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The Potent Poetry of Omar Offendum

noe tanigawa
noe tanigawa

Syrian American hip hop artist, Omar Offendum, was ready when the World Trade Center attacks thrust him into the spotlight.  In the years since, he’s used his platform to build links between the U.S. and especially, the Syrian culture in which he was raised.  Offendum is in Honolulu now, for a residency at Doris Duke’s Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports Offendum employs the raw honesty characteristic of hip hop to explore tough issues on a human level.

Find upcoming public events with Omar Offendum.

Ridwan Adhami
Credit Ridwan Adhami
Omar Offendum's first solo album, SyrianamericanA was released in 2011.

Omar Offendum performing for a">Nobel Committee

This video, #Jan25 by Omar Offendum, The Narcicyst, Freeway, Ayah, and Amir Sulaiman went viral at the start of the Arab Spring in 2011,

Destiny from Offendum's SyrianAmericanA debut album  2010

Omar Offendum—not his real name—is Syrian American, speaks fluent Arabic, and was brought up in Washington, DC.  Growing up, his mother conveyed the life she left in Damascus in the '70's, it was easy, shaded.

“Even that life that my mom knew so well, was kind of changing, so now you can imagine how much more it can mean, these poetic time capsules that I feel so glad to have instilled in me at that age.  It’s a strange thing to be nostalgic about something you actually never lived in or through but it meant so much to my mom that it became nostalgic for me.”

Offendum’s mother raised him with the indispensable poets of her home land, Nizar Qabbani, Kahlil Gibran, and others. 

“Certainly for the Arabic language, (poetry) is the backbone of the language.  It was an oral culture for so long, and so many of the traditions and the customs, especially Bedouin life, is preserved in that poetry.  The power of spoken word is most ultimately manifested in the Koran and the way that Muslims associate with the Koran focusing on the script and on the word and the layers of meaning that exist within even a simple turn of phrase.”

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Omar Offendum says, early on, he recognized the stereotypes associated with hip hop artists and Arab men. He's been working his way through and around those stereotypes with his art.

“I feel like I’m sort of a bridge between these two generations.  In the sense that I understand where my mother was coming from and why she had this deep love and value for this tradition but at the same time I see a lot of younger people growing up now who don’t have any sort of connection, don’t know who Nizar Qabbani is, don’t know any of these things.  So it’s like a way to kind of pass that on, I hope. That’s why the translation thing was so important for me. “

Offendum has incorporated translations of Arabic poets into his performances, then, seeing hip hop gain traction in the Middle East, he’s translated American poets like Langston Hughes into Arabic,tracing hip hop’s history through African American wordsmiths.  Just hearing Arabic in Offendum’s performances   is mind opening.

“One guy once was like, ‘What was that one, about Damascus, I want to go there someday.  I read about it in the Bible!’  I was like, it’s changed a lot since then, you might not recognize it, but go visit, definitely, maybe not now…”

Given Offendum’s comfortable life in, he feels a responsibility to use his visibility through hip hop to work an Arabic plumb line across cultures.

“I’m this fortunate privileged Syrian man living in Los Angeles living in the comfort of my home in L.A. I can make a song and talk about this really deep intense political turmoil.  So with it, comes this feeling of responsibility and that’s why I try my best to use it as a rallying point to try and bring people together and have a healthy conversation about it.” 

“It’s always that constant quest for home.  What is home?  What does it mean to somebody who has a homeland he never lived in or has a home in a country that is currently in the throes of an election with a candidate who would hate to see me be comfortable with calling it home.  That sort of thing, you know?  It’s a crazy time, so I’m blessed to have this opportunity.”

Offendum is Muslim, his family is Muslim, and he grew up observing Ramadan.  Now he is married to a Jewish/African American woman.  

“I’m a father first, that’s probably my main identity right now.  And I just want my little guy to be able to feel a part of all of it.  And in his case, that also includes the Jewish American experience, the African American experience, quite a lot in there for him to take in and make sense of.  I look forward to seeing him do that.  Inshallah.  God willing.”

Omar Offendum reads Kahlil Gibran's, “To Young Americans of Syrian Origin.” It is a sharing of aspiration that echoes the dreams of so many immigrants to the United States. Written decades ago, it recalls the hopes of Hawai'i's plantation migrants, too. Listen, and remember Hawai'i Governor David Ige's welcome to Syrian refugees.
Omar Offendum reads “On this Land” by Mahmoud Darwish, in Arabic and English. London, 12-11-11.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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