Hip-Hop-Academia: Omar Offendum and Arab Diaspora Rap
By Torie Rose DeGhettSeptember 16, 2012
Artwork (detail) from ARAB SUMMIT’s Fear Of An Arab Plane
CRITICS DECRY MAINSTREAM HIP-HOP for leaving behind its innovative and revolutionary origins, writing eulogies for the era of Public Enemy and the spirit of Bob Marley. The slick and sanitized Top 40 sounds of the mainstream do lack the aesthetically radical vibe and socially conscious rhythms that made up the vertebrae of some of earlier hip-hop's rhyme and reason, but the importance of hip-hop as a cultural haven for resisting and reclaiming power — whether with energy-releasing rhythm and loop or even politically-charged protest rhyme — has not dissipated entirely. Hip-hop remains the home of underdogs-turned-lyrical-pugilists, people who have found the beauty and power of the musical message and have turned cultural alienation into artistic purpose. There are a number of artists who do so, but over the past decade there has been a particularly notable Arab gravitation toward hip-hop culture, which a new generation is using to challenge the post-9/11 construction of the Arab-as-enemy, the Arab as alternately Aladdin and Bin Laden. The hyphenated identity of the East-in-the-West Arab experience is the platform for a relatively under-acknowledged and highly talented group of hip-hop performers and academics.
Omar Offendum, an L.A.-based rapper whose verses work to convey the complexity of Arab-American identity, done with a scholarly eye, is a notable contributor to the expanding genre. A fellow artist, the Montréal-based Iraqi-Canadian who raps as The Narcicyst (real name: Yassin Alsalman) also has an approach to hip-hop that mixes with his academic pursuits. He and the Syrian-American Offendum (real name Omar Chakaki) have done extensive collaboration exploring the roots, contradictions and challenges of Arab diaspora culture and of the hip-hop community, along with a handful of Arab expat and diaspora artists like Excentrik and Ragtop. These artists, through their academic/hip-hop hybrid work, discuss the great East-West divide and Arab identity in the post-9/11 world. They rap about stereotyping and Orientalism and harassment by the TSA and the turbulent history of hip-hop as an aggressive outlet for talking back to injustice.
The mixture of scholarly thought and hip-hop styles may sound like more of a collision than a blend, but the links between the two are very real. Hip-hop and academia are both deeply concerned with the generational battle, with the back-and-forth between the old guard and the avant-garde. Academia speaks to a community using its own specific vocabulary and voice, developing its own jargon, as does hip-hop, and both love the reflexivity of discussing their own discussions. Both cultures piece together their own original efforts with visible and audible inspiration from their predecessors and contemporaries. Academics quote. Rappers sample. Both collaborate.
Hip-hop intellectualism is nothing new. It has been growing as an academic field in recent years, with people like Jeff Chang and Tricia Rose, Todd Boyd, Michael Eric Dyson and Bakari Kitwana forwarding the journalistic and intellectual examination of hip-hop. Several universities, from NYU to UCLA, have hosted conferences and hip-hop summits or set up special research collections. Just recently, Cornell University announced that DJ Afrika Bambaataa, one of hip-hop’s early pioneers, has been hired as a visiting scholar.
Hip-hop that is political and intellectual is not thereby stripped of its bravado; it doesn’t forego the outsized characters or thumping beats that marked its early Bronx dance party origins, or the modern catchy pop incarnations currently packaged for mass consumption. It is so-called "edutainment," music that uses soul and vibe to make rhythm convey knowledge and understanding. The Narcicyst teamed up to teach a course in hip-hop culture at Montréal's Concordia University with fellow Concordia grad Marc Peters and Offendum united with Ragtop and Mexican-American poet Marc Gonzalez for The Human Writes Project to take their performance lecture "Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets" on the road, lecturing about hip-hop and the experience of the Other in the US.
These rappers elaborate and chronicle their experiences and understandings, the complex creation of their identities as Syrians and Iraqis and Palestinians in the East, with the depth and complexity of an academic paper, their wordplay referencing thinkers like Edward Said and Marshall McLuhan. They are also inspired by the greats of hip-hop (the Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac, and Public Enemy) and the giants of poetry (Langston Hughes, Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani and Khalil Gibran), combining a Langston Hughes' poem ("My soul has grown deep like the rivers..."), audio clips of chanting crowds calling for Bashar Al-Assad's fall in the Syrian city of Hama, and a re-interpretation of the Brand Nubian's "Allah and Justice," while code-switching from the English to flashes of Arabic. Everything is fair game for sampling, musical or not: a Chris Matthews interview with conservative talk show host Heidi Harris in 2006, J.F.K.'s 1963 commencement address to American University ("What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war."), music from the murdered Syrian singer Ibrahim Qashoush, and a speech by Sean Connery from his 1976 movie The Arab Conspiracy.
Both Offendum and The Narcicyst have solo works, but collaborations with one another and other members of the Arab and Arab diaspora rap community are quite common. When the two perform together, on songs like "The Last Arabs" from The Narcicyst's eponymous album, they are Hobson-Jobson, a name taken from a crude Anglicization of the Shi'a Muslim cry for the procession of Muharram, "Ya Hassan, ya Hussein," and noted as the peculiar title for a Victorian glossary of Indian phrases. It's a name choice that resonates with the linguistic vulgarities of colonialism, a mocking and witty appropriation of an old injustice that ties itself to the ancient experiences of the Muslim and Arab world. Omar Offendum's stage name sounds to the English ear like some contraction of "offend them!" but in the Middle East it sounds like effendi, a title of respect. In an interview with Pulp, Offendum said: "By flipping it like that, having something mean something so respectful on one side of the world and so seemingly disrespectful on the other side of the world. I thought that kind of embodied the representation of my people that I try to battle through my lyricism.”
Offendum's earliest record is as one half of the hip-hop duo The N.O.M.A.D.S. (Notoriously Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Shit), titled "Dissonance + Dissendat" (the other half of the duo was DC-based Sudanese rapper Mr. Tibbz). This 2004 effort is much more youthful than more recent work (like the phenomenal SyrianamericanA album from 2011), yet plays to the same themes of thoughtful, if aggressive, discussions of post-9/11 Arab-American life and racial identity through rap. (Mr. Tibbz raps: "I'm not just an Arab / I'm an African, too / Which means I'm the first to be searched by the black and the blue.")
More recent collaboration efforts include The Arab Summit, which included both Offendum and The Narcicyst as well the American-raised Palestinian rapper and former journalist Ragtop (Nizar Wattad) of the hip-hop collective known as The Philistines and Palestinian-American MC and jazz performer Excentrik (Tarik Kazaleh). The Arab Summit's album, Fear of An Arab Planet, served as a portion of Alsalman's master's thesis work for Concordia University. The other part of his thesis work was adapted and published in short book form with the title The Diatribes of a Dying Tribe. The book featured contributions by Omar Offendum, Ragtop and Excentrik and documents and examines the Arab diaspora community within hip-hop culture. The very title of that work is an apt encapsulation of what people like The Narcicyst and Offendum are doing with their work: using the poetics of rap music and the researched cerebral efforts of academic dissertation to publicly and musically examine, with maximum wit and wordplay, their own sense of place within the Arab diaspora.
In a recent interview with MTV, The Narcicyst called hip-hop "the first voice of dissent I started hearing through my teens." The Narcicyst is prolific, with several albums, including an eponymous one and a live one, an instrumental collaboration titled Warchestra, a three volume set titled Between Iraq and a Hard Place, and an album called Mr. Asthmatic. His signature is the angry wit he brings to rolling lyrics of wordplay. Lots of his titles (The Diatribes of a Dying Tribe, Warchestra) demonstrate this, as do his lyrics: "I’m a paranoid Arab Boy, Barstuffer Java Soy, Starfucker Bomb Kabul / Sidaras on Jamal Abdul, Armored Troops / Forgot that our Islam is truth and aim quick / Delivering bombs, Same Shit, Different Saddam." The potent message is delivered in searing burst of wit and anger. The sizzle on impact is practically audible as he rolls into the next line.
In SyrianamericanA, a collection of music of great lyrical potency and undeniable musical hooks, Offendum centers his lyrics on his identity caught between Syria and America: "it's hard livin' in the West when I know the East got the best of me/could be lookin' in my eyes, but you'll never really see the rest of me/ can you hear me masiri?* bilingual's what I'm blessed to be." The connection and disconnection between the diaspora community and their homelands is another persistent theme and motivation for intellectual exploration through music and writing. In his acclaimed Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, slain Lebanese-American journalist Anthony Shadid wrote:
I always feel more Arab in America, more an American in the Arab world. The hyphenated complexities of being Lebanese-American or Arab-American create a confusing feeling of being in between, a self-conscious awareness complicated further by our troubled times. I find it almost impossible to bring coherence to the contradictions of my own heritage.
The Narcicyst and Offendum attempt to bring that coherence to, or perhaps embrace the chaos of, that hyphenated ethos. According to The Narcicyst, who describes in his book the process of collaborating with the three other MCs on the album portion of his master's thesis, the group's identity "lingers somewhere between the two worlds that made us as the hyphen that binds them together; that hyphen is Hip-Hop."
The focus on their identity as cultural, political, and actual targets is reminiscent of the rap music associated with urban African-American experiences just before and in the few years after the L.A. riots. In a recent article for this book review, Jeff Chang wrote about the sentiments and manifestos of riot era rap music, concerned with the racism of the system and introducing a new definition for the concept of 'profiling.'
By 1989, N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police" essayed a new definition of "profiling," one associated with force, authority, the pathologies of the powerful. That shotgun blast of a song captured all manner of shifts that had taken place: from East Coast to West, revelry to rage, abandonment to containment.
Racial profiling in the years following 9/11 has demonized Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern peoples, armed with fearmongering over monster words like jihad and shariah. (It also, of course, has expanded to include the racially charged sentiments regarding Hispanic identity and immigration.) In 1989 the police represented the primary focal point of anger and the instrument of racial oppression. While the police remain problematic today (as made evident by the Associated Press's Pulitzer-winning reporting on NYPD surveillance of Muslims in New York City), the concentration of the Arab diaspora anger is on the TSA agent. These are the faces of the homeland security policies that humiliate and stereotype Arabs and Muslims here in the West, the new faces of racial profiling. Songs like The Narcicyst's "P.H.A.T.W.A. (Alphabet Boys)" elaborate on the identity of an Arab man in airport: "I’m sorted out from beardless cats that boarded the plane as I was boarding."
In 2011, Arab diaspora hip-hop built off the roiling politics of the Middle East. The revolutions and activism across the Middle East and North Africa that began (or, rather, kicked into full force) in late 2010 with Tunisia, felling dictators in some countries and starting wars in others, had profound impact on the sense of purpose among many musicians in the region. Music, particularly hip-hop, a relatively young but growing presence in Middle Eastern and North African music, has a big place in these revolutions as a component of the angry youth voice, the voice against oppression and unemployment, the voice from under the boot. Some songs, like Tunisian revolutionary celebrity El Général's "Rais Lebled," railed against the rule of tyrants, while others, like those from Egypt's Arabian Knightz and MC Deeb or Libya's Ibn Thabit, paid tribute to martyrs, plead for a uniting of disparate groups against dictatorship and calling the youth to arms. Moroccan-American rapper El-Haqed ("The Indignant") was recently sentenced to a year in Oukacha prison in Casablanca for the YouTube video accompanying his song "Kilaab Addawla (Dogs of the State)," which insulted the police and security forces. These artists become well known revolutionary figures both domestically and internationally: El Haqed is likely the most internationally known of the participants in Morocco's pro-reform February 20 movement. Arrests like his drive anger, highlight the fearful and cruel nature of regimes, and serve to spread wider the revolutionary message.
Many artists in the West made songs and albums, like the Peace Revolution 2.0 mixtape, extending their musical support and solidarity for the oppressive experiences of people rising up in Egypt and Tunisia, Syria and Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. As part of the N.O.M.A.D.S., Omar Offendum had already participated in an effort of musical solidarity, working with pioneering hip-hop collective The Philistines and a wide variety of artists, including famed Palestinian group DAM, on the Free-The-P hip-hop and spoken word mixtape in 2005, expressing support for the Palestinian youth (an original focal point for the broader genre of Arab and Arab diaspora rap). In 2011, Omar Offendum and The Narcicyst both pitched in on a solidarity song with the people of Egypt, "#Jan25 Egypt.” The song was a collaborative effort with some great names and voices like Ayah and Freeway and Amir Sulaiman, and gained a considerable popularity. It hipchecks the famous quote from poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, "The revolution will not be televised," with an adaptation for the age of citizen media: "They say the revolution won't be televised/Al Jazeera proved them wrong/ Twitter has him paralyzed," a reference both to the changed age of communication and the Mubarak regime's fears of the power of words. Offendum followed up in 2012 with "#Syria," a song for his shelled and terrorized motherland, with skin-tingling background samples of crowds in Hama chanting the ubiquitous revolutionary slogan "Asha'b yurid isqat in-nizam (The people want the fall of the regime)." The Narcicyst put out his own solo solidarity song this year, a tribute to Egypt's continuing struggle against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, titled "Fly Over Egypt" ("I feel the winds of change, but everything is still the same/ Even though I fear the sun, I can only see the reign..."). Music as solidarity and revolutionary statement is central to the idea of revolting against a dictator: it successfully communicates shared experience under oppressive rule, and is revolutionary in its powerful exercise of freedom of speech and expression.
One of the things that Arab diaspora hip-hop as a canon and a genre lacks is a regional origin. Hip-hop can trace some of its geographic origins to the reggae from Trenchtown, to the streets of Los Angeles, to the poverty-stricken, fire-ravaged South Bronx. The artists in the Arab diaspora genre are scattered from Montréal to Los Angeles to London, with homelands in Iraq, Syria or Palestine. They are united by the not-East-but-never-West sense of lost place. Geographic dislocation is evident in the lyrics of songs like Offendum's "Father's Day," in which he decries the dissecting of the Middle Eastern world by imperialist powers: "They Sykes-Picoted a hole in our brain/wish I could laugh now/ but it isn't funny/ the way they cut up our map/ looking to divvy up money." (Sykes-Picot was a post-WWI agreement between Great Britain and France, which disassembled the former Ottoman Empire and created Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine - all split between British and French control.)
The music by Arab diaspora artists in North America, and also in Europe, where Arab and Muslim identity in rap is fast becoming a locus of racial tensions and contentiousness, speaks to the simultaneous fetishization (as exotic) and revulsion (as the object of Western political fear) of these identities. As musical performance blends with academic work it encapsulates the radical Quaker cliché of speaking truth to power, but from a very specific marginal context. These artists are here to tell us that the hip-hop revolution is back. That it never left.
* Masiri means "my destiny" in Arabic.
Torie Rose DeGhett is a freelance writer and blogger whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Guernica, Jadaliyya and AlterNet. Lots of her recent work has focused on the political role of music in the Middle East and North Africa. A selection of her research and translations of protest songs from the 2011 revolutions in those regions were published in a McSweeney's/Byliner publication titled Now That We Have Tasted Hope. She blogs regularly at The Political Notebook and is a contributor at The Risky Shift.
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