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Welcome, Omar Offendum

By Eric Woodhams

For the upcoming season, UMS is excited to welcome Omar Offendum, a Syrian American rapper, poet, hip hop artist and activist, as the 2018-2019 Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist.

Interview by Allie Taylor
Omar Offendum

Offendum, who is also a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow — one of just five nominated throughout the country — plans to use his time with UMS to develop a project that aims to help Arab Americans better understand their identity in the U.S., and inform people about the refugee crisis, immigration, and what it means to be Arab American. He plans to present the project he will be working on during his residency at the Kennedy Center next year.

Offendum, who was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Washington, D.C. He attended an Arab school which combined curricula from the Middle East for Arab and Islamic studies with the local U.S. curriculum for other subjects. His studies included Arabic poetry, which served as a preliminary inspiration for his own work.

“(Arabic poetry) is what many people describe to be the backbone of the Arabic language,” Offendum said. “Poetry is a very integral part of our culture. As is music.”

Offendum studied architecture at the University of Virginia. During his time there, he began to experiment with making beats and songwriting, and found his true passion in artistic expression through music. As a Syrian-American, Offendum has much to say regarding his experience in America with a hybridized identity, and aims to explain exactly who he is and why he’s proud of the cherished culture he comes from.

A year and a half after graduating from college, Offendum moved to Los Angeles to work for an architecture firm for 10 years. While working as an architect, he was also working as a musician, building his platform and social media following and moonlighting as a performer/rapper. “I love architecture and always will, but I moved toward the aspect of artistic expression that I was most drawn to at the time: music, rapping, and performing. I get a great sense of gratification from performing that has driven my career.” Offendum, who describes hip-hop as being the “sonic upbringing of his youth”, hopes to build bridges culturally, lyrically, and musically with his work.

What do you hope to achieve during your time at UMS as this season’s Research Residency Artist?

“I’m really excited about my time at UMS. I’ve got a couple projects that I’d like to work on, but one in particular is kind of like the next phase of my performance. I’ve been moving further into the direction of theatrical, live music performances. When I started out initially I was rapping with a DJ, which is awesome and I’ll continue to do that, but I’ve been incorporating a lot more live music into my performances these days, namely Arabic instrumentation, blending and fusing it with Western music and instrumentation.”

Offendum is pulling from a number of well known Arabic stories and aspects of culture to use as a lens through which he can examine his ideas.

“In my music and in my performances, I have been working to help Arab Americans better understand their story, to help immigrants understand immigration here in the U.S., to help Americans better understand America in more cohesive way, and to help inform a lot of what is happening today in terms of the refugee crisis and immigration in America. Hopefully by the end of my time, I’ll have some semblance of a foundation to be able to perform it for people. Being in Michigan is really great because first, it’s Michigan, but also, the proximity to Dearborn and being able to work with all the incredible Arab musicians who live in Dearborn will be a great asset. Also, all the resources at the University that are at my disposal will definitely be very helpful, from Arabic professors, to people working in the realm of hip hop, and Arab American studies. And then there’s Detroit, where there’s this incredibly rich heritage — from Motown to J. Dilla. So, I look forward to being able to tap into all of those things, and being inspired to get this project going. I already know it’s a labor of love, so what folks see and hear in March might not resemble at all what the final manifestation might be, but I’m excited for this to be the first step and stab at that.

I’m really grateful that I have this opportunity with UMS to be able to flesh it out and work on it, so that when I present it in Washington D.C. the following month, it can just be that much more awesome.”

Do you consider your art to have political motivation? How would you say your art has changed in the past 5 years? In the current political climate?

“I hate to be described as a “political rapper”. That’s not how I approach my work. I try to write and speak to my experience as thoughtfully, honestly and articulately as I can. It just so happens that I am from Syria, and I am living in the U.S. in 2018 with a Muslim background and an immigrant story, so that by nature becomes a political act every time I get on stage. It’s something that I’ve maintained for well over a decade. Halfway through my college career 9/11 happened, and I quickly saw I could use this art and music and poetry as a way to bridge these seemingly opposed sides of my identity together in a way that was meaningful to me, and to people who were having a difficult time understanding what was going on with the U.S./Middle East politics and relations.

At the end of the day, it’s not about telling people what I’m not. It’s about bridge building. It’s meeting people where they’re at. I’m not afraid to reach out and introduce people to my culture in a way that is digestible and relatable. But also in that, to not dumb it down in any way, because I think it can easily happen. I don’t want to fetishize and romanticize and give people some sort of exotic experience. I just want to tell people exactly what it is what I do, and where I’m from, and why I love it. And in that, there’s also the ability to speak to this “new” experience of being an Arab American. It’s really not that new, it’s been around for over a hundred years, so it’s important for people to understand that even what they might think of as “American” is a lot more diverse and has always been. That, in fact, is what America is. America has always been much bigger of an idea and of a place and of something to strive for, and i just try to remind people of that.”

You’re going to be doing a talk on Thursday October 18, called “Syrianamerican: A Nation State of Mind”. What can people expect from the event?

“SyrianAmericana is the name of my first solo album. It very much who I am and what my work embodies: building bridges with these two/multiple communities I am a part of and have the honor of representing around the world. It is an experience that seeks to connect a lot of things that, sadly, because of the state of affairs between the U.S. and the Middle East these days, have been disconnected by the media for various reasons — to justify wars, or immigration policies — but my work tries to push back on that.

What I will be talking about in the class is giving people a backstory on me and the work that I do and why I do what I do (using examples from artists who’ve inspired me over the years). I’ll also be reciting verses that I’ve written along the way that speak to different points in my career, and performing songs. It’ll be equal parts presentation and conversation. I look forward to having folks engage, ask questions, and tell me what they think. I know that I have a particular perspective(s) on what it means to be Arab American, but I also know that for folks in Dearborn and Detroit, and that’s also something that is unique in itself too, so I look forward to hearing from the students and teachers about that as well.”

What is your ultimate goal with your art? What is the ultimate message you are trying to send?

“My goals are embedded in the themes and ideas of my work and how I approach my work. At the end of the day, if I’m able to just make people happy, comfortable, and more at ease, then I’ve done my job. And certainly within that there’s this desire to “break down misconceptions” about Arabs and Muslims and Syrians, but it’s not on the nose like that. It’s much more the fact that the medium is the message, that people see me as this confident, immigrant Muslim male, who can rap and who can pull from Arab poetry and do all this stuff. In that there is a message that obviously counters what they’re used to hearing about people who might have this background, and I think that’s important.

But also, most importantly, I’m indebted to hip hop culture, and with that, clearly, African American culture. There’s no separating one from the other, so I very much want to make sure that people from those communities appreciate my voice and my perspective, and know that I’m not doing it in a way that is parasitic or disingenuous. I recognize always that this is an African American artform that I am drawing inspiration from and that I’m speaking my experience through, so that’s also very important to me for people to recognize. And at the same time, you have to understand that it’s bigger than hip hop. Hip hop is the manifestation of something that has been happening for a very long time. Trying to build those bridges across time, and across communities is very important to me, and I think it’s becoming more and more apparent in my work, in the projects I embark upon, and in the spaces I perform in.”

What would you say is your greatest strength as an artist?

“Performing and connecting with audiences in a deep way while I’m on stage is really important to me, but also is the reason why I don’t necessarily love performing for gigantic audiences. I don’t really have those meaningful connections that I get to have when it’s several hundred people in an auditorium, a classroom, a coffee shop, etc. And that has a lot to do with the nature of what I do, which is engaging people in this way, with storytelling. It’s a lot more intimate than what most big festival shows maybe can be, and I enjoy that. I enjoy being able to look into people’s eyes. I like being in settings where I’m able to go back and forth with people, and be asked questions, and speak to a lot of these things that I talk about in my music but in a deeper way.

I code and bury a lot of ideas and symbols and imagery and iconography and messages in my lyrics, that could easily go over people’s heads if they don’t get a chance to really dig deeper into them. That’s why I enjoy doing things in classrooms, where we get to talk about them, and talk about the bigger inspirations and ideas behind them. You find comfort in your own voice and your own strengths and that’s really what I’ve been leaning on for quite some time now. It’s important for the next generation of Arab, Syrian and Muslim kids here to have that example. As I mature as an artist, I try to still approach my work with a sense of humility and remind people that there is still a lot to learn and there is always room for growth.”

The UMS ECE Research Residency is a competitive program that provides time and resources for an early career artist to spend an extended period of time in Ann Arbor developing a new work while sharing their practice with the U-M and southeastern Michigan communities.

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