Rapper Omar Offendum on helping connect Arab youth with their culture

The Syrian-American artist will perform as part of Dubai hip-hop festival Sole DXB

Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum views his career as a bridge connecting a new generation of Arabic youth with their culture. Photo: Laith Majali
Powered by automated translation

Palestinian-American academic Edward Said and Jamaican dancehall singer Buju Banton don't have much in common.

However, both their respective themes of exile and dislocation have inspired Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum. He lists a quote from Said’s Out of Place: A Memoir about his inner turmoil of being away from Palestine and lyrics from Banton's song Til I'm Laid To Rest – related to the Caribbean – for partly shaping his own artistic approach.

Ahead of his performance at Sole DXB on Sunday, Offendum – real name Omar Chakaki – says both have nailed the emotional toll of the migrant experience.

"It is something I can relate to, in that it is a thing I am identified with no matter where I go in the US, and that is I may not be American enough for some people," he tells The National.

"But at the same time, it is something I have also grown to love. I feel blessed to have this multiple cultural experience. It made me not live like a horse with blinders on and understand the world is a bigger place and being able to take in different influences and cultures."

A cultural bridge

The qualities define two of Offendum’s latest projects, the stage show Little Syria and 2020 album Lost in Translation.

The former is an ongoing concert with occasional shows taking place in the US – where Offendum blends hip-hop performance, classical Arabic music and the hakawati Arabic storytelling tradition – as he reimagines lives of Arab Americans in New York City in the early 20th century. It is also a period when the city was home to artists including revered Lebanese-American writers Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani.

Offendum has said that he's had meetings with UAE cultural institutions interested in bringing Little Syria to the region.

Lost in Translation is a more personal take on the migrant journey, with songs acting as Offendum's goodbye letter to his former home of Los Angeles, as recently moved to New York with his family.

Meanwhile, the album – featuring samples from old Syrian films and a flurry of boisterous Arabic-English bilingual raps – will be a mainstay of his Sole DXB performance.

"You know, I am going to turn 42 in a couple of weeks and I consider myself as a generational bridge at this moment in my career,” he says. “I see a lot of young Arabs who don't have the connection to the past that our generation has, whether it is in terms of having access to the wisdom of the elder generations or the Arabic language.

“So I hope to help maintain that connection, and hip-hop is one of the most effective ways in that it taught me to understand where I came from as well as knowing where to go.”

The right time

Born in the eastern Saudi city of Khobar, Offendum moved with his family to the US capital of Washington DC when he was four.

He recalls fond memories of attending an international school blending US and Saudi curriculum.

"I would be listening to rap music on the bus on the way to school for an hour with the homies and then we get in class and study old Arabic poetry. My mother also had a large collection of Arabic poetry at home and I grew up with those books on the shelves,” Offendum says.

"Some of that dissonance really started to make more sense to me as I grew older and made me who I am.”

Offendum's burgeoning hip-hop talent was first spotted in his 2010 debut album Syrianamericana.

Inspired by his childhood growing up in the US, songs range from a powerful tribute to his late father on Father's Day and the rich musical heritage of the US capital in DC Guide.

As Offendum's career has evolved to include international tours and delivering cultural and music lectures in US colleges, he admits to patiently waiting for an opportunity to return to the Mena region and perform in a hip-hop festival such as Sole DXB.

"I have been watching how the music scene is growing over there and watching all these amazing festivals like Sole DXB being done over the years and hoping that my time will come one day to be part of that," he says.

"So for me to come to the festival in a year where it celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and playing alongside some of my biggest hip-hop idols like Big Daddy Kane and Busta Rhymes is just a blessing.

"Everything happens at the right time."

Omar Offendum performs on Sunday at Sole DXB. The event runs from Friday to Sunday at Dubai Design District. More information and ticket prices are available at www.sole.digital

Updated: December 06, 2023, 5:18 AM