Along with Aziz Ansari, Riz Ahmed is the best known actor/performer of South Asian descent in Hollywood at the moment.
He was the assistant to the creepy character played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, the tech genius in Jason Bourne, and starred in the acclaimed HBO miniseries The Night Of as the son of an immigrant taxi driver ensnared in the criminal justice system.
On top of that, he has a major role in what will be one of the year’s biggest films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Perhaps unknown to most who’ve followed his Hollywood career is that he’s a rapper, too.
A decade ago, under the name of Riz MC, the British performer of Pakistani and Muslim heritage released the novelty track Post 9-11 Blues, which, while strapped to a nursery-rhyme beat, dealt with the very real issue of racial and religious stereotyping.
He followed that with an album (Microscope, 2011) and a mixtape (Englistan, 2016) but now comes his most high-profile musical project yet: the Swet Shop Boys, a collaboration with New York-based South Asian Hindu rapper Himanshu Suri, aka Heems, who was part of the controversially named hip-hop trio Das Racist.
On Cashmere, the pair’s first full-length album (an EP came out in 2014), they often humorously and smartly deal with the issues of culture and acceptance Riz spoke of in Post 9-11 Blues. The difference is now the music — a striking collision of hip-hop beats and South Asian-inflected grooves — is substantially more persuasive. (A nod goes to producer Tom “Redinho” Calvert.)
Riz and Heems provide voice for young South Asian and Middle Eastern men in the West who often feel trapped by the expectations of others, whether it’s having to have a career as a surgeon or pharmacist on the one hand, or being a suspected terrorist at every airport in the Western world on the other.
In fact, three of the 11 songs here — T5, No Fly List and Shoes Off — explicitly deal with the stress of the airport experience. “Oh no, we’re in trouble, TSA always want to burst my bubble, always get a random check when I rock the stubble,” they rap in T5.
Similarly, in Zayn Malik, named after the one Muslim member of the English boy band One Direction, they deal with a similar theme: “Even hipsters ain’t safe, you gotta be careful what part of your face you shave.”
There’s a sense of paranoia and a life under surveillance that runs through Cashmere, whether it’s in Shottin (the story of a drug dealer turned devout Muslim who’s shot by police) or Phone Tap (“Rizi [is] like the brown Eddie Snowden,” raps Heems). But there’s also humor, too, as the very name Swet Shop Boys — a nod to the Pet Shop Boys, working-class sweat-shop labor, and Indian sweet shops — conveys multiple meanings.
Cashmere is an update of what was happening in the late ’90s/’00s when South Asian music became a trendy seasoning in Western dance music, hip-hop and EDM. Jay-Z rocked Indian rhythms with Panjabi MC for Beware of the Boys and such acts as Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation and Midival Punditz earned club play. But Swet Shop Boys are a more lyrically pointed, contemporary voice for a generation of Desi youth caught between two worlds.
Trials of Tinariwen
It has been a tough time for Tinariwen, the best-known exponents of Tuareg desert rock — a swirling sandstorm of guitars, percussion and the Tuareg language — that has emerged from the war-torn country of Mali in recent years. Because of the chaos in their region of Mali, near the Algerian border, the new album, Elwan (due in early 2017), was recorded in California and Morocco with such guests as Kurt Vile, Mark Sweeney and Mark Lanegan.
In advance of Elwan, Tinariwen has dropped a new track, Tenere Taqqal, which is accompanied by an eye-catching animated video by Axel Digoix who worked on Despicable Me 2 and The Little Prince.
Brazilian singer Seu Jorge makes a very rare North Texas appearance at the Texas Theatre in Dallas on Dec. 3 for a show called “The Life Aquatic: A Tribute to David Bowie.” This promises to be a very special evening. Tickets are $52, $55 day of the show. For more information, go to thetexastheatre.com/movies/seu-jorge-presents-life-aquatic-tribute-david-bowie/
Globespinning is an occasional look at music from around the world.