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Omar Offendum's war of words

As the conflict rages in his family's homeland, Syrian American rapper Omar Offendum isn't afraid to give voice to his — and the world's — outrage.

October 25, 2012|By August Brown, Los Angeles Times

"When Jay-Z and Timbaland sampled the Egyptian artist Abdel Halim Hafez for 'Big Pimpin',' even my mom recognized that song," Offendum said. "I knew I wanted to hear someone rapping about my issues, and once I got to college and 9/11 happened, I thought I could be that person."

While attending the University of Virginia to study architecture, he crafted beats and rhymes in his dorm, and after moving to L.A. in 2004, he helped assemble a compilation of hip-hop tracks with peers like the Iraqi Canadian MC the Narcicyst and the American rap-underground figure Immortal Technique to benefit a documentary film on Palestinian hip-hop culture.

Offendum was a natural MC — charismatic and commanding, with authoritative riffs on the Sykes-Picot Agreement (which set many Middle Eastern borders after World War I) spliced with internal rhymes that evoke golden era greats like Black Star and A Tribe Called Quest.

The rapper freelances for an architecture firm alongside his tours, which often eschew the club circuit for college dates paired with guest lectures on Syria and Arab American culture. This month he performed at Soundscape in Anaheim and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His music was featured in a documentary about the Syrian conflict, "The Suffering Grasses," screened at the Arab Film Festival at the Writers Guild Theater.

For Muslim American hip-hop artists like Offendum, the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya brought mixed emotions — joy, hope and nervousness about what comes next — as well as the pressure of being seen as spokespeople for the young Arab world.

"I fear that the, once again, temporary coverage of our musicians during this time of conflict will both pigeonhole the artist, the growing scene and the genre," said the Iraqi Canadian rapper the Narcicyst, who has collaborated with Offendum. "As an Iraqi, it was very discouraging to see how the world forgot about Iraq, like it never happened. Unfortunately, the problem in Syria will not change with a song, or a movement; it is a deep-seeded issue that has proven deeper and more protracted than assumed."

Even in Arabic and Arab American hip-hop circles, Offendum says he's heard pro-Assad rap tracks that belittled the protesters as tools of the West, and some pro-Assad Syrian Americans tried to shut down his recent show in Cleveland (though the set went smoothly in the end). He admits to struggling with how to write about the war — "I've never been comfortable glorifying death and martyrdom," he said.

He knows the revolution is a dominant event in his life, and his new music inevitably will reflect that. Yet Offendum's L.A. life is far away from the street fights of the Free Syrian Army. He last visited Syria in 2010 and almost certainly would be detained if he tried to go back while Assad is in power. Yet media such as Al Jazeera have turned to him, as a Syrian American with a powerful voice on Syrian youth culture, to comment on the revolution.

Over lunch in at a vegan restaurant known for macrobiotic fare and earnest menu item titles like "I Am Present" and "I Am Elated," Offendum admits he can only witness the Syrian civil war via secondhand news. But he's drawing on the revolution to make music reflecting his own vantage point, and sending that sound across America and back to Syria with a message: We hear you.

"There's a tradition of nighttime chants whenever someone came back from the Hajj [a religious pilgrimage to Mecca], where people would praise them with call-and-response and hand drumming," Offendum said. "It's freestyling, and now they're singing about the revolutionaries."

august.brown@latimes.com

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