Omar Offendum almost lost his train of thought when he saw a video post on his Facebook wall, mid Skype interview, of his song #Jan25 being played in Tahrir Square. It was July, months after the whirlwind revolution that brought down Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak, but as the protests in the Middle East persist, Offendum’s lyrics of liberation continue to be part of an anthem of resistance around the world – both on and offline.
The song features not only Offendum, but a cast of talented hip-hop artists, including Amir Sulaiman, The Narcicyst, Freeway and R&B singer Ayah. When #Jan25 was released, just days before Mubarak stepped down, its plays on YouTube reached the thousands almost instantly. It was around 40,000 hits that Al Jazeera caught wind of the hip-hop phenomenon and invited Offendum to do an interview the day he incidentally arrived to perform in Qatar.
The Los Angeles-based Syrian-American rapper makes frequent trips back to the Middle East for shows and to visit family. He is all too aware of what’s taking place in his native Syria where President Bashar al-Assad is waging war on civilians from the air, ground and sea. While the violence has spurred Offendum and many other Arab artists to speak out, there’s a sense of concern that their words could one day be used against them or their family (Offendum’s mother and sister live still live in Syria). And yet, they continue to show solidarity through their art.
After taking part in a number of collaborative projects Offendum released his first solo album “SyrianamericanA” last summer. He’s made three trips to perform in Canada already this year, and in October his work will take him halfway around the world to Australia for the Melbourne International Arts Festival. ArtThreat caught up with Omar Offendum to discuss the impact his song #Jan25, the role of hip-hop in the recent revolutions and his reactions to the ongoing protests in the Middle East.
How did you get involved with the #Jan25 song?
My good friend Sami Matar, a Palestinian-American producer and composer, first sent me the instrumental track in early February and asked if I’d be interested in making a song about the revolution that was taking place in Egypt. Initially I hesitated – I’m not usually one to jump on “revolutionary bandwagons” so to speak. But the situation in Egypt was developing so quickly and on such a monumental scale that I felt compelled to speak on it.
I did my best to frame [my lyrics] within the context of a global struggle for peace and justice, by referencing quotes from Ghandi, Malcom X and Martin Luther King. I mentioned the roots of revolution in Tunisia and the potential to spread to other nations, etcetera. We completed the piece by reaching out to fellow artists in the U.S. and Canada and were able to emphasize the fact that it represented a cross-cultural solidarity with the Egyptian people in their quest for freedom and liberty.
Do you feel the protests in the Middle East are making progress?
Overall I would say yes. There is definitely progress being made in the sense that decades-long dictatorships have crumbled in the face of unprecedented protests. Seeing the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in a cage is certainly a testament to that. However, the euphoria of toppling the Mubarak regime in 18 days has passed, and the reality of what happens next, in terms of holding criminals accountable and reshaping civil society has slowly set in. Real lasting progress doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time and is something you continuously work at.
The violent and protracted revolutions in countries like Syria and Libya also show just how difficult carving that path towards progress can be. Yet, I’ve always maintained that witnessing the barriers of fear and silence get torn down in these nations by the sheer will of peaceful protesters is a triumph in and of itself. It’s something that I, and millions of Arabs around the world, never expected to see in our lifetime. When a tyrant’s statue gets toppled by youth-led grassroots movements fed up with the fatalism of their parents’ generation, it sends a much more powerful message to the world than what took place in Iraq several years ago as a result of a foreign military intervention.
How would you define Arab hip-hop?
Personally, I don’t like to label it as “Arab Hip-Hop.” I see myself as a participant in hip-hop culture in a more general sense – one who has sought to use this art form as a tool of self-expression and communication. So as long as I’m honest about my life experiences, the fact that I’m Arab will naturally make its way into my lyrics. This is something I hope other young people around the world will understand. Hip-hop culture gives us an opportunity to look past the borders that separate us and the nationalities that supposedly define us and focus on the real connections we have with one another.
That said, hip-hop, like all art, is at its best a reflection of the cultures and communities from which it emanates. So with respect to the Arab world, there are certainly lyrical and stylistic differences that can be seen from city to city. A Palestinian refugee living in the Gaza strip will naturally have something different to say than a young Emirati living in a Dubai high-rise. As long as they’re “keeping it real” I salute them all.
Would you call yourself a “socially conscious” rapper?
I’d like to think of myself as a “socially conscious person” and hope that my art naturally reflects that state of mind. By being aware of what’s happening in my community – both locally and abroad – I can use my lyrics to underscore the fact that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Martin Luther King).
I’ve always sought to build bridges between the two seemingly opposed sides of my identity as an Arab/Muslim and American/Westerner through my music and lyrics. I do this quite literally in my album SyrianamericanA by rapping in both English and Arabic and translating famous poems from each tradition for the other audience to appreciate (Nizar Qabbani into English/Langston Huges into Arabic). The sonic, linguistic and thematic diversity of the record is a direct result of how I choose to live my life – looking past the difference each culture may have on the surface and celebrating the humanity we all share.
What’s the significance of the name “Offendum”?
I chose the name because it embodies the very misunderstandings and stereotypes I break down with my music. It references a Middle Eastern title of nobility “Effendi,” which effectively means “Sir / Lord / Master” in the Turkish language – “Effendim” being the possessive form of the word (“my master”). Yet when spelled with an “O” the name conjures up disrespectful and insulting imagery to an English-speaking audience (“offend them”). The fact that my name can mean something so noble on one side of the world, and so offensive on the other is a testament to the bridge-building I seek to accomplish as an artist.
What are your thoughts on the ongoing revolution and crackdown in Syria?
First, I would like to send my “sinsyrian” condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones during these uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria – and of course as a result of the constant turmoil in places like Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan. Anyone who is familiar with my music should be able to discern that I am, and have always been supportive of families struggling for peace, justice, and equality the world over.
Therefore, what is happening in Syria doesn’t just affect me as a fellow Syrian; it affects me as a person of conscience, and is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring to me at the same time. It’s heartbreaking in terms of the sectarianism and overall bloodshed, and the sadistic nature of many of the crimes being committed against peaceful protesters, including women and children. Also, the systematic use of torture, intimidation and collective punishment on entire cities and towns. And up until very recently, the general silence from much of the international community and especially the neighboring Arab states has been very disappointing.
It is, however, quite awe-inspiring to see that the overwhelming majority of protests have remained peaceful whilst up against these terrifying odds, and have in fact continued to grow and spread the more violent the crackdowns become – even in the Holy month of Ramadan. This [Syrian] regime had made it virtually impossible to criticize them publicly without fear of being censored, jailed or kidnapped during the past four decades. So the fact that the Syrian people have broken that silence is a triumph in and of itself.
Do you think the #Jan25 song helped break the silence?
I am proud of what we were able to accomplish with #Jan25, but the real music of the revolution is being made by people on the ground who are experiencing it firsthand. Whether it’s created in a studio, or out on the streets in the form of a call and response chant, the fact that it’s born out of a natural desire for dignity, freedom and self-determination is what proves that the silence has been broken. While it may take several generations to really see these things through, the seeds have been planted, and the fruits of these struggles will be ripe in time for future generations to savor.