When Syrian American rapper Omar Offendum fell in love with hip-hop during his teenage years, he noticed that many of the songs he listened to featured Islamic influences or were influenced by North African beats. Muslim American rappers like Mos Def (who legally changed his named to Yasiin Bey in 2011), often alluded to their faith in their lyrics.
So when Offendum, who was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in D.C., began to record his own tracks in high school, it felt only natural for him to draw for inspiration upon poetry he had studied in school and the struggles his friends and family faced.
Offendum, who has been recognized internationally for his activism and art, will perform SyrianamericanA, a beat-driven reflection on the violence his country and family has faced in the last few years, on Sunday evening at the International House Philadelphia. The performance is part of the 2017-18 season of Intercultural Journeys, an organization that seeks to promote understanding between people of different cultures through art. We talked to the rapper to see what he had to say about politics, hip-hop, and the conflict in Syria.
How did you decide to start rapping about politics and the injustices your community was experiencing?
I was always aware that hip-hop was a tool that could be used to highlight some serious sociopolitical issues. It’s rooted in the African American community and gave voice to the issues that they faced, so when I heard rappers talk about those injustices, it inspired me to talk about the injustices my community faces. Before the conflict erupted in Syria, I was lending my voice to lots of other conflicts going on. I performed at protests and fund-raisers for other causes, like the refugee crisis of New Orleans after Katrina. It became what I do — building community and showing solidarity. And eventually everything kind of came full circle. Protests erupted in Syria and I saw a place that I had known so well become a hotbed for one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen.
Can you describe the process of how you connected Arabic poetry to rap?
I went to an immersive Arabic school in the D.C. area, so I grew up studying the Arabic language. There were a lot of kids whose parents worked at embassies there, so it was much more immersive than other Arabic schools because it was designed for the students to have an easy transition when they moved back. When you study Arabic, you realize that poetry is a huge part of the language. I was exposed to tons of it, from poetry from the medieval ages to modern poetry. I was able to make connections between what they were saying and the emotions they wanted to express through the work, and that seemed kind of similar to the rap I was listening to. I felt like hip-hop was a modern incarnation of that in many ways, like the idea of representing your tribe and your ‘hood. When it comes to art, there’s nothing new under the sun, especially storytelling traditions. In college, I began doing more translations of Arabic poetry because my peers wanted to know where I was coming from. The media was demonizing people from the Arab world, so I tried to explain my culture from a perspective that I know, which was more intimate.
Many rappers today rap about experiences they’ve had. What are some unique challenges that come with rapping about an experience that you haven’t personally gone through but find incredibly important?
I do rap about my own experiences, like immigration and xenophobia and racism I’ve experienced. When it comes to writing about experiences that are not my own, I try to come from a very respectful place. I have family there, so I’m deeply connected to the issue in a very personal way. Speaking for them is important to me when they’re telling me to use the platform that I have to tell their stories. But I also know I don’t represent the viewpoints of the Arab youth. It’s definitely a fine line, striking a balance and not speaking out of turn.
The ongoing conflict in Syria is horrifying, but there are a lot of people who don’t understand the nuances behind what’s really going on. How do you get people to care about this complex conflict and stay engaged about it?
If you create art that is engaging, entertaining, thoughtful and gives people pause, you’re creating spaces that allow the building of solidarity between communities. Something I try to do is remind people that Syria is the birthplace of so much of what we know today, like the alphabet, streets, and cities. It’s the only place where people who speak the language of Jesus Christ can still be heard. I often get asked about what people can do to help, and I always say that they should try their absolute best at whatever they’re doing in life so they can give back to the world when the time comes. I also try to get people to think about America’s relationship to the world so we can break that island mentality we have going on. We can’t live with our heads in the sand like ostriches. We have to acknowledge that we’ve influenced the world, often negatively. If we want the country to move in a better direction, we have to take ownership of that.
If you go
7 p.m. Sunday, Ibrahim Theatre, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St., $20 general admission, $10 student admission, 215-387-5125, internationaljourneys.org