In a blended mix of English, Arabic, spoken word and rap, musician and activist Omar Offendum presented to a group of over 200 students and faculty on Thursday about his experiences as a Syrian-American hip-hop artist. Offendum spoke and rapped about growing up in his diverse Northern Virginia neighborhood, as well as the difficulty of weaving together his multiple identities into a coherent whole.
Offendum’s presentation, which took place during a lecture of the Introduction to Arab-American Studies course at the University of Michigan, touched on themes of loss, political activism and rising xenophobia. Offendum said his experiences and musical style have changed over the years as tensions in the Middle East have become more visible to the American public.
“I liked to think I was this ethnically ambiguous dude named Omar prior to 9/11 on campus — people didn’t really necessarily know where I was from,” Offendum said. “When I’d tell them I was from Syria, I’d get a weird joke about breakfast cereal or something. Now you can’t turn on the news without hearing about it at least once a day.”
Rackham student Yahya Alami Hafez, a graduate student instructor for Introduction to Arab-American Studies, said Offendum’s presentation showed how current artistic mediums such as rap actually trace back to a long and rich Arab history. Hafez said before each discussion, he shows the class a music video from an Arab region to highlight this connection.
“I think culture is a really good entry point to engage student learning,” Hafez said. “Cultural production is political, it’s something that shapes discourse. When folks are studying history, they’re looking toward material artifacts or something that they can examine — sometimes that’s archives and sometimes it’s museum exhibits or songs.”
Offendum performed a number of his own spoken word poems and raps, often prompting the audience to participate by motioning to sing portions of the lyrics. Offendum opened the lecture by rapping “Damascus,” an Arabic poem he strongly identifies with and ultimately transformed into a song.
“For a kid growing up with a mother from Damascus, I had memorized that poem when I was like 12,” Offendum said. “It’s been a big part of my life and it’s kind of a good introductory piece to my work because it has the element of poetry in it and rap and cultural translation and longing for Syria.”
Offendum said his work often contends with the changing idea of home, as he was born in Saudi Arabia but grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. He said he was especially inspired by one of his mentors, who told him he should look to the future to understand where home is.
“I was telling him how I feel this sort of transient feeling in my heart, like I don’t really feel like I’m from here even though I’ve been here pretty much my whole life,” Offendum said. “He’s like, ‘Listen, home is not where your grandparents are buried — home is where your grandchildren will be born. Look to the future, think about the future, think about what your purpose is here today.’”
LSA senior Sally Kafelghazal, who attended the performance, said the political message of Offendum’s words spoke to her. She said she felt not enough attention is paid to the destruction caused by the Syrian Civil War and the ensuing refugee crisis.
“Being Syrian, there is a lot of lack of representation of my culture,” Kafelghazal said. “A lot of the things that are going on overseas aren’t brought into context at all. So the fact that he is a rapper and a poet was intriguing for me.”