London is a city I love; I’ve been visiting every year for at least the last five years now. Every time I land at Heathrow, I’m stupefied at the numbers of people at immigration, from so many different countries, speaking so many different languages. And that’s just the beginning of it. The city itself is always changing, transforming into a bigger and more complex version of itself with every year.
Riz MC’s new mixtape, Englistan, is the perfect soundtrack to this digital-age London, hyper-frenetic, dazzling, and bold, where every heartbeat is a transaction and every breath has a price to it. It takes a Londoner to navigate the streets, the city’s pitfalls and peaks, to resist being overwhelmed by its shine or pulled under by its darkness. Riz Ahmed is that Londoner, whose machine-gun rap lyrics, spat out or murmured or gently crooned over signature hip-hop beats and electronica, act as the GPS to London’s many mysteries.
I’m from a different generation than Ahmed so I’m afraid to even pretend I know anything about this kind of music, but it’s at once compelling and confidential at the same time. The title track, Englistani, comes from the sense of disconnect that comes with being a second- or third-generation British person whose parents have roots back in South Asia, or the des. Yet Ahmed takes that disconnect and turns it into connection, for all people of all backgrounds, who emigrate to Britain and try to call it home.
In the eponymous track Englistani, a classical Indian flute, or bhansuri, is layered over a light, sparse drum track to create an ethereal vision of the city. Ahmed raps about the contradictions of class and culture in England, with a deceptively quiet chorus:
God save the Queen
Now she ain’t mates with me
But she keeps my paper green
Plus we need a seat
On this little island
Where we all survivin’
Politeness mixed with violence
(This is England)*
A standout track on the album is Benaz, featuring vocals by Ayana Witter Johnson. Ahmed tells us the story of British Iraqi Kurd Benaz Mahmood, who was murdered by her family for falling in love with a man not of their community. It’s an epic story of forbidden love, and Ahmed’s vocals are nothing but tender and loving as he describes how Benaz and her boyfriend met, and their feelings for one another. But Ahmed’s voice turns from gentle to terrifying when he turns to the chapter describing Benaz’s brutal killing at the hands of her father and uncle. The song was based on the film of Benaz’s death by Deeya Khan, and deserves a music award nomination for its scope, depth, and power.
Ahmed tackles the banking scandals of the last fifteen years in the cynical, clever A Few Bob, sharing an autodidact’s knowledge of how the financial world works for ordinary people. Different and Double Lives address the difficulty of being Asian and British and trying to balance the two identities, delivering home truths and wry observations all the way. From Double Lives:
My son, our people came to this shores with nothing
Honor is all we brought so keep your culture keep the false, some
Last of the Mohicans talk
Since we don’t like outsiders this helped define us
And we made it our choice, but now I’m just confused*
Breathe is Zen philosophy for those who have no time to practice it: an exhortation to slow down and pause in the midst of Wifi, long commutes on Oyster cards, drugs, and the undercurrent of violence that runs through the city. Sunburst is a paean to optimism in a time of global depression, and is the most rave-influenced track, with drug-inspired synth effects, Ahmed’s fast-paced raps, and soaring vocals from Tawia.
The last track, I Ain’t Being Racist, is a long diatribe delivered by a man who’s fallen prey to the propaganda and rhetoric of the far right; the entire nearly 7 minute track is a recitation of all the lies about immigrants spouted by parties like UKIP, until the narrator begins to go through British history, and gets his comeuppance in the end. You can feel the irony building until the twist, which comes with such a let-off of tension that you’d be hard-pressed not to guffaw at the aggrieved tones when the narrator finds out he’s been fooled all along by the very people he trusted to tell him the truth about England.
Englistan isn’t an album for relaxation or chilling out; it’s for soul searching, questioning, thinking hard about where London and its people are today and how they got here. You’d expect no less from Ahmed, whose presence on the music scene has always been that of a wired philosopher-cum shit-stirrer. But the confidence and elan with which he delivers his material is infectious; even if you’re not a Londoner or an Englistani, you’ll feel cool for giving Englistan a listen; and far cooler for letting it get under your skin.
*sorry for any mistakes in the lyrics.