“It’s not just my Emmy, it’s yours as well. But I’ll keep it at my house,” British actor, rapper, and activist Riz Ahmed said to a sold-out audience on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 9 at an event hosted by the Princeton University Muslim Life Program.
Ahmed recently won the 2017 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series for his role as Nasir Khan on HBO’s show “The Night Of,” making him the first Muslim and Asian to win in this category. Also known for his roles in films such as Nightcrawler, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Jason Bourne, Ahmed spoke about his identity as a South Asian Muslim and how that has shaped his career in the arts.
“Your unique story is going to form the basis of your unique contribution, and I think often when you don’t see yourself reflected back in popular culture, literary culture, visual arts, film, television, music, it’s very easy to think the specificity of your experience precludes you from participating in that conversation,” said Ahmed, explaining how his background has impacted his career.
“I think what people really connect with is the honesty of someone kind of sharing their truth, even if they can’t relate to the texture of their experience,” he added.
The event began with a conversation with Ahmed and two student moderators, followed by a Q&A with the audience.
Two MLP members, Robia Amjad ’18 and Anhar Karim ’18, moderated the discussion with Ahmed. Amjad and Karim began working to bring Ahmed to campus over a year ago.
Karim explained how he felt a connection with Ahmed through his religious and ethnic identities, as well as artistic interests. Karim said that he felt inspired seeing someone who looked like him featured prominently in the arts and movies, compelling him to bring Ahmed to campus. He added that he thought many University students would feel similarly.
One question regarding the University’s support for minority students led Ahmed to draw on his personal experiences. The question touched on hiring professors from more diverse backgrounds, and offering more assistance in adjusting to the college environment.
“I do think that that feeling of being insider-outsider, someone who has access to different worlds and social circles but doesn’t fully belong to any one of them, is a sometimes confusing, sometimes lonely place to be, but it is also an incredibly fertile place,” Ahmed explained.
A native of Wembley in the U.K., Ahmed attended Oxford University and initially struggled to find his place there. However, he explained that this adjustment was ultimately rewarding for him.
“Something that I’m not in favor of is everyone having their own designated enclave,” he said. “You know, where Muslim students just hang out with Muslim students.”
He explained that his interaction with diverse cultures has defined his worldview.
“My own experience is that to be kind of pinballed around between different worlds, not fully belong to any of them, and to kind of live in this kind of no man’s land, has actually been — yeah, challenging, lonely at times, confusing ... but really a blessing,” he said.
Another area the talk focused on was how Ahmed’s identity influences his selection of roles and artistic projects. Ahmed explained that he has stopped trying to please everyone when making these kinds of choices. Instead, he asks himself two questions when considering a new project.
“‘What is the thing that I wish existed that doesn’t exist, and am I one of the people that can help bring it to existence?’ … You do that [ask those questions], it kind of cuts out most stuff [in the decision-making process],” Ahmed said. “That’s been a really helpful filter for me.”
Ahmed’s attitude has impacted his artistic style, helping him redefine what it means to be mainstream.
“I don’t feel like I have to go out of my way to, like, ‘throw the fist up,’” he explained. “I feel like I just have to not apologize … or hide who I am. And I think in doing that, your job is done.”
Following Ahmed’s talk, audience members expressed gratitude at the privilege of hearing his insight.
“It’s a special privilege to be able to engage [with] artists this way,” said Imam Sohaib Sultan, the University’s Muslim Life Coordinator and Chaplain. He also spoke to the importance of having guests like Ahmed at the University.
“As someone who directs the Muslim Life Program, for me it’s about getting students to see the varied Muslim experiences across the world, so that when people go out in the world, whether they are in the arts or in academia or in policy-making, they understand that Muslims come from such different experiences,” he said.
The event took place at 4:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.