This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Syria Through the Work of Poets

 

A Muslim growing up in the West, Omar Offendum (his pen name) has tried to use hip-hop as a bridge to reconcile the two sides of his identity. “I realised I could use it as a tool to bridge these two seemingly opposed sides of my identity together at a time when it seemed like the media was bent on tearing them apart,“ he said. (The World ) A hip-hop artist, designer, poet and peace activist he uses the genre as a positive medium for communication to inspire change.

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Omar Offendum
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Wikipedia
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Personal Blog
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About Omar Offendum
Offendum was born (1981) in Saudi Arabia to Syrian parents. His father was from Hama, a city that “in 1982 suffered at the hands of the father of the current dictator, where 10,000 to 40,000 people were killed within the span of a week.” The killings were a reprisal against a popular uprising. “There were no camera phones back then, no cellphones, nobody recorded or documented it,” said Offendum. The massacre, little known to the outside world, embedded a fear so deep in the Syrian imagination that Offendum called it “generational,” carried by people and their children, even to far-off places as they emigrated out of Syria. He recalled “family members whispering the name of the Assad regime thousands of miles away. It’s difficult to see it happening again and again.” (
Offendum, “Hiphop and Peace“)

After moving to America in 1985 (Offendum became a naturalized citizen in 1993), he attended a cosmopolitan Islamic school in D.C., where he met other recent immigrants as well as local Muslim American children. It was an experience, he said, that helped him form a pan-Arab identity growing up. When the 9/11 terrorism attacks occurred in New York City hip-hop’s strength took hold of him. He began his rap career as one-half of the N.O.M.A.D.S. (Notoriously Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Sh*t), an Arab/African-American hip-hop duo along with Sudanese-American rapper Mr. Tibbz with the goal of bringing an Arab-American perspective to contemporary hip-hop.

Offendum’s stage name (real name: Omar Chakaki) is laden with meaning:

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. (Pyper)

“The fact that my name even embodies that is a testament to this path that I’m taking where I try to bring these two worlds together and try to point out the differences in a subtle, ironic and humorous way,” he said. (Dalia Rabie)

Omar Offendum has been featured on several major news outlets (Aljazeera / PBS / LA Times / Rolling Stone / VICE / NY Times / The European), toured the world to promote his music, helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for various humanitarian relief organizations. He has lectured at a number of prestigious academic institutions, and had been involved in creating several critically-acclaimed songs about the popular democratic uprisings throughout the Middle East & North Africa.

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SyrianamericanA

Cover and tracklist

“Destiny“
Song Lyrics
Official Video
“Damascus“
Song Lyrics
Original Video
“Straight Street“
Song Lyrics
Video
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Bridging the American-Syrian Divide: SyrianamericanA
The title comes from Offendum’s dual nationality as an MC:

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. (Allers)

For Offendum, SyrianamericanA is “a nation-state of mind. Where everything is connected“:

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.

“Destiny“
„Destiny“ is the second track on Offendum’s debut album SyrianamericanA, released before the so-called „Arab Spring.“ Its tracks convey the complexity of his Arab-American identity, caught between Syria and America:

“It’s about my destiny, but also the destiny of immigrants in general who kind of find themselves with new surroundings and environments,“ he says. “Especially this kind of second generation of immigrants. I came over at a very young age. While I do identify as Syrian and as Arab and as Muslim and all these things — I also very much identify as an American.“ (Davy)

His solo album, he said, allowed him to bring forth the experiences he went through while fusing the diverse elements from his upbringing. Offendum, who was an architect by day, described his album as a trip through Syria through an American’s eyes and a trip through America through a Syrian’s eyes. He takes his listeners on a journey through Syria and the US, lyrically bridging the gaps between both worlds while mixing English and Arabic.

The chorus of “Destiny“ was inspired by lyrics from reggae artist Buju Banton’s classic song “Til I’m Laid To Rest“ (Aquila Style) The original Buju Banton lines read:

Til I’m laid to rest
Always be depressed
There’s no life in the West
I know the East is the best
All the propaganda they spread
Tongues will have to confess

This is what Offendum made of them:

Chorus:
You are my …

(Destiny)
its hard livin in the West – when I know the East got the best of me …
(Destiny)
could be lookin in my eyes – but you’ll never really see the rest of me …
(Destiny)
can you hear me „maseeri“ (my destiny)? … bi-lingual’s what im blessed to be …
(Destiny)

Whereas the Jamaican artist explores his new found faith in the Rastafari movement, Offendum’s “Destiny“ focuses on the desire for reconciliation of his dual cultural heritage: “Dove of Peace, spread your wings & fly” (translated from the Arabic: 7amamet Salameh – ifta7ee ajni7atikee oo 6eeree):

In this valley between two “mountains“
the source of love for both “sides” can be found.
…..

His concept finds its expression in moving from one language to the other:

One example I often give is that when I’m in the states performing for an all American audience, I will still go out of my way to perform a song or two in Arabic just because I want them to hear this language in a beautiful way. It is a way to demystify it, demystify the culture and make it something more relatable to people. They see me and they know me as Omar, the guy who raps and then they see me do a full Arabic poem and so they make a connection to it that they wouldn’t normally be able to make. (Raphiann)

The central line from „Destiny“ is “ … bi-lingual’s what im blessed to be“. Since he released “Destiny“ Offendum found that many listeners – and surprisingly, not only those who share his Arab-American background – could relate to his lyrics.

“Whether they are refugees fleeing a war-torn nation, immigrants relocating for greater economic opportunities, or simply students studying abroad, it seems that nowadays this notion of a hybrid or hyphenated identity is becoming much more commonplace“ (Aquila Style )

“Damascus“
“Damascus“ is the first song of SyrianamericanaA (See tracklist. The song explores an opportunity to come closer the Syrian part of his cultural roots. The lyrics were inspired by Nizar Qabbani’s “Damascene Poem”. Offendum:

“For me, having never lived in Damascus, [Qabbani’s physical description of the city] was an escape for me to a time with certain experiences my family might have had. I appreciate the references the older I get,” he said. (Rabie)

For Qabbani, who had lived his last fifteen years in London, Damascus, Syria’s capital and long a center of culture and history in the Middle East, is the “womb, which taught him poetry and creativity“ and gave him “alphabet of jasmine“. He imagines wandering in the narrow alleys of Damascus and immersing himself in the Buzurriya Souq. (Quabbani’s “Damascene Poem“). „Damascus“ is in part a re-interpretation, in part a recital of recurrent lines from Qabbani’s original poem, made into a rap song. Offendum also puts in as one of the samples a reference to the Mexican musician, singer, and composer of Maya descent Armando Manzanero:

Es la cosa mas triste de este mundo
Y asi me siento yo por ti solo por ti
(& this is how i feel for you)

“Straight Street“
Straight Street in Damascus is one of the oldest streets in the world. It runs from east to west in the old city of Damascus. (Wikipedia). In biblical wording it is “the Street Called Straight“ (Arabic: الشارع المستقيم‎ Al-Shāri` al-Mustaqīm), in Latin the Roman street (Decumanus Maximus).

Chorus:
it’s just what we call fate
llivin on a Street Called Straight

that’s where we cease all hate & pray to 3ish peace all day

In “Straight Street“ the lyrical “I“ recalls/imagines going for walk in old Damascus. On 1/3 of the way to Straight Street, he meets a medicine man, “predecessor to the pusherman“. He soaks in all the information “bout regenerative meditations /& preventitive medication“ of this „modern day Ibn Sina“. The historical Ibn Sina (980 –1037), known in the West under his latinized name Avicenna, was famed for his knowledge on healing. When the speaker asked him “how to cope with our impossible fate“ he replies:

… follow the middle path
to a Street Called Straight.

At 2/3 of the way he meets a spiritual teacher, “predecessor to the preacherman“. He spoke of

angels on our shoulders
and the angles of our solar
systematic self-destruction
metaphysical corruption
with a danger to our polar
ice caps

His wisdom is enthralling but when the speaker wants to know what the most important thing to recall is he gives the same advice: “follow the middle path
/Straight Street & that is all.“

At the end of the way he meets a carpenter hard at work, “predecessor to the architect“. He tells him that

western education
made it hard to grasp
his connection to the past
deep-rooted in his craft

but knowing the tools the speaker would be grateful

learnin how to build the monumental for the playful
& the humble for the faithful

And again he asks the obligatory question as to how to reconcile the “impossible odds“ and again the the obligatory advise:

… follow the middle path
Straight Street to the Gods

Good poetry offers readers/listeners a space where they can get personally involved. Sharing the idea that having diverse cultural roots is a priviledge it encourages the audience to find out for themselves a “midway“ between the seemingly opposing poles.

Offendum sees his achievement primarily in offering positive views on the respective other culture:

There are obviously the negative stereotypes that I think you inevitably have to battle being who you are in another country, an Arab Muslim in America. But those experiences, to me, don’t make up who I am. I don’t like to harbour them or dwell on them. For a long time people were so quick to tell people what we aren’t, we’re not terrorists, we’re not extremists, we’re not this, we’re not that. But they didn’t go out of their way to tell them what we are and why we’re so proud of who we are, our culture, our heritage, our background, our poetry, our food, our music. That is where I come in and why I think that what I contribute has value.

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“#Jan25 Egypt”
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Video
#Syria“
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Video
“Crying Shame“
Lyrics
Soundcloud
Video
“Omar Offendum: The War Around us“
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Focus on Syria

“#Jan25 Egypt”
On January 25, 2011, the day of the first major demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Omar Offendum went to his studio in Los Angeles and wrote a verse on the Egyptian uprising. A fellow rapper, the Iraqi-Canadian and Dubai-born Yassin Alsalman – more widely known as The Narcicyst, Freeway. an American Muslim MC from Philadelphia and HBO Def Poet Amir Sulaiman joined him in his project. Finally, the Palestinian-Canadian R&B vocalist Ayah did the hook. The collaboration was produced by Sami Matar, the Palestinian-American composer from California, and within three days „#Jan25Egypt“ hit YouTube. The song was dedicated “to the brave, beautiful souls that made this Egyptian revolution possible“. It served as a testament to the revolution’s effect on the hearts and minds of contemporary youth, and the spirit of resistance it has come to symbolize for oppressed people worldwide.“ (Offendum, Blogspot)

Offendum began with a quote attributed to Gandhi and describing the winning strategy of successful nonviolent activism:

First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you WIN“

The song text emphasizes the role social media played in the Arab revolts:

I heard em say
The revolution wont be televised
Aljazeera proved em wrong
Twitter has him paralyzed
80 million strong
And ain’t no longer gonna be terrorized
Organized – Mobilized – Vocalized

Offendum frames his lyrics within the context of a global struggle for peace and justice, by referencing a quote of Martin Luther King:

Freedom isn’t given by oppressors
It’s demanded by oppressed
Freedom lovers – Freedom fighters
Free to gather and protest
for their God-given rights
for a Freedom of the Press
we know Freedom is the answer
The only question is…

Who’s next?

When „#Jan25Egypt“ was released, a few days before Mubarak stepped down, its plays on YouTube reached the thousands almost instantly. While the violence spurred Offendum and many other Arab artists to speak out, there was a sense of concern that their words could one day be used against them or their family (Offendum’s mother and sister still lived in Syria). And yet, they continued to show solidarity through their art. (Pyper)

Asked whether he thought the „#Jan25Egypt“ song had helped break the silence Offendum replied:

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. (Pyper)

“#SYRIA“
On March 17th 2012 Syrian-American communities from all around the country came to Washington, DC, to pay tribute to the martyrs of the Syrian Revolution which began in March 2011. Offendum rapped about the then largest Syrian protest to date. On his personal blog, he wrote:

I am a human being who believes in dignity, freedom & equality for all – no exceptions … I am an artist who strives to reflect those ideals in lyrical form … This is but a small contribution when compared to the sacrifices being made by beautiful, peace-loving Syrian people on a daily basis.

His lyrics are preceeded by a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: „If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.“ He used the demonstrators‘ chant – alsha3b yureed isqaa6 al-nitham („the people want to overthrow the regime“) – to set the rhythm of his song. The idea that inspired him:

The purpose of these verses is to unify the masses
7oms up to 7assakeh … Banyas to Damascus
City streets to countrysides …

The message is simple:

Lets keep hope alive,
Stand in solidarity with all your fellow citizens
Peacefully protesting for an end to all the militance
Torture & imprisonment

It is hard not to make comparisons to 1982 (The 1982 Massacre of Hama) when considering the brutality of the Assad regime in 2011:

Déjà vu…
’82 – ’11…

Offendum evokes the key goal of the 2011 Revolution:

I have a dream this regime will fall
And that what comes next
Will be better for us all
Alawite – Druze – Armenian – Kurdish
Equality in Parliament
“Il-Kull ilo Kursee” (Everyone gets a seat / is represented)

With hindsight, the assessment of the situation sounds over-confident:

Thus far a truce has proven elusive
But martyrs are tightening the noose
On corruption – Bribery – Nepotism
Tribal Disputes

The “doctor” – a reference to Baschar al-Assad, who, in 1988, graduated from medical school – seemed to have run out of ideas:

Look who’s got you shook
Doctor don’t know how to act now…

The song ends abruptly leading over to a protest chant that has turned into the unofficial anthem of the Syrian revolution:

Verse 3
The immortalized words of Ibrahim Qashoush – Rest in Power / Peace khayyo . . .

“It’s time to leave, Bashar. Freedom is near“: When Syrian musician Ibrahim Qashoush began singing his protest song calling on Bashar al-Assad to leave the country he could not have realized it would cost him his life. Qashoush made himself a target for the Syrian security forces who, las ocal dissidents have confirmed, silenced him forever. (Alistair Good). Syrian authorities reportedly killed the singer, Ibrahim Qashoush, shortly after he performed his song.

The video of Offendum’s „#Syria” was produced by Sami Matar.

“I had to hold my tongue for a long time,“ Offendum said of his song „#Syria.“ The underground track still could have had devastating implications for family members still in Syria. As an American in L.A., Offendum could rhyme with relative safety. He was not fighting in the revolution, but he felt he must use his music to help explain what’s happening — both to America, and to himself. (Brown)

Later, in 2016, Offendum made “The War Around Us” to raise funds for humanitarian assistance for people in Syria. (Video)

“Crying Shame“
Crying Shame“ is a reflection of “where we are“ at four years after the conflict in Syria began. It’s a staged conversation between a Syrian who tries to share his thoughts on “where we are“ at four years after the conflict in Syria began. The opening lines address a commonly heard opinion:

Now they say Syria’s confusing
Can’t decide which of the sides
They really should be choosing

The speaker expresses concern over the half truths disseminated in the news while “kids are stabbed to death and mothers smothered on a kitchen floor“.

Unified by our ability to seek the wrong advisers
Money hungry evildoers, power hungry presidents
Using hunger as a weapon to destroy the residents
Patronizing marathons of half truth on the news

The hook (variation):

A crying shame
A crying shame the way the boy was cryin‘ wolf
And they believed him
Using War on Terror rhetoric while murderin‘ the peaceful
Crying shame, say it with me, crying shame

Eradicatin‘ populations while the world was sleepin‘

Facts and figures concerning the ongoing tragedy in Syria are mentioned:

Four years in
Four million refugees
Two hundred and twenty thousand people killed
Over a million wounded
And over twelve million men, women, and children inside Syria
In dire need of help

The lyrics end with a plea for financial support, this in view of the fact that for most Syrians there is no choice lfet:

Please, give, and give generously
And think about the people of Syria
It’s the place where the very first alphabet was recorded
The very first musical notation
Some of the first mosques, churches, and synagogues in this world
Syrian history is world history

In 2012 Offendum played 10 different charity events for Syria in the U.S. and Europe that raised several hundred thousand dollars of aid money for those who suffered as a result of the ongoing uprisings in his parents’ homeland. (Anderson)

Hiphop for Hope

Many critics of mainstream hip-hop have mourned the loss of the genre’s revolutionary messages, its socially conscious themes that had inspired some of early hip-hop’s greatest artists. Yet, as Hannah Fishbein noted, social justice driven rhymes have not disappeared entirely thanks to artists like Omar Offendum. (Fishbein) The urgency of Offendum’s older tracks about stereotyping and Western ignorance of the Islamic world suddenly paled against the threat of his family being killed and his ancestral country spiraling into civil war. (Brown)

Apathy toward Syria is not an option for him:

“Apathy is not an option,“ he said. „I think we have privilege here and I try and recognize that as a sense of responsibility. My focus is just to remind people that beneath all the political posturing and all the conspiracy theories and all the proxy wars that are taking place, there’s very real human suffering.“ (Steven Davy)

In the spring of 2016, when the Syrian war entered its sixth year, Offendum published “The War Around Us“, “the story of one Syrian-American HipHop artist’s struggle to shed light on his homeland.“ On his Facebook page Offendum noted:

I humbly share this video knowing I’m a privileged ‪#‎Syrian‬ living on dry land with a roof over my head. I wake up feeling thankful & guilty about that fact every day.
Everything I do is dedicated to the beautiful people praying & pushing for ‪#‎freedom‬ in ‪#‎Syria‬ – the peaceful protestors, white helmets, relief orgs, citizen journalists, human rights advocates, photographers, filmmakers, activists, students, professors, family members, friends, etc. They are the real heroes. (Offendum on Facebook)

He does not particularly like the label “Arab (American) Hip Hop“. Hip-hop, Offendum said, 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.

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. (Pyper)

Good poetry is always a reflection on humanity:

Yes, I’m a rapper, a poet and an activist, but more importantly, I’m a human being who believes in equality and justice for all, and that’s what I hope to share in my music.” (Fishbein) “I found that hip-hop had the unique ability to speak to the marginalised voices in society,“ he told ABC’s The World program.

Asked whether he would you call himself a “socially conscious” rapper Offendum answered:

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). (Pyper)

With regard to the impact of his work he said:

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. (Pyper)

Acknowledgements

Allers, Jackson. “Expanding the Dialog: Omar Offendum’s Debut Album ‘SyrianamericanA’“. Beats and Breath (Jan 22, 2010).

Andersen, Janne Louise. “Omar Offendum Drives Support for Syria.“ Rolling Stone (July-August 2012).

Anderson, Janne Louise. “Arab hip-hop and rap artists get inspired by recent events.“ The National ( November 28, 2011).

Aquila Style. “MOCAfest 2015: Omar Offendum preaches love and justice with hip-hop“ Aquila Style (Sept 17, 2015.

Brown, August. “Omar Offendum’s War of Words“. Los Angeles Times (Oct. 25, 2012).

Currier, Cora. “Poetry is the Backbone of the Arab Language: Conversation with Offendum“. The European (21.11.2011).

Davy, Steven. „For hip-hop artist Omar Offendum, apathy toward Syria is not an option“ PRI (May 04, 2015).

Fishbein, Hannah. “Syrian-American Rapper shares His Story.” The Occidental Weekly (April 19, 2016).

Kolhatkar, Sonali. “A Poet Captures the Devastation of the Syrian War. Truthdig (Oct 8, 2015.

Manar. “Omar Offendum: SyrianamericanA“. East Dynasty (July 11, 2011).

Offendum, Omar. “Hiphop and Peace“. Nobel Peace Prize Forum.

Pyper, Julia. “#Jan25: A Soundtrack of the Revolution.“ Art Threat (August 15, 2011).

Raphiann, Dilan. „The Narcicyst and Omar Offendum: Our internationality is our nationality.“ Your Middle East (April 30, 2013).

Rabie, Dalia. “A journey through Syrianamericana with Omar Offendum“. Daily News (October 21, 2010).

The World. “Hip-hop artist Omar Offendum uses music to bridge Syrian-American divide.“ ABC Net (Updated 29 Oct 2015).


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