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MC And Actor Riz Ahmed Embraces A New Kind Of Role In 'Sound Of Metal'

Riz Ahmed plays plays a drummer who goes deaf in <em>Sound of Metal.</em>
Amazon Studios
Riz Ahmed plays plays a drummer who goes deaf in Sound of Metal.

British MC and actor Riz Ahmed is used to rapping and reciting lines, but he had to learn a new form of communication for his latest film.

In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays a drummer who goes deaf. To prepare for the role, Ahmed immersed himself in deaf culture and worked with a deaf advocate to learn American Sign Language. He says the experience changed the way he thought about communication.

"When you're communicating with sign language, you're communicating really viscerally with your whole body," he says. "I kind of felt like I was communicating more deeply and in a more connected way than I ever could have with words. ... You're not hiding behind words, as we sometimes can in the hearing community."

Riz Ahmed's parents emigrated to England from Pakistan in the 1970s. He started rapping as a teenager on pirate radio stations in London, and later competed in rap battle competitions while he was a student at Oxford. Ahmed records rap under the name Riz MC and with his group the Swet Shop Boys. His films include The Road to Guantanamo, Rogue One and Nightcrawler, and he won an Emmy for his performance in HBO's The Night Of.

Interview Highlights

On the connection he sees between Ruben, his character in Sound of Metal, and the pandemic

Ruben is a workaholic. We're in this workaholic, productivity, endless growth-obsessed society, just like Ruben is as a character. And both Ruben and our society face this health crisis that has thrown them both into a kind of lockdown or purgatory where they're forced to reassess who they are. I guess it can either leave you with no sense of worth or purpose — or a realization that the things that we thought defined us are not the core of who we are. The core of who we are is something more human, something frustratingly less quantifiable and tangible.

On how he found that ASL conveys more than words can

So American Sign Language is incredibly rich. Deaf culture is incredibly rich. And you have American Sign Language, you have British Sign Language, you have Pakistani Sign Language. ... There's international signing, which some people do .... at the UN and stuff. But just like spoken languages, each place and each culture has its own signing. In some ways I kind of feel that sign language allowed me to communicate more fully than words. ...

When I first started communicating, [my ASL coach] and I became very close, we would be meeting every day, speaking for several hours and signing. When I started talking about things in my life or even in [the character] Ruben's life that were emotional, I found myself really physically getting emotional, tearing up at times in a way that I would not have if I was just verbally communicating. ... In some ways, a fuller kind of communication — a more embodied kind of communication — is possible within deaf culture and signing culture.

On being racially profiled and stopped at the airport coming back from the Berlin Film Festival after screening his first film, The Road to Guantanamo

It was a slightly bizarre experience, but one that ultimately I was grateful for, because it reminded me again of how powerful stories can be and how storytelling can be such a threat to some of the dominant narratives and toxic narratives in our culture. So this film went to the Berlin Film Festival. We won the Silver Bear award [for best director]. We were coming back triumphant, pinching ourselves, this tiny, low-budget movie against the odds that won this prize. After we had gone through passport control, actually we were at baggage claim, we were through all the official processing, someone kind of breathlessly ran up to us. And actually a group of what later emerged to be British intelligence officers kind of rounded us up really and asked us to follow them, took us into unmarked rooms and basically engaged in what later turned out to be a completely illegal kind of harassment.

They purported to be holding us under these anti-terrorism laws. ... And they basically just started saying, "Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle? What do you think of the Iraq war?" It was a really quite worrying state of affairs, in a democracy, when you have people being harassed for artistic expression. This isn't like fringe stuff that we're throwing up on the dark web. This just won a major prize at a European film festival. ... And I guess it's something that kind of shook me up. It really frustrated me. ...

I was offered to kind of sue the government, [but] I felt like I actually wanted to put it into my art. I didn't want the first time I was on TV to be as a victim around this. ... I guess that incident reinforced in me a sense of responsibility to kind of use my platform to draw attention to reality. And actually, it's not a responsibility to be political or polemical. It's actually just to do what any artist does, which is to talk honestly about their experience and in doing so, shed light on what's going on. It was an experience that shaped my work after that, and that's what led me to write the "Post 9/11 Blues" ... which is a satire which got banned from radio, which even just kind of made me want to double down with it.

On writing his 2006 satirical song "Post 9/11 Blues"

It is deliberately supposed to sound very much like a kind of children's jingle, or like [a] cartoon theme tune, and I guess it's a satire about this post-9/11 circus of fear, some of the caricatures that were being bandied about, the very simplistic terms in which complex global issues were being described or whole communities being tarred with these really toxic brushes. It was, I guess, an attempt to try and talk about what was on my mind, what I was going through. We'd just completed Road to Guantanamo, just won that award, just had that incident at the airport, and I kind of just felt like I wanted to get it off my chest.

It's interesting, because I think sometimes people do scratch their head and go, "Why would you make a song like that? Or is this kind of political rap?" And I think it's interesting how some perspectives are labeled political and some aren't. This is just me talking about my experience, talking about what's on my mind, what keeps me up at night, just speaking authentically about my day-to-day life — and that's just art. That's just artistic expression. It's interesting how some perspectives are deemed subversive or political and it was interesting that actually the song was temporarily banned from the airwaves until a kind of bit of a viral groundswell on MySpace ... kind of forced it back on air.

On deciding to take the leap and talk about his experience as a British Pakistani Muslim in his art, despite being told his perspective is niche

If you want to put your finger on a pulse outside of yourself, try put your finger on your own pulse first, which isn't the easiest thing to do, to be honest, particularly if you have been implicitly told time and again ... that your perspective may be considered niche.

If you want to put your finger on a pulse outside of yourself, try put your finger on your own pulse first, which isn't the easiest thing to do, to be honest, particularly if you have been implicitly told time and again that your story may not be relatable or universal, that your perspective may be considered niche. It actually takes a big leap of faith to dig into the specificity of your experience and talk about it and believe that it will be relatable and interesting to people. But I've found time and again that ... I've come up against those blocks and second guessed speaking about my own experience, but every time I have it's really connected with people in ways that I couldn't have imagined. ...

I think you're implicitly told [you're experience is niche] all the time if you're a Black woman, if you're a Muslim person, if you're trans, if you're maybe from the LGBT community. ... It's pretty explicit if you drive past 10 billboards and no one on those billboards looks like you. If you have been watching movies your whole life and you can count on one hand the number of times you've seen someone who looks like you and they're not saying "Allahu Akbar" and blowing themselves up two seconds later — that's explicit. It's explicit when you look at who is valued, who is awarded, who is rewarded, who is celebrated in our culture. That really sends a very clear message about what matters to us, about who we are, about who's considered human.

Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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