JEDDAH: Meet Omar Offendum, the rapper, poet and modern-day activist using his voice as his shield and armor. The Syrian-American father, husband and hip-hop enthusiast was born in Saudi Arabia, but raised in Washington, DC. Offendum uses his talent to bridge the gap between his Syrian roots and his Western upbringing. He uses music to shine a spotlight on political issues stemming from the Arab Spring and even deals with current-day political matters of concern.
Known for his unique blend of hip-hop and Arabic poetry, hearing Offendum’s music makes for a nostalgic listening experience. He has powerful words of love for a country going through a struggle that will go down in history as a period of tragedy.
Speaking to Arab News, Offendum shed light on his music.
“Politics is always a topic of discussion, for better or worse. From that perspective, it’s something quite Arab. To discuss it in a public forum though, that’s relatively new. With the boom of the Internet, it became relevant. As someone who grew up in the US, (I am) used to the ‘freedom of speech’ expression — it’s very common… Talking about issues that matter to the community is very prevalent in the hip-hop artists I grew up listening to,” he said.
His lyrics tell of a rich culture that is often misunderstood by many. Some of his songs are a blend of translated Arabic poetry by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, mixed with Offendum’s original lyrics. This blend is a good example of how he uses his platform to build links between two cultures and to bring forth a generation that is well-educated in matters of their community.
In addition to hip-hop, Omar grew up appreciating Arab poets and writers, such as Qabbani and Edward Said. He found a parallel between Arabic poetry and hip-hop music and saw an opportunity to create something fresh, different and in-demand.
Despite not growing up in Syria, Offendum was able to gain insight into the country from his parents. His father, an engineer from Hama, and his mother, a lover of the arts from Damascus, imbued him with a deep sense of understanding of the history and current political climate of his homeland.
Relaying that deep sense of pride in where his people come from and the history and traditions they carry with them, his latest EP, “Eye Know Faces,” empowers listeners and spreads a positive perception of Middle Eastern language and cultures. His music comments on current issues, including social media, the Syrian war, love, unity, US politics and more.
There was a noticeable shift in his latest EP — he sought a subtler tone from his previous album “SyrianamaricanA,” which was released in 2011. The lyrics were fiercer, louder and resonated with the anger many felt at the beginning of the Arab Spring.
He has come to be known as a politically-conscious artist due, in part, to haunting lyrics such as: “Can I get a piece of my motherland? Or just peace in my motherland?”
His work has since evolved and his next chapter is more about preserving stories and traditions for his son, Jibran, aptly named after the late Lebanese writer and poet Khalil Gibran.
“This chapter of my life is more personal to me than ever before because, quite literally, our history is being erased and bombed away. There’s an extra sense of responsibility now and the passion stems from the sense of loss of such beauty that is the Syrian culture,” he said.
“I’m a product of this generation that is able to use the Internet and develop our own subcultures easily. I’ve never sent a demo to a record label and I don’t consider myself in the industry. What I am is an artist who is very keen on developing a community of like-minded people who appreciate my perspectives, using social media and the Internet. I don’t necessarily have millions of fans in LA, but I do have thousands of them around the world that I can reach online.”
There is more to the artist than just hip-hop, however. He hosts humanitarian relief events, helps to curate museum exhibitions and has participated in artist residencies in various cultural spaces around the world, including Doris Duke’s Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures in Hawaii.
Last month, he worked with Sofar Sounds, in collaboration with Amnesty International on a worldwide concert series. A staggering 300 gigs in more than 60 countries were held on one day to show solidarity with refugees and highlight the importance of providing homes to all.
Offendum’s poetry can also be heard at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, where it is played on a loop in an exhibition of the “Damascus room,” a never-before shown 18th century room from a home in Damascus on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
An architect by degree, an educator by experience and a singer by passion, Offendum’s music is definitely worth a listen.