Hip-Hop, the Middle East and Migration: Lessons from Omar Offendum

Published On January 7, 2016 | By Greg | Australia, News, Syria

DSC05673by Omid Tofighian (for World Hip Hop Market)

Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum recently performed an exclusive concert at University of Sydney as part of a visit that also involved workshops, lectures and interviews. Born in Saudi Arabia to Syrian parents, he was raised in Washington DC and now lives in LA.

Omar is one of the most prominent and respected voices of the transnational hip-hop movement and uses ‘conscious rap’ or ‘political hip-hop’ as a vehicle to inspire young people, challenge authority, expose hypocrisy and injustice, and support positive socio-cultural transformation.

Omar was active in the college hip-hop scene while studying architecture at the University of Virginia. He remembers being an ‘ethnically ambiguous’ rapper until heightened racial and political tensions after 9/11 led to him being labelled the Arab or Muslim rapper.

Raised to appreciate the richness of Arabic poetry and culture, Omar fused a love of hip-hop with his Syrian heritage and concern for the precarious socio-political situation in the Middle East. In an interview with Arab-Australian magazine Sajjeling he describes the intricacies of his multi-layered identity and the significant ways various interests and influences intersect.

For many young Arabs living in different parts of the world hip-hop is a particularly attractive cultural movement. It provides a creative outlet to interpret and express individual cultural heritage, the complexities of faith, Arab history, socio-political grievances and personal emotions.

A diverse and participatory global subculture, hip-hop has unique and vibrant communities across the Arab and Muslim world. It celebrates street culture and youth resistance and appeals to minoritised and stigmatised people, but also attracts criticism from moral and political conservatives who see it as encouraging civil disobedience, gangs and street violence.

Omar analysed these issues with depth and insight during many interviews in both English and Arabic while in Sydney. However, the ugly reality of Islamophobia tarnished his experience. After receiving a bigoted backlash in response to an ABC television interview he reflected in an online post:

“A few nights ago I was featured on a major nightly news program in Australia, discussing a variety of issues including the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, “radicalization” of Muslim youth, hip-hop, and the immigrant experience … While I thought the interview went pretty well, the following morning I woke up to a barrage of mean tweets from Internet trolls directing all sorts of bigotry and racist commentary towards me, and the Muslim/Arab (predominately Lebanese) community of this country/continent. I’ve never had to hit the block button as much as I did that morning but hey, that’s what it’s there for I guess.”

I had the privilege of interviewing Omar as part of the Sydney Ideas event Rhythms, Rebels and Resistance: Omar Offendum on Youth Politics in the Middle East. Interpreted as the ‘CNN of the streets’, Omar explained how hip-hop captures the nuanced experiences and multi-dimensional modes of interpretation expressed by persecuted and excluded individuals and groups. His thoughts and experiences inform a more comprehensive understanding of the creativity, frustrations, hopes and fears of young Arabs living in the MENA region and in diaspora.

Omar’s message is both critical and creative and an important challenge to the narrow and biased coverage perpetuated by much of mainstream media and the sensational rhetoric reiterated by many politicians and social commentators. His lyrics and beats convey both knowledge and the emotions associated with the complex lives and experiences of people affected by war, displacement, discrimination and longing. Peace and aspiration are also significant features of his message as described in his online post:

“In any event, I’m happy to report that while the online hateration was in full effect, most of my personal interactions in Sydney were overwhelmingly positive, and the following night’s experience in particular spoke volumes… “

During a trip from Bankstown to his hotel in Sydney’s CBD Omar insisted that his Lebanese-Australian taxi driver deliver dinner to his family before the long drive into the city. It was during this stop-over that he met family members from three generations and had a warm and welcoming experience that will stay with him forever:

“They began asking me about my life in America and if it was really as racist and Islamophobic as the news made it seem, what my thoughts on the crisis in Syria were, and whether or not I was enjoying my time Down Under. They offered me a glass of fresh orange juice and I watched as several different family members came out to meet me (often with confusion/surprise) while neighborhood kids occasionally walked by in costumes trick-or-treating. Apparently it was a new phenomenon in Australia, but thankfully they had enough grandkids at home that there was always a stash of “lollies” on deck …

… It also reminded me that just prior to our settling down in America back in the 80s, my father had visited Sydney and was seriously considering a move there instead … I then told them we could have been neighbors had things worked out differently.”

Widely admired as a social justice advocate and intellectual, Omar has also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various humanitarian relief organisations, lectured at a number of prestigious academic institutions and contributed to inter-cultural dialogue.

Over the years his recordings and performances have addressed a range of topics including personal experience, the nuances of urban life, resistance, socio-political criticism, justice and injustice. His work is often used as educational and counselling tools, and he has never compromised his humanitarian and explicitly anti-establishment position.

Cultural, religious and political conservatives often fail to engage with the multifaceted and ever-changing ways rappers like Omar express themselves and interpret social issues. There is a particularly poignant form of activism and empowerment associated with hip-hop that engages disenfranchised and marginalised youth and needs to be understood in order to facilitate deeper levels of communicate.

As a truly transnational culture, it has the potential for building inter-communal bridges and can address discrimination and ignorance in compelling ways.

“I’m so blessed to have the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives, share stories of kindness and generosity from around the globe; stories that challenge the misconceptions and media bias that so often plague our global discourse … Stories that will hopefully inspire others to do the same.”

Co-presented with the Department of Arabic Language and Cultures, School of Languages and Cultures, the Religion State & Society Network and the US Studies Centre in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney

Part of the series “A Continuing Spring: Arab and Australian views on social justice, equal economic development and cultures of freedom” supported by the Commonwealth through the Council for Australian – Arab Relations which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Photography by Tango