Omar Offendum on "#SYRIA": "It isn't just the music; it's really the message the government is afraid of"

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Syrian American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum performs at a concert venue in Beirut, Lebanon.
The music video to the song #SYRIA opens up with 400,000 demonstrators flooding the streets in the largest-ever protest against Syrian ruler Bashar Al-Assad in early July, 2011, just a few months after the revolution's outbreak. The masses chant, "al-shaab yureed isqat al-nitham," which translates to "the people want the regime to collapse." That slogan, coined in Tunisia, now echoes in protests across the rest of the Arab world, such as Syria. The chant turns into the chorus of the song, and the artist, Omar Offendum raps the beginning lines, "Let's keep hope alive/Stand in solidarity with all of your fellow citizens/Peacefully protesting for an end to all the militance." 

Offendum, born to Syrian parents and raised in Washington D.C., started his musical career as half of a hip-hop duo. He later went solo, and recently released his first album titled Syrian-AmericanA with tracks in Arabic and English. Offendum uses his music and spoken word as a medium to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding between West and East. At the start of the Arab Spring, Offendum collaborated with other Arab and African-American artists on "#Jan25"--a song inspired by the Egyptian revolution that went viral on the internet shortly after its release. In his latest track, titled "#SYRIA," he raps about a less romantic uprising in his native Syria - where the country has been mired in a bloody, brutal, year-and-some-weeks-long uprising.

OC Weekly: What inspired you to write the song? And what were the challenges in doing so?   

Omar Offendum:
I'm a human being and speaking out against injustice is important, as well as using my music to shed light on situations where real human suffering needs to be addressed. That's the niyyah ("intention" in Arabic) behind it. Secondly, I am Syrian, and I have immediate family who've been living there for decades. So it's a very direct connection that I have to the country; their safety and things they do on a daily basis is of deep concern to me. My father is from Hama, and in 1982, that city suffered a horrific massacre at the hands of the father of this dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Our generation had to swallow the havoc it wreaked on us for so long - the fear and paranoia of speaking out against the regime. But now, the fear barrier is broken in Syria, and if they can speak out and protest over there and they're in the midst of the violence, then I have to do something as well. I felt a responsibility to do something. 

So when did you decide to release "#Syria," and what prompted that decision?

I wrote and recorded this song last summer. My producer and I recorded it on the bloodiest day in Hama since 1982 where a couple hundred people were killed in one day, so it really lit up a lot of emotions and brought back all these tragedies. It would, however, have been irresponsible and reckless to release it then because that could've put my immediate family in danger, so it took me a very long time before I felt comfortable doing that. We ended up waiting until the one-year anniversary [of the revolution] before releasing it. I noticed after a year that people - those in the diaspora at least - were started to get revolution fatigue. You can imagine what the emotional fluctuation in Syria was like with hundreds being tortured and turning into refugees. It really takes its toll. I felt like this song could re-inspire and re-energize the people who watched it. And while I appreciate the attention I've received after releasing it, it means more to me when my own family members, who've had to flee from Syria, have seen it and they tell me that the song is positive and they appreciate it and my work isn't in vain. Getting their support and blessings meant the world to me. 

So why rap? Does that form of music resonate more with the populace?

I really don't think hip-hop is as big in Syria as it is in other Middle Eastern countries. The music of the revolution in Syria is very much the music of the people - the nighttime chanting. Syria has had a long history of chanting, freestyling lyrics, poetry and a strong admiration for percussive beats. When the revolution began, that evolved into revolutionary chants. As for hip-hop and rap elsewhere, young rappers in the Arab world were some of the first people to address corruption, nepotism and challenge the status quo. They recognized that the marginalized voices of African Americans in New York birthed rap and hip hop, and they connected with those origins. Given that context, they were better able to take the reins during these revolutions and perform songs that move protests forward.

You often mix Arabic and English in your music. What's the reason for that?

Art, at its best, is a reflection of the community that it comes from. To that end, it's an honest reflection of the lifestyle I've lived. I was born in Saudi Arabia, raised in the United States and studied at an Arabic school. My album is 30 percent Arabic, and that's a reflection of my daily life; I speak in Arabic 30 percent of the time during the day, with my family and my friends. My other reasons for using it in my music are that it helps demystify the language for a public who most likely generally hears Arabic coming out of the mouth of an angry Arab on television. I wanted to get people used to hearing Arabic in a more positive way.

What are some protest songs from the Arab Spring or other movements that have inspired you, if any?

Obviously the main one was "Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar" (Come On, Leave Bashar) [by Ibrahim Qashoush] not just because of the words and how many shivers they sent down my spine, but because he was saying things people had been afraid to say for decades. Shortly after he sang that song, he was found dead with a gashed throat and his vocal cords ripped out, and he was found floating in the Orontes River, which ironically translates into "the disobedient" river. He was just a fireman and he found himself in this position to lead thousands of people in chants every night. The government felt threatened by that, and they killed him. It just shows you that it isn't just music; it's really the message they're afraid of.

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