What a difference a decade makes, particularly if you're a Syrian-American hip-hop artist. Omar Offendum was a college student when he began rapping in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy — an event that redefined him, in the eyes of many, as "the other."
"I ended up using hip-hop to bridge the two seemingly opposite sides of my identity," says the emcee, whose group N.O.M.A.D.S. (an acronym for Notoriously Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Shit) wasn't necessarily in sync with prevailing post-9/11 sentiments.
That was then, but this is now. Following the Arab Spring uprisings, people previously profiled as potential terrorists were suddenly recontextualized as valiant freedom fighters.
All of which helps explain the viral success of "#Jan25," on which Offendum is a featured rapper. The song and video — which pay homage to the Egyptian revolution as well as to the Twitter hashtags used by people who either participated in or followed it — landed Offendum interviews with PBS, Al Jazeera, and Rolling Stone, as well as invitations to speak and perform at Colorado College on Martin Luther King Day and at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum this coming March.
But while perceptions may change, Offendum has, in essence, remained the same person.
"It can all shift depending on what side of America's foreign policy that 'other' ends up being," says the rapper, who continues to earn his living as an architectural designer. "But like you said, we're always the same people. And yeah, now there's this newfound romanticizing of the Middle East — which is interesting because, in certain places, America played a direct role in facilitating those dictatorships, or at least prolonging them.
"So I try to remind people both here and in the Middle East that beneath all the political posturing, all the proxy wars, and all the conspiracy theories, there's a very real suffering."
In addition to raising funds for charitable organizations, Offendum avoids getting dragged into debates over stereotypes. "I decided to pull away from the framework of that whole argument, and stop telling people what it is we're not — that we're not terrorists, we're not extremists, we're not this or that. Instead I tell people what it is that we are, and why we're so proud of our culture, our heritage and our background."
Paid in full
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Offendum spent his days learning Arabic history and language at a Muslim school. At the same time, he also became cognizant of hip-hop, developing a love for emcees like Chuck D, Mos Def and Talib Kweli.
Unlike his older sisters, the future rapper had few memories of the Middle East, his parents having moved to the U.S. when he was just 3. His father, a civil engineer, had previously moved the family from his native Syria to Saudi Arabia because of the political climate.
"Like thousands of men from the city of Hamah, they saw opportunity there, and a way to escape what ended up becoming one of the worst political and humanitarian situations of the early '80s. It didn't get much international attention, unfortunately — there was no YouTube or camera-phones back then to film what happened — but tens of thousands of lives were lost in the span of a week, and a big section of the old city was razed, flattened to the ground."
At the University of Virginia, Offendum dabbled in creating hip-hop beats from samples of old Arabic albums he grew up hearing at home. He gets excited when I mention how the first Middle Eastern sample I ever heard on a hip-hop record was Yemeni singer Ofra Haza on Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full."
"That's actually one of a handful of CDs I keep on my desk for inspiration," he says of the 1988 hip-hop classic. "I actually was worried you were gonna say it was 'Big Pimpin'.'"
Tweeting the revolution
While Offendum's 2010 SyrianmericanA made only a ripple in pop culture, the next album should get more attention. It's being produced by Sami Matar, who's worked with Snoop Dogg and Black Eyed Peas, and also produced "#Jan25" and Offendum's recent followup, "#Syria."
"Given how much people have taken to those two songs," he says, "I have a feeling people will really enjoy this album."
Meanwhile, Offendum is looking forward to the Colorado Springs event honoring King, whom he quotes in his portion of "#Jan25."
The track also references Gil-Scott Heron's 1970 anthem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised": "I heard 'em say the revolution won't be televised," raps Offendum. "Al Jazeera proved 'em wrong, Twitter has 'em paralyzed."
"I was not trying to discredit or deny the point that Gil-Scott Heron was making," Offendum clarifies. "I mean, that would be really stupid. But at the same time, there was at the very outset of the Egyptian revolution a newfound sense of access to information that government was trying to shut people off from. And that's still happening in Syria."
Of course, there's much more to it than that.
"If you think your activist urges are satisfied by just posting a Facebook status or a tweet here and there," says the rapper, "you've gotta humble yourself and remember there are people in charitable organizations on the front lines of really, really horrific humanitarian crises — people who do thankless work and don't expect to get a Facebook 'Like' or a retweet."