Interview: Omar Offendum, Bilingual MC/Producer
By Siddiq Ather
Omar Chakaki, better known by the name Omar Offendum, is Syrian American emcee and producer who was born in Saudi Arabia but was raised in the United States. He raps in both English and Arabic comfortably about a vast range of issues and ideas. He has been featured on BBC, ABC news, Aljazeera, and other news sources. His most recent album is titled SyrianamericanA. He has performed around the world with a variety of famous artists. Occasionally, he starts his performances with an Arabic rendition of a work by the poet Langston Hughes
1. Do Hip Hop and Islam fit well with each other, or is there a clash?
I never saw a clash between the two. In Islam innamal aâ€™amaalu biniyaat, actions are based on intentions. So if you have good intentions to affect positive change through Hip Hop, another art form, or whatever, then, I believe inshaâ€™allah, it is compatible. If you have intentions of spread negativity, promiscuity, or misogyny etc, then, obviously, that is not compatible.
I understand there is a scholarly debate as far as music in Islam. I tend to fall in line with those do not believe it is haraam, citing the importance of intentions. If it doesnâ€™t distract you from the demands of the Muslim faith, like praying, then, there isnâ€™t anything wrong with it, especially if it is positive. I understand that it does distract a lot of people, and Hip Hop in particular can be a tool to spread negativity. But itâ€™s a tool like anything else, so itâ€™s how you use it.
I know a lot of spoken word artists, and I donâ€™t see how you could ever say something like that is haraam. At times I perform without music. I have been at events were people are uncomfortable with music, so I performed without it. Iâ€™m sensitive to that. I take time with my lyrics and make sure it is something I can do with or without music. Thatâ€™s where I kind of stand on it.
Some people may say kaafir, haraam, judge, and use apocalyptic language after they hear a Muslim performing with music, but I question the intentions of those people. In the end of the day, there are haters out there and haters gonâ€™ hate. I do this with positive intentions Inshaâ€™Allah.
2. There are a lot of Muslim performers: emcees, poets, rappers, singers, b-girls, beat boxers, and others. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? As far as Muslim culture, and Arab culture, goes, there is a hesitation and apprehension surrounding even the idea of Muslim females on stage.
Well, I think it is a beautiful thing, and I encourage it, especially if theyâ€™re doing it positively. I welcome it, I embrace it, and I hope to see more of it because theyâ€™re inspiring to other women who think there is something wrong with that, when I, personally, donâ€™t think there is. Many good friends of mine are Muslim female Emcees. The best example that comes to mind is Poetic Pilgrimage: two very confident sisters from the UK of African-Caribbean decent. They wear hijab and practice Islam to the best of their ability, and you can see it reflected in their lyrics. I think what theyâ€™re doing is very positive, and I encourage it.
As far as Arab culture, Shaadia Mansour, she is not Muslim; sheâ€™s Arab, but faces similar sentiment. Our community looks down on woman who are on stage, performing. In my opinion her heart is in the right place and has the best intentions. I think, especially with her, as far as the Palestinian cause is concerned, sheâ€™s such an important voice to put out there; itâ€™s a different faith for the world to see, that itâ€™s not just a bunch of angry men that are rapping about something. It really changes the dynamic.
3. A lot of your lyrics carry a heavy weight, since they have some political or historical background. Do you think music and lyrics have to have something behind them, some motive, or can it just be open expression?
I think it has to be honest self expression at the end of the day. In hip-hop we have the saying â€œkeepinâ€™ it real.â€ If youâ€™re not â€œkeepinâ€™ it realâ€; If youâ€™re not being true to yourself, true to your history, true to your background, then, I, personally, am not that into it. But, that doesnâ€™t mean it has to be political, it can be anything. If youâ€™re skillful with your art, I have to respect that. I donâ€™t go out of my way to be political. We live in a politicized world. Being a young Arab American Muslim, it happens to affect me deeply, and so I speak about it. I also used to translate Arabic poetry to English and English poetry to Arabic. That is a more relevant to my experience.
4. How much of a difference can hip hop make without actual political change, or do you think this is the medium through which political change can occur?
I think it is a tool. It can spark dialogue, debate and awareness about issues in communities where there is none: locally, nationally, and internationally. When an artist is as successful as Lupe Fiasco (Wasalu Muhammad Jaco) says what he said about Gaza getting bombed in a particular song, it is a really really big deal. That album sold hundreds of thousands in the first week. It is extremely important. However, it is not going to stop the bombing in Gaza. No, itâ€™s not going to fix the issue. In my case, I see the medium as the message. People see a young Muslim American Arab rapping on stage, comfortable in both languages. Thereâ€™s a lot behind that, that I donâ€™tâ€™ even need to say. They can infer from it.
5. There are a variety of sheikhs out there, maybe youâ€™ve heard names like Suhaib Webb and Hamza Yusuf. There are also many books, so are there any inspirational books youâ€™ve read or scholars you really look up to?
I have actually met Sheikh Suhaib several times. Heâ€™s a great inspiration, mashaâ€™allah. I grew into my Muslim American Identity. I went to an Islamic School growing up, it was a Saudi Islamic School based in Alexandria, Virginia, mostly set up for students with family back in the Middle East who worked in the embassy. We had the Saudi Arabian curriculum coupled with the local county curriculum. It essentially for people intending to move back to the Middle East, and so they didnâ€™t really establish the Muslim-American identity, and that was something that took me years to understand and really, kind of, be at peace with.
Hearing people like Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, Suhaib Webb, and Zaid Shakir speak are very inspirational to me. Sheikh Yassir Fazaga is also from southern California. I really, really, really enjoy his khutbahs. Some of the most inspirational one I have ever heard were from him. But Islam aside, reading books by authors like Edward Said, and novels by men like Amin Maalouf have greatly influenced me. Also included are emcees and reggae singers of all sorts. A number of old Arabic singers and poets: Khalil jibran, and darwish. All of this influences me, and I think you can see it in my music because I try to make it an honest reflection of me.