“We can talk tomorrow,” reads the message. “And it would be exclusive because I am going to share first time something only with you.”
As far as emails go, this is a good one – not simply because of its content but because it was sent by Muhammad Shahid Nazir Ahmad, a man you probably know better as the singer behind “One Pound Fish”. “Come on ladies, come on ladies,” went the song that shot the then-market trader to fame in April 2012, “Have a, have a look, one pound fish. Very, very good, one pound fish.”
Within months, Nazir had been invited to perform on The X Factor, was signed by Warner Music, and released an official music video that, at the time of writing, has been viewed 29,290,435 times. “I can forget everything in my life but I cannot forget 2012,” he says. “Before 2012 I was nothing.”
Nazir is ringing me from his home in Pakistan, where he returned in December 2012. Headlines at the time were confused – most said he had been deported because working at the market violated his visa, but Nazir himself told the BBC he had only gone home to apply for a French visa in order to perform there. It seems his stay in the UK was brought to an end because of the entertainment he brought to millions, rather than the fish he so famously flogged.
Now, impassioned and booming, but softening his speech with the occasional “my dear”, he tells me a different story.
“I am telling you for the first time, no one knows this,” he says. “I have been refused a British visa two times.”
Nazir tells me he first came to England on a student visa and returned to Pakistan of his own volition three days before it expired. However, when he applied for a new visa, he was rejected on the grounds that he breached his student visa by creating a music video with Warner Music.
“By your own admission, during your time of your previous leave in the UK, you were signed as a singer by an entertainment company,” reads the official refusal document from the UK Border Agency in August 2013. Nazir, however, denies any deliberate wrong doing. “It was technically a mistake, but not made by only one person. Warner Brothers released the music. If I am guilty, I am not the only person,” he says. “The world is not for innocent people.”
A year later, Nazir applied again in order to take part in a film that was going to be made about his life. “I am not satisfied that you are genuinely seeking entry as an entertainer for a limited period as stated by you,” reads the refusal.
“It is a very hard punishment,” says Nazir. “I made British people happy.”
When we speak, Nazir is under the impression he is now banned from applying for a new visa for ten years, but a Home Office spokesperson refutes this, saying he never had a ten-year ban and can apply at any time, and all applications are considered based on their individual merits. The now 35-year-old would like nothing more than to return to England, telling me – twice – that “after One Pound Fish it is my one pound wish”.
“I helped Britain. I did a great thing for British people,” he says. “I helped the one pound currency. You have Americans singing about the pound, Pakistanis singing about the pound, I went to number one in Japan. You have Japanese singing about the pound.
“Theresa May is a lady, I have done something good for ladies. I have done something good for your country,” he says, asking both the Prime Minister and the monarch to consider his cause and allow him back into the UK. “Queen Elizabeth II, you are a very honourable woman. You are the symbol of the pound; I am the singer of the pound.”
It is clear that going viral deeply impacted Nazir, who – despite the visa rejections – bellows “No, no, no, no!” when I ask him if there were any downsides. “It was a great honour,” he says, noting that he has loved singing since he was a child. “People came up to me and asked to talk or for selfies. It is an honour for me that people recognise me . . . People say to me ‘You have a unique fame.’ Like superheroes. Like Spiderman, or Superman, I am Fish Man.”
Although viral fame affected him emotionally, he is financially little better off than before. Nazir now works for his family business in Pakistan, a goods transport company, and produces music on the side, most recently a tribute to Michael Jackson in June. “How can you make money from YouTube, Facebook, iTunes? I had no idea back then,” he tells me. “The person who uploaded the video made money, Warner Brothers made money, I did not make a single penny.”
Warner Music has been contacted for comment on whether it made money from the video, but whether or not Nazir earned anything from it doesn’t matter to the Home Office. “You were signed to Warner Music . . . ” reads the refusal. “Whether you have collected the funds in relation to that contract is immaterial.”
Extract from the UK Border Agency’s visa refusal letter.
It is unclear what will happen to Nazir next, though he is exceedingly grateful when I pass on the Home Office’s message that he has not been banned for ten years, and can apply for a new visa at any time. Asked if he would like to go viral again, Nazir is enthusiastic, and when I ask how, he reveals his true love of Britain. “It is my wish to do something more with pounds,” he says.
“Living the Meme” is a series of articles which explores what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the rest in the series here.
To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.