Look out, Drake — Arsalan Shirazi, the ultimate multi-hyphenate, is taking over “The Six”
This interview was originally published in the August 31, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more features like this? Subscribe today for free.
Corporate lawyer by day — actor, writer, rapper, and founder of ENTITLD ARTISTS by night — Toronto-based Arsalan Shirazi certainly has his hands full. His debut film, “On Again, Off Again,” boasts two sold out screenings at the 2016 Mosaic Film Festival and over 4 million minutes of viewership on Amazon Prime Video. We caught up with him over the phone.
Natasha Chan: Not only are you an actor, but you are also a rapper, writer, founder of ENTITLD ARTISTS… and on top of all of this, you are also a corporate lawyer. How do you possibly manage all of this?
Arsalan Shirazi: That’s the number one question I get and I both love and dread it because I’m always like, “What do I do? Alright, how much time do you have?” I’m working on it these days, but I have a bit of a problem sitting still, but I try to use it to my advantage. I think for me, I really feed off of being an artist and an entrepreneur, just creating stuff. That’s my overall focus — I start with an objective: what am I trying to do, what story am I trying to tell, what thing am I trying to make — and everything kind of works backwards from there.
As an artist, I’m a DIY type. That doesn’t mean I don’t like collaborating with other people but especially on the outset of being a new artist, I didn’t want to have an attitude where I couldn’t do something because X person didn’t give me an opportunity. Or “I can’t make a romance movie, like a real first-gen romance movie, because people aren’t casting brown characters.” So it really became, how can I do a lot of this stuff on the outset by myself, create the stories I want to see, and bring them to life?
NC: Of all your different jobs, what gives you the greatest sense of joy or purpose in life?
AS: I think it’s hard for anything to compete with the joy you get from creating something artistically. I think creative people [have a lot of different hustles going on]. The feeling of creating something, putting it out there, and having people engage with it, watch it, and listen to your music — that feeling is the utmost joy. It was strategic and sort of not strategic how I ended up doing all these things.
I’m very fortunate. I grew up middle class, but I’m a first gen immigrant whose parents worked at a travel agency. I worked in the family business my whole life. I knew that if I wanted to be an artist coming out of Toronto and [have a stake in owning my art], then no one was going to do it for me. My parents weren’t going to write me a check for a recording studio. So being a lawyer was kind of what I like to call “the first gen shuffle” where you’re doing all the “right things” but you’re trying to figure out what are your dreams, what do you want to build, and are there ways to make all these things fit?
So the joy I get from acting, writing, rapping, creating series — that is paramount for me, and I’d be lying if I said it’s the opposite. But becoming a lawyer and creating my own practice, that’s how I was able to raise the money to work on my first feature.
I’m trying to find ways to take the traditional method of doing things and shift that narrative. Are there ways to be a relevant artist in this new world and have a different approach to it? For me that ended up being me going to law school, starting my own practice, starting my own media company — I’m kind of juggling it all and I’m figuring it out as I go. I think I’ve been able to do some cool stuff, which opened the door to do more cool stuff, and that’s what makes me excited.
NC: So you mentioned that your group, “ENTITLD ARTISTS” aims to tell the story of first generation immigrants. Do you feel like your movie, “On Again, Off Again” helped to share of your own personal experience in this regard?
AS: Yes! 100%. I wanted to write and work on a project that I could take from start to finish. I wanted to write a small but big story. I was fascinated by — both from personal experience and those of older millennials — this phenomenon of people coming in and out of each others’ lives because we’re dealing with all of these competing pressures.
Then there are movies like, “Like Crazy” and “500 Days of Summer” — these really awesome offbeat relationship stories — but I hadn’t actually seen one with diverse characters in it. I had been talking to somebody when I was initially looking to work on the project, he was a really nice guy who had good insights, but being a white Canadian, he said, “I think your story can either be all about culture, or not about culture at all.” It just made me think — that’s your narrative. I just want to tell a real relationship story that I’ve been through, and I don’t want to have to hide the culture. I want it to be relevant in the way that it is in my life. I don’t make every relationship decision in my life based on my culture…but it also doesn’t not factor in. So I really just wanted to tell that kind of story, and just having representation in a type of story that I don’t think you see that often.
NC: I definitely think you succeeded in that regard — I watched your movie last night, and that was one of the first thoughts that I had. I was expecting to see a lot of focus on Pakistani culture, and I prepared to ask you more questions about this, but I felt like the movie was really more focused on the romance between the two characters. I thought it was really well done, in that you were able to clearly, though subtly, show reverence for your culture but not have it be the main narrative of the story.
AS: I was very fortunate to have a co-writer, Biko Franklin, work on this with me, and one of the things he talked about was making sure that we didn’t overwash or overplay anything. I’m Pakistani, I’m Muslim, but I was born in Toronto — I grew up here. My sensibilities are North American/Western. Movies like “The Lunchbox” are great, but they’re not the only type of Southeast Asian movie that we want to see. I really wanted to focus on the relationship aspect of the story, and make sure that the characters were nuanced and real, not just a caricature of what they’re supposed to be like.
NC: I’m curious — now that Crazy Rich Asians has come out, and it’s really infiltrated current media and pop culture, what are your thoughts on the movie and what it stands for in comparison to your own film?
AS: You know, a couple of years ago, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to go about make this film. I just noticed this rise of very rich, nuanced writers and artistic storytelling like you’re seeing with Crazy Rich Asians, and they’re saying, “Hey! Guess what? Not only are these awesome stories, not only are these so relatable, but these stories can also bring in $25M and be the most popular movies in the industry.” We’re not just here because representation matters, we’re here because we actually have amazing stories to tell.
These stories have been missing from the narrative of the West for so long. That’s not to say there aren’t amazing stories from vantage points that are not related to first generation immigrants, but every time one of these stories breaks through, it kind of opens up the space, and I’m really excited about it. For Asians, Southeast Asians, it’s still a fight and a struggle to feel that representation. Some feel that we still don’t have that nuanced voice we’re seeking, and there just isn’t a space for our voice, but I think we’re starting to see new voices and new stories emerge. For example, 88rising completely crushed the hip hop scene in a different approach to hip hop. It’s an exciting time to be an artist, specifically an Asian artist.
NC: Along that same vein…so I did a Google search for Pakistani-Canadian actors, and only 4 people showed up…
NC: There is clearly a need for organizations like yours to help support and build this community. What are some of the biggest barriers you feel like you’ve been able to overcome, and what are some hurdles you continue to see yourself struggling with?
AS: That’s a great question…one of the challenges we had was when we were casting “On Again, Off Again.” We had a great casting director, and we sent breakdowns of all the roles that we had, and we even sent them to channels where actors may not have agents to get everyone involved in the picture, but it was really hard to find actors who came from first generation Southeast Asian backgrounds who could do the role well. So my co-star, Sam Spatari, is not South Asian, but she’s a very talented person.
One of the things I’m trying to do with my company ENTITLD is putting out projects like this and saying, “There are more of us out here! We can do this! There are people doing this! Let’s connect and collaborate.” I’m trying to encourage everyone I know to help this current and next generation to become artists: to create a culture because we are underrepresented and need to share our voice the most. The challenge is that it’s never been a more exciting time to be an artist, we can create content in so many new ways and get it out to so many places. But as traditional institutions become more risk averse as they’re playing in the public markets game, even though they’re seeing the track records of all these artists doing amazing things, they’ll go to the established artists they know and do everything with them. So continuing to push our narratives, looking for independent talent, is both a challenge and an opportunity.
NC: I’d like to shift over to some of your other projects — so I know that you are also a rapper that goes by the stage name ENTITLD. How did you come up with this name?
AS: I wrote this hilarious post recently — at least I thought it was hilarious — about how Baby Boomers say that Millennials are so entitled, “They want their dream career and they want someone else to pay for it,” and I’m like — Millennials go off, get their dream careers, then wait tables to pay for it. Then Baby Boomers are like, “Millennials are so unfocused, they have their day jobs and want to do all these side projects.” You can’t win. Not only are we at a point in time in life where to be creative, in whatever capacity, it’s also never been harder to make a living doing that stuff. People are finding ways to do it, and it seems like I experienced this same narrative when I left [my job as a lawyer] to focus on my movie, and I got a lot of comments like, “How entitled. You had this great job that people would die for, and you’re walking off to ‘live your best life’?”
For me, I don’t think we’re a generation of lazy, “we want stuff done for us,” people. I see a generation of people who want to live their best lives, so they’re doing it. They’re working two jobs, they’re setting up businesses on the side, we’re not settling for systems — artistic systems, political systems, economic systems — that are broken and don’t fit a new generation of people who want to make better stuff. So for me, I have this notion that if that’s being entitled means, then go ahead, call me entitled. I’m the most entitled person. Sometimes it’s the name that takes away your power, and if you own it, it gives you your power back.
NC: I noticed that you have a digital series in production that goes by the same name. What can we expect from it?
AS: I’ve written a pilot that shows my transition from being a lawyer to a creative. One of the things that came out of that is that there are a lot of interesting things that go with being an older Millennial that are really funny comedically, and also sometimes really interesting when picking up on the nuances of Toronto. The scene is really growing from all the artists that have come out of here in the last little bit. So I thought it would be interesting to do a short form series, smaller episodes, focused on Instagram and a lot of the cool stuff they’re doing there. For example, waking up to go to the gym and falling back asleep, trying to explain to your parents what you actually do for a living, or that awkward conversation you have with people like, “are we actually in a relationship?” These are really funny to me, and I thought they could be really great stand alone episodes that could live under an overall series concept. It could also be a companion piece to my music. What I’m really exploring with my music is this notion of being an older Millennial, first gen kid trying to find your dreams and hustle.
NC: One last question for you comes from our previous interviewee, Brian Park — he wants to know what is one food or dish from your culture that you wish more people knew about and would be willing to try?
AS: Oooh. That’s a good one. You know, it’s weird, I come from this weird vantage point because I’m from Toronto, and everyone pretty much knows about all the food here. South Asian cuisine in Toronto is super popular. Everyone is always going to try it. But, I think I would love for more people to try the best places in Toronto, which in my opinion, are hole-in-the-wall. I would love for people in the city to come to the suburbs and try some of the strip mall South Asian biryani or tandoori chicken places. That is where you’re going to get some of the best South Asian food, pound for pound. Everyone needs to come out to Scarborough and spend a day eating Asian cuisine. They would have the best day of their lives.
NC: [laughs] And what would you like to ask our next guest?
AS: What is the toughest conversation you’ve had with your family about your artistic dreams?
Under the stage name ENTITLD, Arsalan Shirazi’s track “Millennial Woman (Get Loose)” has been featured on exclusive Sony and Universal releases with artists Snoop Dogg and Raekwon. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter.