L.A. rapper Omar Offendum came of age in a hip-hop era filled with violent tales by artists like Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. But last year, the 30-year-old Syrian American discovered how truly dangerous hip-hop could be.
"I had to hold my tongue for a long time," Offendum said of his song "#Syria," a furious riposte to Syrian President Bashar Assad that he released in March. Although Offendum (he prefers not to use his real name to protect family) is hardly a superstar, the underground track still could have had devastating implications for family members still in Syria.
He released the single, based on a sampled recording from an anti-Assad protest, only after they safely fled. "I couldn't release a song like that without their blessing. There was a Syrian American pianist who played at a protest rally in D.C., and his family in Homs was attacked by thugs."
Over the last decade, Muslim and Arab American rappers like Offendum have used hip-hop to rail against American foreign policy in the Middle East and to document their own treatment at home amid post-9/11 backlash and paranoia.
Now the war in Syria is pulling Offendum's music back to the country where his family was — and the culture still is — imperiled. Over the last two years, citizens' street protests have been met with gunfire, torture and even darker atrocities at the hands of pro-Assad forces.
The urgency of Offendum's older tracks about stereotyping and Western ignorance of the Islamic world suddenly paled against the threat of his family being killed and his ancestral country spiraling into civil war.
"A year and a half after [the protests], it's a bloodbath," Offendum said. The genial, imposingly tall MC grew up in Washington, D.C., listening to OutKast and Jay-Z and translating Langston Hughes' poetry into Arabic. But now he's figuring how to rhyme about a civil war.
"After doing so many benefits for Palestine, for Iraq, for Haiti, now I'm doing them for Syria," he said over lunch in Hollywood. "But at the same time, it's an amazing time to be Syrian — people are saying things that you haven't heard there in 50 years."
Offendum's mike skills and activism helped land him nearly 16,000 Facebook fans and 8,000 Twitter followers, who have been more important to furthering his career than record sales or a label deal. He keeps an active social media presence posting pictures and stories from his tour travels to across the U.S., Europe and Middle East locales such as Qatar and Dubai.
His independently released 2010 debut, the full-length "SyrianamericanA," is a potent mix of noir-soaked '90s rap sounds laced with Islamic poetry (he switches between Arabic and English in ways familiar to Spanish-speaking Latin-American rap artists) and antiquated clips from Western documentaries on Syria. Offendum's music reflects his vantage point between those worlds. It's rooted in Syrian and Arabic identity while also navigating issues with an American outlook.
Across the nations of the "Arab Spring," MCs like Tunisia's El General have helped galvanize youth to revolutionary action and documented conditions on the ground. But activists there and in countries such as Libya and Iraq can face brutal reprisal from governments and militants for speaking out.
As an American in L.A., Offendum can rhyme with relative safety. He's not fighting in the revolution, but he feels he must use his music to help explain what's happening — both to America, and to himself. In "#Syria" he uses hip-hop taunts to rail against Assad: "Second guessing the protesters / Was a recipe for Assad to address his own doom. ... Look who's got you shook / Doctor don't know how to act now."
Maher Hathout, founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, has been a mentor of Offendum's and empathizes with the rapper's struggle to write about something so immediate and difficult as war, especially when Offendum is unsure of his own place in it.
"I sympathize with him, when you're so preoccupied it's hard to suppress that," Hathout said. "But Omar is very consistent. He feels the pain of the people and his heart's in the right place, but he's never claimed to be physically participating in the conflict. His contribution might be even more important — creating awareness."
Offendum was born in Saudi Arabia after his family fled the previous Assad regime. After moving to America in 1985 (he became a naturalized citizen in 1993), he attended a cosmopolitan Islamic school in D.C., where he met other recent immigrants as well as local Muslim American children. It was an experience, he said, that helped him form a pan-Arab identity growing up. At the same time, he discovered American hip-hop and began noticing subtle allusions to Islamic culture in some of his favorite songs.
"When Jay-Z and Timbaland sampled the Egyptian artist Abdel Halim Hafez for 'Big Pimpin',' even my mom recognized that song," Offendum said. "I knew I wanted to hear someone rapping about my issues, and once I got to college and 9/11 happened, I thought I could be that person."
While attending the University of Virginia to study architecture, he crafted beats and rhymes in his dorm, and after moving to L.A. in 2004, he helped assemble a compilation of hip-hop tracks with peers like the Iraqi Canadian MC the Narcicyst and the American rap-underground figure Immortal Technique to benefit a documentary film on Palestinian hip-hop culture.
Offendum was a natural MC — charismatic and commanding, with authoritative riffs on the Sykes-Picot Agreement (which set many Middle Eastern borders after World War I) spliced with internal rhymes that evoke golden era greats like Black Star and A Tribe Called Quest.
The rapper freelances for an architecture firm alongside his tours, which often eschew the club circuit for college dates paired with guest lectures on Syria and Arab American culture. This month he performed at Soundscape in Anaheim and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His music was featured in a documentary about the Syrian conflict, "The Suffering Grasses," screened at the Arab Film Festival at the Writers Guild Theater.
For Muslim American hip-hop artists like Offendum, the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya brought mixed emotions — joy, hope and nervousness about what comes next — as well as the pressure of being seen as spokespeople for the young Arab world.
"I fear that the, once again, temporary coverage of our musicians during this time of conflict will both pigeonhole the artist, the growing scene and the genre," said the Iraqi Canadian rapper the Narcicyst, who has collaborated with Offendum. "As an Iraqi, it was very discouraging to see how the world forgot about Iraq, like it never happened. Unfortunately, the problem in Syria will not change with a song, or a movement; it is a deep-seeded issue that has proven deeper and more protracted than assumed."
Even in Arabic and Arab American hip-hop circles, Offendum says he's heard pro-Assad rap tracks that belittled the protesters as tools of the West, and some pro-Assad Syrian Americans tried to shut down his recent show in Cleveland (though the set went smoothly in the end). He admits to struggling with how to write about the war — "I've never been comfortable glorifying death and martyrdom," he said.
He knows the revolution is a dominant event in his life, and his new music inevitably will reflect that. Yet Offendum's L.A. life is far away from the street fights of the Free Syrian Army. He last visited Syria in 2010 and almost certainly would be detained if he tried to go back while Assad is in power. Yet media such as Al Jazeera have turned to him, as a Syrian American with a powerful voice on Syrian youth culture, to comment on the revolution.
Over lunch in at a vegan restaurant known for macrobiotic fare and earnest menu item titles like "I Am Present" and "I Am Elated," Offendum admits he can only witness the Syrian civil war via secondhand news. But he's drawing on the revolution to make music reflecting his own vantage point, and sending that sound across America and back to Syria with a message: We hear you.
"There's a tradition of nighttime chants whenever someone came back from the Hajj [a religious pilgrimage to Mecca], where people would praise them with call-and-response and hand drumming," Offendum said. "It's freestyling, and now they're singing about the revolutionaries."