Rapper Oddisee on the joys and lessons of growing up in Sudan

Hip-hop artist and producer is more reflective with his new nostalgic album

Sudanese-American rapper Oddisee has released his first album in five years. Shutterstock
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When Oddisee arrives in the UAE for his debut Abu Dhabi performance on Tuesday, he'll follow family footsteps going back about 60 years.

Speaking to The National ahead of his show at NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre, the American-Sudanese rapper and producer recalls how his two uncles came to the emirate from Sudan in the 1960s – before the formation of the UAE – to work in the fledgling banking industry.

“They were part of that generation of OGs that really contributed to establishing the finance sector in the UAE,” he says. “I would come to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain to visit and pay respects to the family, so it has always been a special place full of memories.”

Oddisee, real name Amir El Khalifa, puts his work ethic and nomadic spirit to a childhood filled with holidays that were not for the faint of heart. Born in Washington DC to an African-American mother and Sudanese father, these trips to the Gulf would include summer holidays in Omdurman, Sudan.

“Now this place, especially back then, was nowhere as developed as the capital Khartoum. As a kid, my father would send me back to stay with family in the summer from June to August and it was of course crazy hot,” he says.

“I used to sleep outside in the courtyard, I would shower when the sun was at its peak just to have hot water. It wasn’t the kind of luxury experience other Sudanese kids had when they travelled to Sudan from the US. These are my fondest memories because I remember spending time in 40ºC heat with no electricity but surrounded by my family and love.”

Oddisee’s latest vocal album, last year's nostalgic To What End, is inspired by the fleeting nature of time.

Over nocturnal-sounding production, he meditates on the price of his ambition when it comes to the time spent away from his young family.

“External motivation is a cheap trick, what does it all matter if it's less or more the same,” he raps in the standout track The Start of Something. “Tally up a tour 'round the sun like a score to gain. The idea of more within itself is sort of strange.”

While over the delectably funky groove of Many Hats, Oddisee sounds drained as he navigates the responsibilities of a career and being a family man.

In what is his first album in five years, he delivers a deeply introspective work inspired by the birth of his children during this period.

“I realised how I was burning out. I was doing two albums a year and a minimum of 120 shows a year for a decade. The break came in the form of my daughter being born, the arrival of Covid and then my son’s birth,” he says.

“I honestly wouldn’t have stopped if it wasn’t for these circumstances because that’s all I knew at this stage. And it became really hard for me to get back out again because I experienced all these many firsts with my son that I didn’t have with my daughter. I wanted them to remember being presented more than not being there.”

Despite that, Oddisee’s definition of slowing down is relative. His Abu Dhabi gig is in the middle of a tour spanning 24 shows over 45 days in 12 countries. It also comes off the back of February’s release Odd Sketches Vol 1, an instrumental hip-hop album showcasing his acumen as a producer.

The return to his long-standing approach of releasing back-to-back albums within a year is bearing fruit, with Oddisee garnering an eclectic fan base of hip-hop and jazz enthusiasts with gigs and festivals catering to each segment. His intimate Abu Dhabi show follows his well-received performance in front of thousands at Sole DXB festival in December.

“I always wanted to have as many creative outlets as possible that I can,” he says. “If I want to get a specific point across then the vocal record will work, but with instrumental albums, I try to create something for someone else to interpret in their own way.”

It’s also a savvy marketing strategy allowing him to survive as an independent artist for 15 years.

“Diversity is key when you're an independent artist and not as popular,” he says. “If you don’t have don't have a massive fan base then you have to acquire small fan bases everywhere.”

Oddisee perfoms at NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre, Saadiyat Island on Tuesday. Doors open 7.30pm, tickets from Dh52.50; nyuad-artscenter.org

Updated: May 28, 2024, 1:12 PM