“They ever ask you ‘Where you from?’
Like, ‘Where you really from?’”
During an intense close up of his eye, allowing us to see directly into his soul, Riz Ahmed speaks these words in the opening moments of the livestream film for his visual album, The Long Goodbye. He captures, in only a few lines, the collective experience felt by people of colour in a white world: “Surely, you can’t be from here… so where are you really from?”
Ahmed has always been vocal about his experience as a British-Pakistani person, never shying away from speaking his truth about the discrimination and hatred he has experienced as a brown man in a white society; in 2006, he released the single “Post 9/11 Blues,” which satirises how Muslims are seen by society in a world dominated by the fear of terrorism.
In 2016, Ahmed contributed an essay to Nikesh Shukla’s anthology, The Good Immigrant, about his discomfort in airports, knowing he’ll always be “randomly selected” to receive extra security. In 2017, he gave a speech in the House of Commons on the need for more diverse, introspective inclusion and equality in the media and creative industries.
But it’s perhaps The Long Goodbye that most effectively and emotionally communicates the cultural experience minorities face in an institutionally prejudiced society.
The Long Goodbye is Riz Ahmed’s breakup letter to Britain in the light of the Brexit vote and the rise of far-right extremist politics. It’s delivered through three different mediums: an audio record (an album that consists of 15 tracks, exploring Ahmed’s complicated relationship with his nation), a short film (an 11-minute brutal retelling of how it feels to live in a racist society) and the aforementioned livestream (a virtual concert for the album that follows Riz backstage, recounting his heritage and past, reflecting on how he made it to this point in his life).
The album itself is structured as if Ahmed and Britain (also referred to as Brittany) were a married couple with kids. Britain, after having an identity crisis and no longer recognising itself as the person (or country) it wants to be, breaks up with him (and, more broadly, British immigrants as a whole). Their messy and toxic relationship is detailed through the album’s musical numbers. Riz’s anger and heartbreak over the end of his relationship is intermixed with voicemail messages from other Muslim friends and family (including famous faces such as Mindy Kaling, Mahershala Ali, Asim Chaudhury and Hasan Minhaj), who support Riz during the breakup by giving him advice on how to move on.
The Long Goodbye album feels almost impossible to describe; Ahmed perfectly captures the anxieties, pains, losses and torments felt by his ancestors before him. The brutality of his lyrics cut deep enough that even a stranger to the Muslim plight can feel the suffering felt by those oppressed.
The Long Goodbye, in the richest way possible, is a modern masterpiece. A masterpiece that is so intertwined with our current cultural landscape, in a Britain that is plagued with hate towards immigrants and minorities, a Britain that has allowed its most ugly side to show under the guise of political independence. A Britain that wants its Empire back, without caring for the lives it did and will destroy.
The album alone would have been enough to make a purposeful political statement. Yet, Ahmed opts to tell his story through various mediums, which allows the audience to audibly, visually and emotionally connect with the plight of his people.
Ahmed puts himself centre stage for both the short film and the livestream; understandably, considering that it’s his story he’s telling… and that he has a background in acting. In both works, he plays fictionalised versions of himself, taking elements from his own life to add authenticity to the images seen on screen.
In the short (directed by Aneil Karia), we watch a British-Pakistani family prepare for the wedding of one of their family members. Like most families, they engage in petty arguments, have playful moments with each other and share their love in ways only they can understand. But, what was once just another day, turns violent when the family become victims of a racially charged hate crime carried out by members of a nationalist gang. The family is dragged from their home; the women are shoved into the back of unmarked vans and the men are put in a lineup, with each one shot dead in the street.
Although the events of the film are overly dramatised (we hope mass execution like this wouldn’t happen in 2020’s Britain), it reflects the feeling of fear and dread that has been quietly suffocating migrant communities in Britain for years. It reminds us that, with the turn in modern politics, the once repressed, racial hatred from extremist minorities has been woken, threatening the wellbeing and safety of those with just as much right to call Britain their home.
Less violent and more palatable than the short, The Long Goodbye livestream (created in lieu of not being able to have a tour for the album) is a one-on-one conversation between the viewer and Ahmed. He recounts his family’s history, from their mass exodus from Pakistani to India to their migration to Britain on the encouragement of the country itself. He plainly and blatantly recounts Britain’s involvement with racial hatred in Pakistan and India, and the Empire’s seizure of Muslim textiles, resources, economy and culture. He reflects on his own experience in a brown body in post-9/11 Britain, remarking how the West’s mistreatment and disrespect have turned him into just another angry Muslim.
The stream is a very intimate experience; it’s just you and him. No one else ever appears. He’s bearing his heart to you, sharing with you special memories from his past, fears he has and wounds that still need healing. Although you know that a large production crew is just behind the cameras (or in the next room to adhere to COVID safety protocol), you still feel as if this is a private performance, a confidential interaction, where he trusts you enough to share his trauma. Regardless of whether you are an outsider looking in or if you share this cultural experience with him, you can’t help but be moved by Ahmed’s words, allowing his self-reflection to force reflection back on yourself.
In both the livestream and the short, Ahmed’s performance adds another element to his narrative. The simple act of putting himself into the story, delivering these lines with the passion and hurt felt by a community of brown bodies, gives power to his statements. The performances, even when he’s just playing himself, express so much with so little: a lump in his voice, a tear in an eye, an exhale too powerful to just be a sigh, are all shared by his colonised people. You can feel the ghosts of his people exuding from him, using his body to tell their stories.
Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye is something we desperately need right now. It allows a generation that reads the world through an overabundance of imagery and the instant gratification of constantly changing visuals to viscerally comprehend the trauma of the modern immigrant. It gives a face and a name to events that most Westerners only experience in history books. In a world where we should all be seeking to recognize the heritage of hate experienced by minorities, The Long Goodbye provides us with a complete sensory depiction of those who have, who are and who will suffer at the hands of nationalistic and racist ideologies.