“It’s a rigged game, man.” Riz Ahmed repeatedly says in his livestream performance, The Long Goodbye. He lists the litany of what his family lost—their language, land, and a sense of belonging. That’s a hell of a lot to lose.
The British Empire colonized, destabilized, poisoned many parts of the world with white supremacy, and then invited those living in those countries to emigrate to the UK as they were part of “the Empire.” Many took up the offer only to be told to go back where they came from. And their children and children’s children, born in the UK, are repeatedly asked to this day “Where are you from?” “No, where are you REALLY from?”
As American comedian Hari Kondabolu has quipped, “That’s code for why aren’t you white?”
Kondabolu, the son of Indian immigrants, grew up in Queens. While Ahmed’s work focuses on the UK, this performance now streaming through March 1st is filmed in America.
When Ahmed calls out things that took place “here” the geography of the accusations is multilayered. Britain? America? Or just any colonial power that has sowed racism, white supremacy, and division?
Through hip hop, spoken word, and storytelling, in this fascinating, frenetic concert/performance/film, he addresses the struggles, conflicts, and injustice that generations of his family have endured. This streaming performance is meant as a companion piece to Ahmed’s 2020 album of the same title.
He alternates songs from his album with stories of his family’s experiences—from a grandfather who was forced westward from India to Pakistan during Partition, to an uncle whose middle class gains in the UK were lost due to the BCCI bank scandal (which involved the CIA in part) and whose life was lost to COVID.
While he talks about the horror of Partition, he draws a continuous line from his grandfather’s forced journey to Pakistan (he was chased and threatened with death) to Ahmed’s present life in the United Kingdom. The severing of connection to land, place, identity, language, and history—that forced uprooting—follows Ahmed. It’s at the center of his own confusion about a sense of place and home. At one point he retorts, “Yeah, I’ll go back home, if could tell me where I’m from.”
Ahmed references ghosts and ancestors as part of who he is speaking to. However, this is not about the past exactly. It represents more of a shared communion in the present between those ghosts and him. There is no temporal distance between them.
Ahmed collapses space as well. The entire show functions with an intense level of intimacy. It was originally scheduled to be a live event at BAM and the Manchester International Festival. But the filmed version, with an enveloping soundscape by Tony award-winner Gareth Fry, brings us into Ahmed’s dressing room backstage, frequently on camera phones we are at arm’s length from him for much of the show.
He’s a charismatic performer for sure, but this uber-proximity to his pleading gaze, righteous anger, and layered hip-hop lyrics could leave you gasping for breath.
Ahmed’s performance feels tidal—in its energy and impact. There is so much emotion and weight behind these personal stories and songs. He moves like pounding waves hitting a beach over and over with crashing intensity, which is then followed by moments of receding tide and deceptive quiet. Even turning down the volume, the fury remains. As it should.
The show is 30 minutes long, but I’m not sure I could have handled more than that. It was like watching one man push back against the entirety of Empire and history with nothing but his bare hands and his lyrical skill. The wounds are acute. The damage has not stopped. “From the colonies to COVID, it’s a very long list,” he says.
And he repeatedly points out the twisted ironies that make progress forward so difficult. “I can’t say Post-9/11 blues without saying 9/11,” and “It’s like trying to sing songs of freedom in the language of our own oppression.”
While he’s written on the subject before, he talks about the complicated terrain of airports for South Asian men like him. It is where he says he is to “perform an acceptable version of who I am.”
There is power in naming the harm and speaking out against it. There is catharsis in sharing such painful experiences. These are stories we don’t often get to hear and British South Asian autobiographical storytelling with a hip hop beat is not that common on stages either.
There is so much craft in these songs and raw power in the release of them. The beats of “Toba Tek Singh” made me want to leap out of my seat and punch the sky.
The agonizing truth just hits you over and over in these songs and an unleashed Riz Ahmed is something to behold.