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Riz Ahmed Finds the Beat Between Qawwali and House Music

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6. Mos Def’s “Black on Both Sides”

It’s an album that keeps on giving. I revisited the track “Love” the other day. When I first came to this album I was a teenager. When I’ve returned to it now in my mid-30s, I’m recognizing like, oh, wow, he’s referencing bell hooks when he talks about, “Is this the pain of too much tenderness?” You know, when bell hooks talks about how men might run from love because of the pain of making yourself vulnerable. But what he’s talking about is writing and the idea of losing yourself within the ink that spills onto the page.

7. British Rave Music

We have this very proud tradition of sound-system culture that comes from the Jamaican influence in London, which is huge. And from that, we put it through our blender to create these new genres of music every few years. It’s drum and bass, it’s jungle, then it’s garage, then it’s grind, then it’s dubstep, then it’s drill. There’s something just so restlessly creative in London’s concrete. Whenever I finished a film in America, I used to give people USB sticks of a playlist that would educate them on U.K. rave music. U.K. Apache’s “Original Nuttah” is a great primer into what jungle music is. You’ve got a British-Iraqi guy who has named himself Apache Indian, rapping in a mixture of cockney slang and Jamaican patois. I grew up speaking Jamaican slang. I was 20 before I understood they were Jamaican words.

Roy Davis Jr.’s “Gabriel,” sung by Peven Everett, is actually a U.S. garage track, but it takes places in that transition between [U.K.] house and garage. It’s an anthem, really. I think a lot of people in my generation would be like, “Play it at my funeral.”

But the most recent manifestation that’s close to my heart is Jai Paul’s 2013 leaked album, because it blends together all that amazing U.K. music and Black music with Bollywood music and Indian music. He’s created a language that really resonates with me.

8. South Asian Art

A couple of years ago, I decided to start buying small bits of art. The piece that really means a lot to me is a print by Raghu Rai. He took a photo in the late ’70s or early ’80s called “Life Outside Jama Masjid,” which is one of the main mosques in Delhi. It’s a guy who looks a little bit down on his luck — he might be drunk or stoned — and there’s a woman holding him by the cheeks to cheer him up. And there’s a crowd of people who are possibly more on the fringes of society that are gathered outside this mosque to cheer each other up. It struck me as what religion can be about at its best, providing a space of dignity for people who may not feel like they’re afforded dignity elsewhere.

I started buying Mughal miniatures under the tutelage of Navina Haidar, the curator of Islamic art at the Met museum. It’s so crazy that as brown creatives, we don’t know about our heritage. How are we going to move forward unless we know where we’re coming from? I’ve got quite a morbid piece called “Thief in the Night,” from like the 1400s. It’s a miniature of a thief breaking into someone’s house and killing him. But it’s painted so beautifully. I also got to know Salman Toor’s work when I was preparing for “Sound of Metal.” There’s this amazing piece called “East Village Apartment.” It’s this Pakistani guy who’s in his apartment, and he’s got all these books on his table about Indian painting and Pakistani history. He’s trying to do his best to understand where he comes from. But he’s got his head tilted back in exasperation with a glass of wine in his hand, and out the window you see a downtown mosque. And he can’t bear to look at the mosque and he can’t bear to look at the books. I thought it was a beautiful depiction of this busy limbo that so many of us live in.

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