Last night, when Riz MC held the mic in front of a packed room at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right, I don't think anyone expected the degree to which he would tear. That. Shit. Up. With swagger on a hundred thousand trillion, the emcee served up aggressively poignant rhymes on racism, politics, Islamophobia, and the general South Asian diaspora condition at about a mile a minute, basically a drone strike on your concept of "woke bae."
With rhymes like, "So see it ain’t religious faith that’s causing these crimes / It’s losing faith in democratic free market designs," Riz killed it.
Riz MC, the stage name of British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, is better know for his starring role in HBO's The Night Of. On Sunday night, though, he served as the headlining act of Function, a 10-hour mini-festival spotlighting South Asian performers. He was joined by event organizer, former Das Racist member, and Greenhead Music label founder Himanshu Suri, or Heems, rekindling their 2014 collaboration Swet Shop Boys.
Function kicked off with a screening of Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music, which was followed by a litany of musical performances, starting with woman-fronted pop punk band Awaaz Do. Other acts included Pakistani neo-Sufi vocalist Arooj Aftab (whose gorgeous singing had the room in pin-drop silence), Bollywood-meets-Beach House psychedelic band Humeysha, Desi punk veterans The Kominas, and DJ Rekha, who is the only DJ I’ve ever heard mix Nas and northern Indian Bhangra music. Sure, that sounds like a lot of acts, but the largely South Asian audience couldn’t get enough, despite the lack of samosas and the single functioning bathroom.
“I’ve been playing the role of Uncle tonight,” Heems said to a crowd of more than a hundred (mostly) millennials with roots in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and other South Asian countries. Before joining Riz onstage, he launched into his own set with Kevin Lyttle Roti, a group that also features drummer Kassa Overall and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and is an experimental amalgamation of improv, jazz, rock, rap, and poetry.
If you grew up in the States (or, probably, in England or Australia) and fall under the blanket, sometimes reductive, label of "South Asian," chances are you have been to some sort of cultural function. For much of my childhood, I would get dragged to high school auditoriums once or twice a year to check out a four-hour show of dances (I’d usually perform in one or two), instrumental music, singers, short plays, and sometimes a “fashion show” which basically featured whatever Aunty Joshi brought over from India the last time she visited. Sure, it was a chore, but I look back it fondly, as a pure celebration and enjoyment of my culture, a rare instance of nostalgia that's hard to come by living in white America. And for the first time in my three years in New York, I found a place where I could connect with dope brown folks and celebrate their talents—and make white people feel othered for once. Jk, kinda.
As I walked towards the bus stop in the rain, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Heems said: “What kind of Uncle or Aunty will you be?”