Syrian-American rap super hero? Homeboy from a street called Straight? Omar Offendum sat down with me recently to hash out what his new album gonna be like. Much love to this brother for what is an expanded rap attack at a time when we need a properly politicized voice straddling these two worlds of oriental and occidental.
Music Video Stills from Omar Offendum’s song “Destiny” – shot by Laith Majali ©
BEIRUT – At a club date in Beirut early January 2008, when Omar Chakaki, aka Omar Offendum of the hip-hop crew The N.O.M.A.D.S, was walking out of a Monot street basement covered in sweat from a 3 hour rap extravaganza, a kid who was walking out with him at the time turned to his friends and within earshot of Offendum said, “His rhymes was tight.”
And it’s true. Offendum is an Arab rapper who always seems put together. Clean shaven, perhaps a wee soul patch on his chin. Always a nice rim on his head when performing – sometimes blue and green Zoo York plaids, sometimes a black cap with an LA on the front (for the LA Dodgers), but always a hat with a crisp front brim that is never folded at the sides. He looks put together because he is.
Based in Los Angeles, Offendum works as an architect, and there’s no doubt he leads a double life – professional by day, Arab rap super hero by night. But he has made peace with that duality, and along with other rappers in the Arab Diaspora like Iraqi-born MC The Narcicyst, Lebanese-Syrian MC Eslam Jawaad, and Palestinian-American MC, Ragtop of the group The Philistines, he is part of an Arab Rap Pack that is gaining a solid fan base – in America, the UK and now in the Arab world.
“You know 60 percent of the population in the Middle East is under the age of 30. And hip-hop is quickly taking shape and taking root here. Especially in cities like Beirut and Damascus,” Offendum told UMen.
Over the last two years, Offendum has toured the Middle East regularly. Beirut, Damascus, Amman, Dubai. And while he’s a Syrian-American with deep ties to his family’s home in Damascus, he admits he has a gravitational pull for his “favourite urban center” in the Arab world – Beirut City, Lebanon.
This March is the scheduled release of his first full-length solo album – SyrianamericnA –an anxiously anticipated project for Arab hip-hop heads and for conscious rap fans who have been blessed to hear his revolutionary metaphors.
With inspiration from poet Nizar Qabbani, Offendum’s new album explores issues of love, war and identity, and includes long verses in Arabic that he says are meant to “open up his Arab audience base.”
BEATS AND BREATH caught up with Offendum during his January tour of the hip-hop lecture series called, “Brooklyn Streets to Beirut Beats,” that features a three-man lyrical wonder-crew, The Human Writes Project, with Ragtop, and the Mexican-American HBO Def Jam poet, Mark Gonzalez.
BEATS AND BREATH (B&B): Tell us about – SyrianamericanA. The title conjures up notions of Pax Syriana. Does the name come from your dual nationality as an MC – what does it mean?
OMAR: Yes. There’s no doubt that I straddle two worlds in my life. I’m Syrian-American and when I’m in the States, I’m defending Syrian points of view, Arab points of view, Middle-Eastern points of view to people that don’t necessarily feel the same way as I do.
When I’m here, in the Arab world, I’m defending American points of view to people that don’t normally think or know things about America in the ways that I do.
So SyrianamericanA, it’s part Syriana, which is a very loosely defined term – a think-tank term that people kind of use in the West to describe the divvying up of nations; the divide and conquer strategy in the Middle-East to divide up the oil and resource interests here.
And then there’s Americana. It’s diners. It’s milk shakes. It’s all that you know…white culture. But it’s this blend of all of these different things that make the American experience too. It’s the music. It’s black culture, its Native-American, Mexican, white, and Asian cultures…all that mixed in.
In the end, what it all means to me is that SyrianamericanA is, ‘A nation-state of mind. Where everything is connected.’ Which is a tag line of the George Clooney movie Syriana, and ‘Everyone is welcome.’ Which is just ultimately how Arab hospitality makes you feel!
B&B: Turning to the songs on your album – even with so many great themed hip-hop albums preceding you – no one has really told the narrative of being Arab-American? Go through some of the songs for us.
OMAR: It’s true that there have been so many concept albums in hip-hop history, and that it’s happening less and less. So I knew this had to be a concept album.
About the songs. One of the first things I decided to do when I started this album is to look back at what my influences were. I decided to go back and look at Nizar Qabbani’s poetry. Not really thinking that I would straight translate the stuff. But I got some beats from Habillis and Sandhill from the Iraqi-Canadian crew Euphrates in Montreal. And these beats really inspired me. There was more Arabic sampling. I mean, Habillis was making really complete songs. This brother really, really makes music and he samples the most incredible parts of songs and puts them together – and so you have to come correct with your lyrics when you record!
To make it more a part of the hip-hop experience I thought to do a translation of Nizar Qabbani’s The Damascene Poem. And Habillis actually he put in as one of the samples some great singing from Armando Manzanero. He’s an old-school Mexican crooner – an indigenous singer. Beautiful song about a blind man that doesn’t get to experience things like the birds and the trees, and that is how he feels for his lover, who he doesn’t get to see. So I took that and flipped it to be an explanation about my experience with Damascus. Because I really didn’t get to live there and see it. But that’s my home in my head. That’s my mom. That’s the stories I grew up with.
And that poem…well I admit that we have a family connection to Nizar Qabbani family. My mom’s great friends with his sister and his brother. And Nizar’s brother has taken a sort of grandfatherly role with me and he lives in Washington DC.
When Nizzar passed in 1998, I actually read the Damascene poem at a memorial service for him at Georgetown University while I was in high school. So that poem took me way back. Nizar’s brother ended up getting me a signed book of poetry from Nizar a little before he passed and he gave them to me like – and in the inscription – Nizar wrote, ‘For your love of poetry and your talents…’ So that kind of stuck in my head for all these years to kind of do this.
B&B: So would you say that you’ve become more of a complete MC and that your songs are more a reflection of maturity on this album?
OMAR: Absolutely, and I really tried to make more complete songs on this album. There’s the story of Majnoun Leila – it’s an old Arabic love story. Star-crossed lover kind of thing. Some say it was the inspiration to Romeo and Juliet. I thought, again, it was a universal story that had to be done with a hip-hop sensibility.
I also translated Qareat Al Fingan – The Coffeecup Fortuneteller – which was a poem sung by Abdel Halim Hafez. It was another beautiful story. It’s about love – when a woman fortuneteller tells the poet that he’s going to love a lot of women in his life, but ultimately will remain lonely. So this song in the album is with this in mind.
Another story on my album is called The Street called Straight – it’s about different people I met in my life and during my time in Damascus. They say that Damascus is the longest continuously inhabited city on Earth. And the street called Straight in Damascus might very well be the longest continuously used street. They talk about it in the Bible. It’s where Saint Paul got his sight back.
So I made up this little tale about these three individuals I met on the street. I try to relate it back to the folks about the street in a hip-hop sense. Because hip-hop is urban – city – in the streets. So I’m just talking about the oldest one, a street called Straight.
‘Met a spiritual teacher, predecessor to the pusher man.’ The medicine man is the predecessor to the pusher man. The last fellow I meet in this song is a carpenter – ‘predecessor to the architect.’ Biblical references. They all tell me in the end to ‘follow the middle path on a street called straight.’ And following the middle path is a philosophy inherent in a lot of different world religions and life teachings. So I played with that idea.
B&B: Do you think SyrianamericanA is an album that most identifies you with the rising Arabic hip-hop movement?
OMAR: Most definitely. For the first time since I started recording, I have songs with full Arabic verses on this album. I did that in an attempt to get more into the Arab Diaspora. Getting more people from here relating to things. But at the same time – not only because those same songs have English verses on them. So for the English speaker, I can hopefully demystify the Arab language and not make it seem like their movie stereotypes of a language where people are just yelling at each other on news clips but it’s this beautiful thing.
B&B: How do you want to release the album?
OMAR: That’s all stuff that is in discussion. I fiddled with the idea of just doing a music download. And you know, do it digitally at first. Because that’s the way everybody is doing it these days. You’re gonna sell some CDs, sure. Ultimately I just want my shit to get out there, and I have no problem in the end with people just ripping a copy of the album of some site – it’s cool ‘cause that’s hip-hop to me. Like doing it bootleg out the back of your car trunk, and establishing yourself guerrilla-like first.
I have a 9 to 5 job in an architecture firm. So I can eat, and I’m not stressin’ like that.
B&B: But let’s be clear, that you can be picky about how you grow as an artist because you can support yourself outside of the industry?
OMAR: Alhumdulillah. I’m fortunate to be able to do this. But I’d love to be able to someday make a living just doing hip-hop. It’s gonna take time. Ten years and it’s gonna take more time. Can’t stop. Won’t stop.
Below is the description on Laith Majali’s blog which I think is rather dope and shows the genesis of some shit that’s gonna rock the house when it’s released! Big ups to Laith! Here’s the write up:
While I was in L.A this summer, I wanted to test out the High Definition video capabilities of the Canon 5D mark II, so I offered to shoot and direct a music video for Omar Offendum’s “Destiny” off his upcoming album “SyrianamericanA.” What started out as a test is now developing to an international shoot with locations in Los Angeles (already shot) and Beirut (to be shot in October.)
I was really impressed with the quality of the files i was getting from the camera, so here are a couple of still frames pulled from the HD video, it’s great to know that wherever I am in the world i can shoot high quality video.
The video will be released through Immortal Entertainment, a multi-faceted entertainment company I recently fromed in Amman. (More about the company in a seperate post.)
A bit about Omar as put by our brother from another mother Narcy:
“Omar Offendum is a Syrian-American MC/Architect hailing from the Sham, Los Angeles and/or DC. He is currently working on his first solo LP called ‘Syriana-Americana’ and is a founding member of the N.O.M.A.D.S. (Notoriously Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Shit) with fellow marksmen, Mr. Tibbs. Ladies know him as “Syrias Finest” but us homies just call him “Ladies Love Cool O”