Changing Perceptions by Countering Stereotypes as a Syrian American Artist

Omar Offendum
Omar Offendum

by Amin El Gamal

When I met him, I was way too shy to tell hip-hop artist Omar Offendum that his album SyrianamericanA was a staple on my running mix for years. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Omar is a Syrian American rapper and poet, who has legit Jay-Z status in the Arab American community. But to relegate his work to one community would be a disservice. He’s popular all over the world and his infectious and intellectual music speaks to anyone who’s felt marginalized or, as he puts it, “hybridized.”

His rapid fire rhymes are like a history lesson, a mystic experience, a cultural tour and a dance party all at once. With dizzying deftness, he samples archival documentaries of the “Orient,” classical Arabic music and poetry, and news segments mixed with fresh beats and instrumentation that defy genre.
 
Omar Offendum and Ronnie Malley
Omar Offendum and Ronnie Malley performing.

On August 16, he’s bringing a blend of hip-hop, Arabic poetry, spoken word and live music to the Ford in an intimate one-night-only performance with Palestinian American instrumentalist Ronnie Malley and a handful of other local musicians. 

Omar’s story is as multifaceted and complex as his music. He was born in Saudi Arabia, but moved at a young age to D.C. where he was raised by his mother. He married college sweetheart actor Ashley Dyke and their son Jibran is an Arab black Muslim Jewish little boy who’s already fluent in both Arabic and English.
 
From Yo! MTV Raps to his upcoming show at the Ford, here are some excerpts from our extensive conversation: 
 
AE: What was your first formative memory involving hip-hop?
 
OO: I have vague memories of watching Yo! MTV Raps back in the day. But the first album I remember memorizing front to back was Outkast's first album Southernplayalisticadil-lacmuzik. I loved how melodic it was, and how it has lots of live instrumentation. 
 
Also, it was interesting growing up in D.C. because it’s not New York and it's not the South, but we had access to both influences: the more playful rhyme schemes and melodies from the South and the more lyrical street-based rhymes from New York and Philly. So I was heavily influenced by both. Add to that living in D.C. where politics are such a big part of life. 
 
AE: I can definitely hear both influences in your music - and you don’t shy away from politics.
 
OO: Also I went to an international Arabic school where there were embassy kids from all over and we were taught Arabic poetry every day.
 
But the more I look back on it, the more I realize it's the combination of all those things that led to what I'm doing today, whether it was conscious or not. That and the politicization of us being where we were at the time.
 
AE: What was some of the context of the time?
 
OO: I remember during the first Iraq War there were bomb threats at our school; metal detectors were installed and our school was closed down for a month. 
I was halfway through college at UVA studying architecture when 9/11 happened. This is when I started to dabble in hip-hop for the first time. It was an escape because architecture is really demanding, so it was a chance for me to just work my brain a little differently.
 
At college, for most people, I was still the ambiguously ethnic guy up until 9/11. It was pretty quick after that that I started to see firsthand how people were wrestling with Arab and Muslim identity…Arab-American, Muslim-American, what did that mean?
 
AE: Did that affect the subject matter of your rap or your approach to it or was that always tied to identity for you?
 
OO: I think it was always tied to identity. In that moment, though, I saw the potential ability to change people's perceptions by not necessarily just countering stereotypes, but also by just existing. The fact that I was who I was, on stage with the people I was on stage with, doing what I was doing, and doing it well also was important.
 
AE: I remember as a kid, when I heard Lauryn Hill’s song Doo Wop (That Thing), when she said “Don't forget about the dean, Sirat al-Mustaqim,” I felt so seen. 
 
OO: Yeah, well that's the thing. When I was in middle school listening to rap, a big part of the appeal was that within the lexicon of hip-hop there already existed references to Muslim, Arab, and North African cultures.
 
I noticed right after 9/11, there was like a tendency for a lot of Arabs and Muslims to be on the defensive. “We’re not terrorists, we're not this, we're not that.” And they weren't taking the time to tell people what we are and who we are and where we're from. No one was really telling people more about our culture, so it's not so vague and mysterious.
 
AE: Because when you're just responding to negative stereotypes, you're entering into a conversation that has already been made for you. You have no agency to reframe the narrative in any way.
 
OO: And I think we need people who will be watchdogs and stand up and fight and people who are able to engage and move the culture forward. I’m always wondering what three or four generations of Arabs and Muslims in America is going to look like. What aspects of our culture do we want to preserve and how does it get preserved? I wonder about that a lot.
 
So we have this huge opportunity and I don't want to just kind of go into auto pilot with it. There's a really unique chance that you have to shed some of that cultural baggage that might be holding you back and reimagine the possibilities.
 
AE: Sometimes I feel as a Muslim-American/Arab-American person that I'm fighting on two fronts in a way. Sort of trying to reform some of the nonsense that’s been handed down to me, but also battling prejudice and ignorance here. 
 
OO: Sometimes there are conversations that you need to have internally with your people or with your family, so you can work through the kinks. And then there's also things that need to be said publicly. And I think in that tension there's fertile ground.
 
AE: Identity is so exhausting. Do you ever get tired of being boxed in by these categories? Obviously you're proud of who you are and that fuels your work, but are there times you just want to be recognized for your skills?
 
OO: Well, it's funny you mention that. I started a web series about coffee called #16BarBarista. It’s basically me walking into a coffee shop, ordering a drink and spitting a 16 bar verse about coffee. It’s a different way to have the conversation on my own terms. I've learned to use people's curiosity about the culture in a way that also keeps me engaged.
 
AE: How do you navigate being a role model for a lot of Arab-American people?
 
OO: I don't know, I think it's funny that I ended up being that, because all I did was do my own thing, you know? But people are so hungry for representation, that I guess that’s what I am. 
 
There’s a sense of responsibility that comes with having access and privilege. Like, I have a passport that allows me to travel more than most Arab rappers get to. That's something that I never try to lose sight of. And that sense of responsibility is multiplied now that I have a son. But it's also been complicated in a beautiful way because he's not just Arab, he's also black and Jewish and I have to honor all of those things. It’s been such a beautiful, beautiful journey for me, and Inshallah for him too.
 
AE: Who are some of your influences?
 
OO: From Arabic poetry, I often translate the work of Nizar Qabbani who was one of the most prominent poets of the 20th century. He’s from Damascus where my mother was from and he wrote so many beautiful verses about Damascus and Arab life.
 
Pre war Demascus - Photo by Getty Images via Architectural Digest
An image of pre-war Demascus by Getty Images via Architectural Digest

He also was one of the first to be really open about love and relationships and heart-break and even sexuality. Some of it would get a G-rating here in America, but for the Arab world it was a big deal, you know? And I think from his vantage point he just wanted to liberate love from these feelings of shame and guilt.

I’ve also been influenced by Edward Said and Amin Maalouf. Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese writer of historical fiction, which is my favorite genre by far. And then, of course, black music and black culture in America: hip-hop, but also jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, blues. And Arabic music, you know Fairuz and Abdel Halim Hafez…

 
AE: I know you've toured a lot. Is there a live show that was especially memorable or surprising to you?
 
OO: Last year when I had the opportunity to perform with more live musicians than I normally do. One of them, [oud (Middle Eastern lute) virtuoso] Ronnie Malley is joining us at the Ford. This is a kid who is Palestinian, born and raised in Chicago, grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll, but also played at Arabic weddings with his dad and his uncles and got incredibly good at it. I found what I was doing with hip-hop and lyricism and Arabic poetry, he was doing with music. 
 
We toured together to promote the Syrian American Medical Society and called it the Amplified Peace tour. It culminated in a show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That's where I had the idea to kind of replicate it for the Ford. He'll have a set, I'll have a set and other local musicians will be joining us too. It's gonna be pretty special.
 
AE: Some of the audience will be on stage with you too, right?
 
OO: Yeah. I've done like big festival shows for thousands of people and it's like you're not really connecting with everybody. But then I've also done incredible shows with just fifty people at a coffee shop and felt so moved. The Ford is beautiful, it's the summer time at night, and it has this weird Gates of Jerusalem sort of vibe, you know?
 
AE: Yes, it was initially built as a venue for a passion play.
 
OO: I think it works with what we're doing. I love creating community with my performances and ultimately still being able to tell my story through it. I think that's one of the things that I'm most proud of, I'm comfortable enough to be myself and speak my truth in these spaces with a variety of audiences.
 
AE: One thing I really like about your music is that it doesn't shy away from using Arabic or themes or values.
 
OO: Yeah, part of that was initially trying to demystify the Arabic language for people. There's this really rich language and cultural tradition that I'm barely even scratching the surface of.
 
AE: How has the conflict in Syria affected you and your work?
 
OO: Well, I can't go back to Syria because of the things I said. But more importantly, I have extended family that's still there. We’ve lost some of them.
 
It’s also been a difficult balance: wanting to use my platform to speak out on behalf of this very vulnerable group of people: refugees, who’ve been used as pawns and who are being exploited. At the same time, I can't be a spokesperson for something that I'm not living. 
 
But I feel this sense of responsibility. It's like, "What else could you speak about when you have this platform, but these important issues and this cause?" And then it goes back to, "Well if this wasn't happening in Syria what kind of artist would I be?" So, trying to find a balance between all of that is the struggle for me. But I think, in that tension is where the art comes out. It's where I find it just as important to talk about refugee issues as I do to translate the work of Nizar Qabbani for people who might not be exposed to it. For the fact that it reflects Syrian culture more than just the struggle.
 
And then finding other things to rap about: coffee and being a dad and California. 
 
AE: In what ways does California inspire you?
 
OO: The huge influence of immigrant culture and more importantly the original cultures are all very inspiring to me. Also, finding connections to my own culture. The climate and the vegetation here is actually very similar to Syria and Lebanon and the Mediterranean. 
 
AE: Isn’t there some connection to the palms in L.A. and the Arab world?
 
OO: Yeah! Initially when the Arabs first started to colonize and settle in Spain, they had come from Damascus and wanted to be reminded of it, so they brought palm trees. Those same palm trees were the ones that eventually came here with the Spaniards. Because they're not indigenous to L.A when I'm being told that Syrian immigrants don't belong here and refugees don't belong, I can step out on my front porch holding my baby boy who's twice removed from Syria and look up at a palm tree from that part of the world that rooted here and feel connection.  
 
AE: What is next for you?
 
OO: I have two music video projects that I'll be releasing in the coming months. And I’m working on a new EP. I’m also a Kennedy Center citizen artist fellow for 2018-2019 which is pretty awesome. And I’ll be doing more touring in the fall as well.
 
AE: This has been so much fun. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and see you at the Ford!
 
An Evening of Hip-hop & Arabic Poetry with Omar Offendum will be presented on Thursday, August 16 at 8:30 PM. Seating is limited for this intimate event. For more information, please click here.