It would have been a disaster for Britain to join the euro. Jack Straw

Poetry is the Backbone of the Arab Language

The Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum was behind the popular song, “#Jan25,” a collaboration by international rappers inspired by this year’s protests in Egypt that quickly went viral. He sat down with Cora Currier to talk about the intersection of hip-hop, new media, politics, and his role as a bridge between the Western and Arab worlds.

The European: Hip-hop has flourished as a form in the Middle East and around the world. Do you see hip-hop as having a particular pan-cultural appeal?
Offendum: There are thousands of artists all over the world fusing their musical traditions and expressing their struggles through hip-hop. That’s what’s so beautiful about hip-hop. It’s essentially this artistic framework, this chameleon, that can be adapted to serve the needs of particular communities.

The European: Music has always been used to express political opinions. Do you see yourself in that tradition?
Offendum: The internet is changing everything. Artists like myself, who fifteen years ago never would have had an audience are able to create the music ourselves, put it out on the internet for our fans. The spread of international hip-hop has been parallel to the rise of the internet, especially in the Middle East, where for so long people were only fed state TV. Starting with the spread of satellite TV in the 90s, and then with the internet, all that has changed. It has opened up a huge, politicized space. These governments with their stale mentalities were slow to catch on and left a void that the people where able to fill, especially young people making use of new technologies.

The European: But has the role of internet technology and new media in the protest movements in the Middle East been over-emphasized?
Offendum: Of course you can’t place the success of the revolution in Egypt in the hands of Facebook alone. That’s ridiculous, because millions of people were protesting who didn’t have access to phones or the internet. At the end of the day it takes word of mouth to mobilize and people in the actual streets protesting for the actual change to take place. That said, these technologies did help to organize, and they did help to create the space, to give the freedom to express things that for so long were repressed. There’s a big blog culture in Egypt and you can’t deny that either.

The European: Is it just the history of hip-hop that makes it such a politicized genre, or do you see something inherent in the form?
Offendum: You can cram way more words per minute into a rap song than into a ballad, so there’s a lot more room to speak your mind. But you can easily see parallels between the sociopolitical and socioeconomic context in which hip-hop came about – in African-American communities in the US in the 1970s and 80s – and the rest of the world, in terms of hip-hop being a cultural tool through which young people express themselves. With respect to the Middle East in particular: poetry is the backbone of the Arab language. People naturally have a healthy respect for spoken word and for poetic verse, and historically poets in the Middle East have represented a lot of the major social movements. That coupled with the fact that it’s also a very musical culture—everywhere you go in the streets you hear music, especially rhythmic, percussion-based music—these things combined, are in a sense, hip-hop. Furthermore, the roots of hip-hop in the African-American tradition can in turn be traced to Africa, and those same traditions—the oral tradition, the percussive tradition—definitely permeate the experience of North Africa and the Middle East as well. So there are historical and musical connections.

The European: How do you feel as a diaspora artist, making music about a conflict but not being present in it?
Offendum: When I make music for a particular event, like I did with that song for Egypt, I make it a point to so stress that I am doing so in solidarity. There have been interviews where people have described me as having created “the song of the revolution,” which I’m quick to respectfully disagree with. The real music of the revolution is what’s being created by the people on the ground. That’s an important distinction to make: I sit here in the United States, behind my desk, in the comfort of my home, to create a song, when there are people who are literally dying for these freedoms I enjoy. That said, I recognize that people in the US, the majority of my audience, don’t really think that they have anything to do with events in the Middle East, and so hearing a hip-hop artist like myself, speaking through an artistic language they can relate to, makes the situation become a lot more real. They can relate to it in a different way than watching it on the news.

The European: How do you want your music to impact your two audiences, Arab and English-speaking?
Offendum: As a bilingual artist, in an effort to be the bridge between the two cultures, one thing I’ve done is start to translate poetry—take poetry from the Middle East and translate it into English, take poetry from the U.S., like [the African-American poet] Langston Hughes, and translate it into Arabic. Performing songs with Arabic in them in front of an American audience is important to me, because it can help demystify the language for people who aren’t used to hearing it, who only hear it from some angry guy on TV with a gun in his hand. Performing and touring after September 11th, a lot of the music I was hearing from the Arab-American community had a defensive, apologetic tone to it, trying to explain to people what we are not. Over the years I’ve realized its much more important to tell people what you actually are. And introducing Langston Hughes, for example, to an audience in the Middle East who hasn’t heard of him—these kids that experiment with rap right now don’t grasp the historical context in which hip-hop came about, and they wouldn’t necessarily see the connection between hip-hop and the Middle Eastern poetic tradition. But these are all milestones that led to what we call hip-hop today.

The European: Do you find one language easier to rap in?
Offendum: I grew up speaking English, so I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easier. Rappers from the Middle East, who hear me rap in Arabic say wow, I’ve never heard anyone rap in Arabic like that, and that’s because I’ve internalized this American cadence, even though I’m pronouncing things very properly. No matter how well I speak Arabic, I can’t escape my American side. But then I’ve heard the opposite about how I perform onstage—my hand gestures, my body language, my movements, are very Middle Eastern. Americans say, you don’t move like a regular rapper. And this is all result of how I grew up in both cultures. I’m a natural reflection of all that, and that’s what hip-hop is, after all, is honest self-reflection.

Omar Offendum’s latest CD, SyrianamericanA, was released last year.

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