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The comeback of rapper-poet Omar Offendum

Omar Offendum, Syrian-American hip-hop artist and activist [image provided]
Omar Offendum, Syrian-American hip-hop artist and activist [image provided]

For lovers of music which fuses together the sounds of Arab America with the legendary voices of Arabic music, Omar Offendum is old-school or, better still, a pioneer. As he often notes, the Syrian-American rapper was “born in the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], raised in the USA, and constantly harassed by the TSA [America’s Transportation Security Administration].” It is this kind of wordplay that draws young listeners into the seamless weaving of metaphors between English and Arabic that has become synonymous with Offendum’s work and mode of expression. His stage name is itself a play on words that at once evokes the Ottoman title effendi as well as the Anglophone offend them. Either way, his art garners respect from those who understand and appreciate the message, while offending the camp on the other side of the political aisle.

Omar Offendum first made waves on the scene of this relatively new rap sub-genre in 2006, as a member of a group then known as the N.O.M.A.D.S. as they faced-off with a Palestinian-American hip-hop group aptly called The Philistines in the YouTube underground classic Hala. Since then, he has made a name for himself as a solo artist with his first album SyrianamericanA.

He is perhaps most known for his work at the nexus of education, community engagement and music, providing art workshops at universities across the globe. I have seen Offendum at two universities in North Carolina and once in concert in London. Post-Arab Spring, his career has been catapulted into the limelight as the essence of his music seems to respond to the urgency of the Arab political moment while also piquing the interest of the politically committed Anglophone-Arab youth in the US and beyond. He has collaborated with Iraqi-Canadian rapper Narcy, the British-Palestinian Shadia Mansour, Lowkey and Meryem Saci, among others.

As the situation in Syria grew darker, Offendum’s engagements with charity functions grew stronger and while there were many singles after his first album in 2011, his fans had to wait until 2017 for his second, Eye Know Faces, which can be read as notes on a transformed man: husband, father, artist, citizen. The album samples, if not translates, Khalil Gibran and Nizar Qabbani, into the present. It is a labour of love informed by the blessings of fatherhood and ethnic origin: a love letter to his son Jibran and all the Syrian forefathers who inspired Offendum. Since then, he has kept busy, appearing on “Miss Me” with fellow Syrian-American rapper Mona Haydar, and releasing several collaborative and solo singles, including “Close My Eyes”, dedicated to his late father.

When I last saw him perform, I noted the reaction of young and eager undergraduates listening intently to one of his pieces produced by Saüd, called Beit She3r, which is loosely translated as “house of poetry”. This is perhaps the work that best represents Offendum’s art to his admirers, as he code-switches between Arabic and English on nearly every other word, leaving the listener fully engaged to see how each word stacks up against the next in an extended pun-like metaphor of prose-poetry. The aforementioned students were fascinated, and could not believe how he could do that. His Arabic is perfect.” When I told Offendum about this, he looked at me and frowned. In a voice full of humility bordering on dismay, he said; “The last thing I would ever want to do is to make a young Arab American feel insecure.” Following this exchange, I felt the need to sit down with him to learn more about his muses, his impetus and his work. Some highlights from our conversation follow:

Suja Sawafta: What sowed the seeds of your work? Do you have a muse to inspire you?

Omar Offendum: That’s interesting. I would say that the seed was, first and foremost, my love for hip-hop and my desire to bridge it with my Arab roots, specifically the poetic tradition of the Arab world. It was something that, growing up, I always wanted to see, and before I knew it, I started doing it. There was this desire to see us represented and to reclaim our narrative. When I first got into rapping, it was in the post-9/11 era and the ongoing conflict in Palestine. All of these things were the seeds. As for a muse, it has changed a lot recently. Initially, it was a combination of all the things I just mentioned. It slowly shifted into the revolutions in the Arab world and the need to show solidarity… [But now], three years ago I become a father and Jibran is undoubtedly my biggest muse now. Him and my wife and our life in America.

SS: Within the cultural production of Arab novelists and poets from the 60s through the 80s, there was a general consensus that art had to be politically committed, in other words, “art for politics’ sake” rather that “art for art’s sake”. Do you see your work and that of your peers as a natural progression of the post-1967 generation?

OO: I am not going to lie to you, I am not as well versed in all of these writer’s works as I would like to be. I would like to read more but, yes, definitely. The work of Edward Said in particular was hugely influential because he was speaking from the vantage point of someone who did not always feel fully Arab or fully American. He was getting at the core of how it feels to be caught between two worlds while also offering a deep intellectual critique of the relationship between East and West from an intellectual and political perspective. This is deeply inspiring to me.

SS: In your last full album, Eye Know Faces, there were many references to Nizar Qabbani and Khalil Gibran. These are two men who wrote a lot about love. I am curious as to whether you translated that understanding of love into your role as a father, a son, a husband or more broadly, as a socially charged love for everyone around you.

OO: To me, it was about tapping into my Syrian-ness; as a man, as a father. Syrian men have always been very affectionate, greeting each other with kisses and holding hands as they walked down the street. They may not have that reputation now because of the war but, historically, they are just as comfortable talking about the roses in the garden as they are about very heavy political issues. They have found different ways of understanding masculinity. I have adapted this to get myself out of the current echo-chamber of rap. When I was growing up I was listening to rap and I was listening to other things. I was fully aware that the rappers that I was listening to were also listening to other things and sampling other music from around the world. They were the librarians of sound.

SS: You balance language a lot, weaving in and out of Arabic. I have heard audience members make comments about this; they were clearly fascinated.

OO: I know how hard it is being an Arab-American kid and not feeling fully Arab enough, especially when you go back to the Middle East. Even with all of my fluency, I am still deeply insecure about it, to be honest. When I go back to the Arab world, I think, what should my accent be? I was born in Saudi Arabia, I am Syrian, and I’ve been taught by Egyptian and Sudanese people. That has all made its way down to the way that I speak, even on a subconscious level. When I go to Syria, they ask me, “Where are you from?” Sometimes I do think whether I would be different if I had grown up in Syria. Do you ever think about that?

SS: I do. All the time.

OO: Going back and forth between English and Arabic is an honest representation of my life experience. It is in your physicality and it is how you carry yourself. All of these subtleties make us who we are.

SS: Quite a bit of time elapsed between the release of your first and second albums. What was the main reason for this?

OO: In between the two albums I released a few singles, which were actually some of my more popular songs. There are a lot of artists who create a lot of disposable music. Do I just want to throw things away into this digital abyss of the internet? There is work I want to continue to do, especially working with local artists in each show, in the same way that Kendrick Lamar incorporates local jazz musicians in his work. It is becoming more and more important for me to do that kind of thing, by performing with artists who play the oud or tabla in their communities.

Omar Offendum’s music is available for streaming and download on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and his website www.offendum.com. To follow Omar on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram see his handle @offendum. For his most recent single listen to “Close My Eyes” and for more recent collaborations listen to “Miss Me” with Mona Haydar or “Beit She3r” produced by Saüd.

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Asia & AmericasInterviewsMiddle EastSyriaUS
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