You may have heard of Omar Offendum, the 31-year-old Syrian-American rapper who made a song about the Arab Spring called #Jan25 that was released just days before the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
Now, he’s focusing his music on his parents’ home country of Syria. He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss his music and what it’s been like to watch the conflict from the U.S.
Omar Offendum is also acting in an upcoming stage play, dedicated to the Muslim community leader Dr. Maher Hathout, at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles. And he’s acting in a film called “A to B,” about a road trip from Abu Dhabi to Beirut.
Interview Highlights: Omar Offendum
On growing up in America and seeing conflicts come and go in the news
“Starting to see a conflict in Syria, a country I know very well — my father, may God rest his soul, is from Hama and my mother from Damascus, so I’ve been there many times in my life. So all of a sudden, starting to see and hear people with voices that were familiar to me and accents that were familiar to me, and seeing the imagery of the destruction of places that I know, it just really really hits home. But at the same time, I can see how the average American gets overwhelmed by it and doesn’t really know how to relate, how to be involved with it. And ultimately, gets numb to it. … I feel that as someone of Syrian decent, this type of situation, which is so tragic, that there’s an opportunity for us to do something, and not just because I’m Syrian, but because I am American.”
On his music endangering his family
“My family received a warning by virtue of me even making music about Egypt and being on Al Jazeera. So it was very difficult and for me to know I’m sitting here in the comfort of my home in Los Angeles and putting out something that could affect someone’s life, someone so important to me, you know, halfway across the world, it was a very difficult – you know, very difficult thing to do.”
On sharing his music with his family
“I remember the first day I actually recorded something and came over to my sister’s place and played it for her. My mother wasn’t there yet, but you know a few minutes later when we were playing the song, she walks in and says ‘Huh, who is this African-American rapper talking about Palestine?’ And my sister looks over at her and she’s like ‘Oh that’s your son Omar.’ … I don’t think she expected it, but she was also the one who kinda instilled a real love for and a real deep appreciation for poetry and for spoken word, specifically Arabic poetry and all of that sort of slowly infused in the sponge that was my brain and kind of became Omar Offendum.”
- Omar Offendum, Syrian-American rapper. His name is a pseudonym to protect his family. He tweets @Offendum and his blog is O.F.F.E.N.D.U.M.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
It's Martin Luther King Day. And we end the hour with a Syrian-American whose adopted phrase is from the civil rights movement for his own cause. He's 31-year-old rapper Omar Offendum, although that's not his real name. His parents are from Syria. His mom and sister were there until very recently, and he uses a stage name to protect them from retribution in response to his lyrics. You may remember Omar from his anthem to the Arab Spring, "#25," at least days before Egypt's Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "#JAN25")
OMAR OFFENDUM: (Rapping) ...disunity, communally removing the tumors of rotten (foreign language spoken). We're making headway. Chanting down the dictators, getting rid of deadweight, opening the floodgates...
YOUNG: Well, now he's turned to his parents' homeland. Omar joins us from NPR West. Omar, what's it been like to watch the civil war in Syria from here?
OFFENDUM: Well, I mean, you know, I grew up watching TV and watching the news the way any average American would, and clicking through channels and kind of seeing different conflicts just come and go, you know, and so kind of coming full circle and starting to see a conflict in Syria, a country that I know very well, my father - may God rest his soul - is from Hama, and my mother from Damascus. And so I've been there many times in my life.
And, all of a sudden, starting to see and hear, you know, people with voices that were familiar to me and accents that were familiar to me, and seeing, you know, the imagery of the destruction of places that I know, you know, it really, really hits home. But at the same time, I can kind of see how the average American gets overwhelmed by it, and doesn't really know how to relate, how to be involved, and ultimately, you know, gets numb to it.
You know, there's a saying that's been passed around quite a bit: (Foreign language spoken), which means hopelessness is betrayal. And so, you know, I feel that as someone of Syrian descent, that this type of situation, which is so tragic, you know, there's an opportunity for us to do something, and not just because I'm Syrian, but because I am an American.
YOUNG: Well, in fact, we mentioned your song about Egypt, "#Jan25." Here's a new song you've written, "#Syria."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "#SYRIA")
OFFENDUM: (Rapping) And the people united will never be defeated. I will shout (foreign language spoken). The purpose of these verses is to unify the masses, Homs up Hassakeh, Banyas to Damascus. City streets to countrysides, mountaintops to coastal tides, Muslim, Christian, women, men and children, let's keep hope alive. Stand in solidarity.
YOUNG: A little of "#Syria" from Omar Offendum, again, a Syrian-American. He's written about conflicts in other lands, but now writing about your parents' home country. How scary was this to write this, though?
OFFENDUM: The day that I had actually written those verses was kind of the bloodiest day in Hama, you know, in early - it was the first day of Ramadan in 2011. And I didn't end up releasing the song until, you know, the one-year anniversary. And I had to, essentially, wait for, you know, my mother and my sister's blessing to put it out, because I knew I would be putting them in a very precarious position by releasing music like this. You know, my family received a warning by virtue of me even making music about Egypt and being on Al Jazeera. So it was very difficult.
And for me to know that I'm sitting here, you know, in the comfort of my home in Los Angeles, and putting out something that could affect someone's life, someone so important to me, you know, halfway across the world, it was a very, you know, difficult thing to do.
YOUNG: Well, we know you were aware of the danger, because you've spoken about a Syrian-American pianist who played at a rally in D.C., and his family, what, was attacked back in Syria?
OFFENDUM: Yeah. You know, Malek Jandali, a phenomenal composer and piano player and now, you know, a humanitarian and activist, as well, had basically composed a really beautiful song with no words.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OFFENDUM: By virtue of him playing at a rally in D.C., in which he stressed that this was simply for the youth of Syria and for freedom, just by saying that, his parents back in Homs had, I guess, you know, some thugs beat down their door and handcuff them and beat them up and throw them in a bathtub. And fortunately, someone was able to find them and, you know, get them out.
And then there's the tragic story of Ibrahim Kashoush, who's from the city of Hama, where my father was from, who was leading the protest chants and whose voice is actually featured on the song. His body was found floating in the Orontes River, because he was saying these things that had angered the regime. And his vocal chords were literally ripped out. And, you know, by doing that, they were trying to send a message to people to not speak up. But they ended up immortalizing this man, his message, his words, and it's now something that's sung all over the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)
YOUNG: You know, Omar, I'm wondering: How was it that you ended up growing up in Washington, D.C.? What did your family do that you traveled so much?
OFFENDUM: You know, I was actually born in Saudi Arabia. My father ended up landing a job in Washington, D.C., which is where we ended up moving. And it meant a lot to him to come here to the United States, being from Hama. It was just one month after I was born that the city where he was from suffered a horrific massacre, in which the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad, was responsible for a horrific massacre in which upwards of 10 to 30,000 people perished within the span of a week. And that type of scenario ended up, you know, creating a huge amount of fear within the Syrian population, driving a lot of people out.
And so, you know, my father was never allowed to go back to Syria for various reasons, namely because he had decided to send money back to help his widowed sister and cousins, and try to get people out. And so for him, to come here to the U.S. and to get citizenship and to give us the opportunity to have an education here was really important to him.
YOUNG: Well - and as you mentioned, he has passed. And you've written a song about him. Let's listen to a little of that. It's called "Father's Day."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FATHER'S DAY")
OFFENDUM: (Rapping) Yeah. We've grown numb to imagery of death and demise, blind as St. Paul until he saw a Syrian sky. Miles away, war's preying on the teariest eyes, our deaf ears still ain't hearing their cries. Why? Is it even worth asking anymore when guilt is but a swinging door, with crooked men on either side, cushioning each other's fall? Orphans hiding from a devil with dark wings, and writers with a conscience feel it plucking our heartstrings.
YOUNG: Omar, it's obvious that your thoughts are now with family, with home country. You grew up in Washington, listening to Outkast and Jay-Z, translating Langston Hughes poems into Arabic. But what about when you decided to pick up rap? What was your family's reaction?
OFFENDUM: You know, I remember the first day that I actually recorded something and came over to my sister's place and played it for her. My mother wasn't there yet, and then, you know, a few minutes later, as we were playing the song, she walks in and she's, like, huh. Who is this African-American rapper talking about Palestine? And my sister looks over at her, and she's like, oh, that's your son Omar.
OFFENDUM: So, you know, I don't think she expected it, but she was also the one who kind of instilled a real love for and deep appreciation for poetry and for spoken word, specifically Arabic poetry. And all that just kind of slowly infused in the sponge that was my brain and became Omar Offendum.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, you've told us that you have a new song. Can you just recite a little for us?
OFFENDUM: Absolutely. Now, I would never judge a man who acts in self-defense or belittle the peacekeepers who have to mend the fence. But the problem with these vengeance cycles that they never end, unless the profiteers of violence never had a better friend. Opportunists come in droves, gunrunning, smuggling. Journalists be parachuting, families is juggling. Four to five weddings and funerals any given time. Mortify rounds of ammunition, mama says it's fine.
Yep, yep, mama says it's fine. Everything's going to be OK. But I could sense the fear from 7,000 miles away. How could I just forget it? That's why I put it in a verse. I don't do this stuff for critics. I don't spit it for a purse. After all, what's more shameful than the praise of fools? See, chasing after fame, that's how you play the fool. (unintelligible) offend them, just to play the fool. I ate it on my way to school, like, every day. I hold it down, like, every day. That's for my people.
YOUNG: And that is Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum. Thank you so much.
OFFENDUM: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OFFENDUM: (Singing) Down, down for my people. Hold it down for my people. Hold up. Who's my people? Hold it down for my people.
YOUNG: And you can learn more about Omar - he's going to be in a play in Los Angeles - at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
And I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.