s more commentary stuff, like a track breaking down the the financial crisis and Occupy, and a track about an honour killing, as well as personal stuff, like a track about going through depression. But it’s really all about our society and trying to find a place in it. Musically, there’s a mix of leftfield beats through to some spoken word with strings – there’s production from Jakwob, Rich Reason from the Levelz crew up in Manchester, and award-winning vocalist and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson.
What does the word ‘Englistan’ mean to you?
Riz MC: It’s not about one ethnic community in the country or just pockets of it – it is renaming England. It’s stretching our concept of it in a way that takes in our mongrel history and makes space for our mixed-up future. It might feel provocative to people, like it’s about a takeover – fear of a brown planet and all that – but who does this country really belong to in order (for it) to be taken over in the first place? It was built by half the world under empire.
“Englistan, as a mixtape, is about stretching the flag so that it’s big enough for all of us. It’s about identity – from what it means to be English today, to what it’s like growing up living a double life, or feeling like you don’t fit in” — Riz MC
How did you first start MCing?
Riz MC: I was at a daytime rave in south London. These were Asian raves in the 90s that happened in the daytime ’cos the girls weren’t allowed out at night. And the legendary producer Bally Jagpal was playing. I snuck backstage and MCed at him, and he told me I had to pursue it. So then I started at local pirate stations in northwest London. Then I won some big battles like Jump Off. From there I released my first track, ‘Post 9/11 Blues’, which got banned from radio and that got some attention. That experience pissed me off, but also made me think, ‘Wow, words are powerful – they’re not disposable.’ That’s when I stopped battling and focused more on writing songs.
How do you feel the mixtape leads on from MICroscope?
Riz MC: MICroscope was about putting our society and culture under the microscope, just dissecting and analysing modern life. Englistan is a more personal take on that, looking at the fault lines in me first as a way of looking outside. Production-wise, it’s more musical. MICroscope was made when I was with Damian Lazarus’ Crosstown Rebels lot, so it had a massive minimal techno influence.
“‘Daytimer’ is... a chance to portray a subculture that has rarely been shown in British film, the British Asian underground, which was a massive cultural movement in the 90s with its own subculture from music to fashion and gang culture... I wanna show that culture and make it part of the British story in the way that Italian-American stories are thought of as an iconic part of the US identity” — Riz MC
What is ‘Daytimer’ about?
Riz MC: ‘Daytimer’ is a coming-of-age story. It’s about growing up with a complex identity and realising that, in a way, you will never fit in – none of us will. In the end, you have to walk alone. It’s also a chance to portray a subculture that has rarely been shown in British film, the British Asian underground, which was a massive cultural movement in the 90s with its own subculture from music to fashion and gang culture. Dazed actually did a documentary about that a while ago that explains the scene. I wanna show that culture and make it part of the British story in the way that Italian-American stories are thought of as an iconic part of US identity.
What was it like writing and directing your own story?
Riz MC: It was amazing. It’s like everything I love rolled into one. I think it’s something I’ll do more of. I spent years waiting for people to tell certain stories, or for our films to diversify. But I think, as you grow older, you realise you gotta just step up and be part of the change you wanna see.