When Nizar Qabbani wrote poems like “Qare’at Al-Finjan” and “Kalemat,” it was only natural for them to be adopted by renowned artists, who added melody to the celebrated Syrian poet’s words. But to be turned into hip hop songs? Not even the most skilled fortuneteller could’ve foreseen that.
Omar Chakaki is on a quest to reconcile eastern and western cultures as well as reintroduce younger generations to iconic elements from their heritage, with a twist. And a boom and a clap.
On his first solo album “Syrianamericana,” the Syrian-American hip hop artist takes listeners on a journey through Syria and the US, lyrically bridging the gaps between both worlds while mixing English and Arabic.
With some tracks that are either adaptations of treasured Middle Eastern stories such as “Majnoon Leila,” or direct translations of Qabbani’s as well as Langston Hughes’ poems, the literary influence speaks volumes in his music.
“It’s nice to be able to translate [poems] and bring them to a younger audience and refresh some of the elements of my culture as well,” Chakaki, who goes by Omar Offendum, said.
Offendum was born to a Syrian family in Saudi Arabia and moved to the United States at the age of four.
This album, he says, allows him to bring forth all the experiences he went through while fusing the diverse elements from his upbringing. “It’s something that represents me, and in that representation I found a lot of people can relate to it … whether you’re Arab American, Muslim American, just from Syria, just from the US, there are elements within the album that different people can relate to,” he said.
His chosen stage name “Offendum” is laden with meaning. In English, it is derived from the word ‘offend’ which has a negative connotation, in contrast with its Arabic counterpart, which is a play on the word ‘Effendi’ (a noble title for a lord or master).
“The fact that my name even embodies that is a testament to this path that I’m taking where I try to bring these two worlds together and try to point out the differences in a subtle, ironic and humorous way,” he said.
As Offendum weaves his personal experiences into his songs, Qabbani’s influence comes to life. On his album, Offendum translates Qabbani’s “Al-Qaseeda Al-Dimishqiya,” (Damascus) and “Qare’at Al-Finjan” (Fortuneteller), turning them into rap songs.
“I remember my mom reading me his poetry when I was younger and I always enjoyed the different images he would conjure up with his words,” Offendum said, admiring Qabbani’s courage to talk about whatever he chose and especially enjoying the poet’s depiction of Damascus.
“For me, having never lived in Damascus, [Qabbani’s physical description of the city] was an escape for me to a time with certain experiences my family might have had. I appreciate the references the older I get,” he said.
Offendum wanted to frame those profound images in a way the average listener could connect with. “Most [listeners] can be like ‘Oh that song Damascus is great,’ but might not have any idea who Nizar Qabbani is and that’s fine by me as long as they appreciate the song for what it is, and that means that I did my job in the sense that I translated it in a way that people can directly relate to.”
Offendum also has a personal connection to Qabbani. He has known his brother for a long time and regards him as a grandfather figure.
Back and forth
Offendum, who is an architect by day, describes his album as a trip through Syria through an American’s eyes and a trip through America through a Syrian’s eyes.
“[The album] represents that back and forth I’ve experienced all my life…between the US and the Middle East, and going back and forth mentally as well between understanding what it means to be American, Syrian, Arab, Muslim etc.,” he said.
The album’s title also merges Offendum’s worlds; “Syriana” being the think tank term that describes the reshaping of the Middle East by creating false borders.
“That was something I wanted to drive home, the fact that there is a pan-Arab understanding with me and my generation, especially with hip hop, whether you’re from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, we connect with each other and these borders don’t really mean anything to us,” Offendum explained.
“Americana,” he said, refers to a certain brand of music that combines all the different influences that make up American culture.
The album starts with the track “Damascus,” where Offendum’s mother is from and where he says it all began.
A particularly interesting track and a personal favorite is “Arab Superhero,” the Middle East’s answer to corruption, poverty and other impending problems. While Offendum says he’s never met a real-life “Arab superhero,” he remains optimistic.
“I don’t think it’s one person in my head, in fact it’s the youth of the Middle East; they can be the Arab superhero,” Offendum said.
From the beginning
Offendum started writing in college, slowly finding his voice through performing and free-styling at local venues in Virginia.
After 9/11, he found himself, along with other Muslims and Arabs, under the microscope. “I found that hip hop was a great way to build bridges and was a platform to express my views in a manner the average American can relate to. It made me more aware of my audience,” he said.
Before releasing his first solo album, Offendum was part of a group called the N.O.M.A.D.S with Mr. Tibbz. A phase he describes as “one of many stepping stones” in his journey. He also collaborated and continues to work with many artists including Ragtop from the Philistines as well as Iraqi hip hop artist the Narcicyst.
Spoken word artist
Offendum’s lyrics don’t necessarily need a beat to carry them to an audience. He often performs his songs a capella, recited as poetry and in most cases sending a much stronger message. “When you perform without a beat it can be very different every time, it’s really interesting to see how it pans out every time … it can feed off the audience,” the poet explained.
Nonetheless, Offendum also loves performing to music. “It’s whatever fits the environment at the time. There are certain things that don’t necessarily translate well into poetry.”
Resistance and hip hop
Offendum’s interest in hip hop stems from the idea that it represents marginalized voices and contains elements of resistance. “Growing up in the US I had the advantage of understanding the historical and social context that hip hop came about in and understanding the generations that came before hip hop such as the Harlem renaissance,” he explained.
While Offendum acknowledges that politics plays a big part in Arab hip hop, he rejects the idea of it being the only agenda. Arab hip hop artists, he said, express themselves freely and honestly through hip hop, and sometimes that comes bundled with a political message.
“I started noticing people wanted to box us in as political artists but it’s not healthy, not as an artist and not as a person. It can be a hindrance,” Offendum said. “With [Syrianamericana] I try to explore many other themes and ideas and sure many of them are political but that isn’t the goal or the agenda.”
Hip hop in the Middle East
With the evolving scene in the Middle East, Offendum is keen on building relationships with hip hop artists in the region. Over the past decade he started to build a network of hip hop artists with whom he also developed personal relationships.
He sees this genre of music as a primary outlet for the youth because “it combines both music, which is a universal language, and lyricism.”
Offendum has performed in Beirut, Damascus, Amman Dubai and Doha, and was asked to read poetry last June as part of a conference in Alexandria. He has managed to attract a following from across the Middle East, a blessing he attributes to the “pan-Arab identity” he is trying to convey.
For more about Omar Offendum, please visit www.offendum.com or www.facebook.com/offendum