Fuse is celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by looking at a variety of rising forces who are creating Future Asian and Pacific History before our eyes. For day one we're paying tribute to Riz Ahmed, the British actor/rapper (as Riz MC) whose voice for change grows in volume as his star rises high over Hollywood, the world and George Lucas' galaxy far, far away.
“People are looking for the message that they belong," Ahmed, the son of immigrants from Karachi, in Pakistan's Sindh province, recently told the U.K. Parliament. "That they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued."
The 34-year-old Londoner, who is Muslim and holds a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford's Christ Church college, was there in March delivering an annual diversity lecture from Channel 4. He cautioned against the disastrous ramifications of failing to reflect the world's diversity, of typecasting brown faces as terrorists ad infinitum, of impressionable and vulnerable youth being "mis-sold a story that is so narrow about who we are and who we should be.” He spoke about ISIS' insidiously alluring recruitment videos, "cut like action movies," asking:
"Where is the counter-narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories, that they are valued? ... I'm here to ask for your help in finding a new national story that embraces and empowers as many of us as possible, rather than excluding us and alienating large sections of the population."
Rizwan Ahmed's 2016 was electric. He began it with the Riz MC mixtape Englistan, then as the star of HBO's feted miniseries The Night Of, which scored three Golden Globe nominations including one for Ahmed as Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Film. He ended it as a good-hearted Imperial defector in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which grossed $1 billion and taught fans, Ahmed opined, about "waking up to the real political situation of your time and accepting you can’t sleepwalk into the future because there won’t be one.” In between, he did Jason Bourne and Netflix's The OA, toplined the films Una and City of Tiny Lights, spat alongside three other international emcees on the No. 1–charting Hamilton Mixtape, and saw a chorus from one of his own songs—"Inshallah, mashallah / Hopefully no marshal law"—chanted at a Los Angeles International Airport protest against Donald Trump's immigration ban.
Those bars are among the first on Cashmere, the debut album from Swet Shop Boys, comprised of Ahmed, producer Redinho and Heems, a Sikh, Indian American rapper from Queens who was part of the wackily woke duo Das Racist. “I had this idea of how empowering and healing it can be to join up these diaspora dots," Ahmed told The New Yorker in August. "So there’s this New York-London-Indo-Pak thing. It’s a celebration of our global mongrel identity, which in some ways is kind of postmodern but is also kind of premodern.” He added to The Fader that the project addresses the "need to create linkages between communities" and "the idea of reaching out across this Indo-Pak border."
One of Ahmed's most stirring works to date is the essay "Typecast as a Terrorist," published in The Guardian as well as the Nikesh Shukla–edited collection The Good Immigrant. In it, he waxes about an elusive tier of role choices for people who look like him, a state he thinks of as "the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race." To even hope to arrive, one must navigate the twin worlds of acting auditions and airport screenings, "places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels."
2016 was no fluke: Already this year, Ahmed has made it onto the final season of Girls and landed on the Time's 100 Most Influential People list, where he dapperly starred as one of five cover-people and got a tribute by Hamilton creator/Pulitzer winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. "The place where you feel that you stick out the most is the place where you should stick out and stay," Ahmed told the magazine. "That’s where you can contribute something new and something fresh."
Wherever Ahmed goes (or stays) next will continue seeing him thrive at the intersection of his identities. “Multiculturalism isn’t just a buzzword, it’s not just something to debate—I am multiculturalism. ... We talk about it as if it’s something else," he told The Guardian last July, "as if it’s a guest that may have overstayed their welcome sitting in the front room, but what we’re talking about is us.”