I think a lot about that 2010 profile of M.I.A. in the New York Times, the one that seemed to preface the beginning of the end of M.I.A.’s mainstream presence in pop music, the one about the truffle fries, the one that called her work “agitprop pop.” The term couldn’t be more dismissive or flattening of M.I.A.’s work, equating it with Communist propaganda. As if the things M.I.A. was rapping and singing about—the global underclass, third-world isolation, entire countries failed by capitalism or broken by imperialism and colonialism, cultures ignored or scapegoated or villainized by the mainstream media and pop culture—were political in the wrong way. You might remember how M.I.A. eventually toppled off the pop altar through a mix of her own actions and the changing nature of the industry (and if you don’t, you could check out her documentary, which I liked, for at least her perspective on it) and you might also remember her short film/music video for the song “Born Free.” It got a lot of flack when it came out for its bloody visuals—so, warning about that before you watch—and was even banned on YouTube briefly. But I think its commentary on military might remains depressingly relevant, even now, a decade later, and I think it began a conversation that Riz Ahmed has since picked up.
You probably know Ahmed as an actor, since it seems like he’s been in everything lately: the HBO miniseries The Night Of with Michael K. Williams and Bill Camp; Nightcrawler and The Sisters Brothers with Jake Gyllenhaal; Jason Bourne with Matt Damon; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with Felicity Jones and Diego Luna; and Venom with Tom Hardy. You might have also read my thirsty piece about him for the Pajiba 10 in 2018! But Ahmed is also a rapper and a musician, and his debut album The Long Goodbye came out on March 6, and it is great. You need some bangers while you self-isolate? Throw Ahmed’s Mongrel Records some cash and pick it up.
Described by Ahmed as a “breakup album … with your country,” the album is energetic and grimy, thought-provoking and deeply catchy, and features a number of Pajiba favorites—Mahershala Ali, Hasan Minhaj, Mindy Kaling, Yara Shahidi. All of those people have talked publicly and passionately about the difficulties of being a black or brown person in our current time (remember Mahershala’s acceptance speech for Moonlight at the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where he discussed his Muslim faith?), and I can’t help but think about how M.I.A.’s forcefulness might have helped open the door to those statements. And the short film that Ahmed created with filmmaker Aneil Karia is just flat-out excellent, operating on the same sort of wavelength of “Born Free”: an indictment of the brutality we are willing to support in the name of safety, and of the people we are willing to throw away for our own freedom.
Karia and Ahmed impressively pace this work; it’s barely 12 minutes and tells a whole world of story in that time. Rapidly but effectively, we learn about this Pakistani family, about the love and affection they feel for each other (I like to think that Bruce Springsteen trivia is a specific shout-out to Gurinder Chada’s Blinded by the Light), about the wedding ceremony they’re getting ready to host, about the secrets they might keep from each other, and about how quickly they circle around each other in protection when the man in the black vans come, with their guns and their batons. Ahmed is the star here, and he’s magnetic as always, from mimicking little Naz’s dance moves, to racing through the house to inform everyone of the advancing military and police forces, to staggering back to his feet after his entire family has been either murdered or removed to perform various incisive and incendiary lines from the album, including from the song “Fast Lava,” for us.
The key, though, is breaking the fourth wall: By doing this, Ahmed reminds us that The Long Goodbye is a music video, too, and informs us that a lot of these songs — in particular “Fast Lava,” which is excerpted here during the round-up scene — fucking slap. Redinho, Ahmed’s comrade in the rap trio Swet Shop Boys, produced the album, and his beats throughout are great — but “Fast Lava” is stellar, a cacophony of drums, looping synths, and twinkling cymbals that sound like if Mowgli threw the hottest rave in the jungle. It’s worth looking up the lyrics to the whole song, but “I spit my truth and it’s brown” is immediately iconic, and the declarations Riz makes afterward are equally recognizable, relatable, and justifiably angry. If anyone has ever asked you where you’re “really from.” If you’ve ever been told to go back there. If you’ve ever wanted to say as a response to that racism, “Where I’m from is not your problem.” The Long Goodbye is for all who consider themselves “kidnapped by empire and diaspora fostered us,” and when Riz talks about searching for dignity in a world that too often denies it to anyone who doesn’t look like those in power, Riz is repping for us then, too. M.I.A. would probably like that quite a bit, and yeah, so the hell do I.
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube/The Long Goodbye, Biz3