Riz Ahmed, musician and actor

 3 February 2011

Riz Ahmed has built a creative career as an actor, rapper and writer. With leading roles in The Road to Guantanamo and Four Lions, and the musical alter-ego 'Riz MC', he spoke about pursuing multiple creative interests.

"I wanted to be an actor, but I thought it was much less likely than pursuing a career in music."

Starting out as a performer

“When I went to university, I was actually spending a lot of my first year writing out lists of things I was missing out on not being in London. It was only then that, after a month or so of really seriously considering just walking away from it, that I realised I could do both.

"Do everything that you want to. Don't limit yourself. As a performer, dots join up in the most unexpected ways."

“So what I did was I set up a club night called 'Hit and Run' at Oxford and it became one of the biggest hip-hop drum n' bass clubnights in the city. It was really just an opportunity for me to just hone my live show, my live skills.

“So it was always in my head that I kind of wanted to do music, I wanted to be an actor, but I thought it was much less likely than pursuing a career in music.

"It was at university I realised I could try and do both. I don't really see it as a change in direction. The stuff I write about is very much social observation or politics on a personal level. It's just helped me develop a clarity in my line of thought, and that's what I try and bring into my music.”

Performing onstage and on film

"It's very similar to the difference between, as a musician or a rapper, playing to a live crowd and recording in a studio. When you're recording in a studio or acting on camera, you've just got to focus your energy.

“The camera or the microphone in the booth is merciless. If you don't believe what you're saying, it hears it. If you don't believe it, it sees it in your eyes, it hears it in your voice that there isn't the conviction there.

“Whereas when you're onstage in front of a crowd, you can focus more on the external side of it. You know, hyping the crowd, communicating to them, filling the room with the energy. When you're in a booth or when you're on camera, it's about filling your mind with the thought, completely.”

Taking risks as an artist

"I don't know if it's a necessity career-wise. I feel like it's a necessity for me to write about things I feel passionately about, just because I find it really hard to write lyrics otherwise.

“The camera or the microphone is merciless. If you don't believe what you're saying, it sees it in your eyes. It hears it in your voice that there isn't the conviction there."

“It's more of a creative necessity for me to write about things that are meaty and that I can really sink my teeth into.

"They're not always political, I think more and more I'm writing about the politics of male-female relationships or the cult of cool or the way we stereotype each other.

"There's always going to be some kind of social aspect to it, but it's not always political.

“But if it was a strategy - if I was going on strategy - I'd probably avoid that altogether. Because as much as it can garner some attention, it makes so many people nervous, and it kind of closes as many doors as it opens, and the doors that it closes are the more lucrative ones. So if it was a career strategy thing involved, I'd probably edit it out completely.”

Obstacles for an Asian artist

“I feel like being Asian is more the thing around my neck as an actor than as a musician, funnily enough. Because I guess with music, on some level, you hear it first before you see it. I also feel like I've moved out of that box as a music artist.

“As an actor that's happening, but that's happening now, with projects like 'Dead Set' and 'Shifty'. There was a while there where the only kind of roles that I could go up for were the ethnicised ones. And that's changing now. The change is slow and it's always too slow, in my opinion, for those doors to open up, but I feel like I've got more freedom in music.

“But the thing is, ideally you don't want to be described as an ‘anything’ artist. If you're described as a hip-hop artist, that's much more justifiable because that's connected to the music. But if you feel like you're described as an Asian artist... when I'm called a Muslim rapper, I don't know if that's the whole story. If all my songs are about that, I'd totally understand, but two out of ten are, so...”

Advice for a career in acting and music

“It is obviously the cliche, so much about it is luck and so much is about who you know. But I think you can make your own luck and I think you can make the connections that matter by not compromising on what you want to do.

“That is ultimately what will make you stand apart from other people. That's the first thing. And the second thing is do everything that you want to. Don't limit yourself. Dots join up in the most unexpected ways as a performer in this world of freelance little billiard balls we are, bouncing off each other. The more shots you take, the more you're going to bump into other balls.”

Also of interest

Stay updated

Sign up for our weekly careers newsletter

View our privacy policy.

Related jobs & apprenticeships

Related events & opportunities