Interview: Omar Offendum, Bilingual MC/Producer

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Siddiq Ather

Omar Chakaki, better known by the name Omar Offendum, is Syrian American emcee and producer who was born in Saudi Arabia but was raised in the United States. He raps in both English and Arabic comfortably about a vast range of issues and ideas. He has been featured on BBC, ABC news, Aljazeera, and other news sources. His most recent album is titled SyrianamericanA. He has performed around the world with a variety of famous artists. Occasionally, he starts his performances with an Arabic rendition of a work by the poet Langston Hughes

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1. Do Hip Hop and Islam fit well with each other, or is there a clash?

I never saw a clash between the two. In Islam innamal a’amaalu biniyaat, actions are based on intentions. So if you have good intentions to affect positive change through Hip Hop, another art form, or whatever, then, I believe insha’allah, it is compatible. If you have intentions of spread negativity, promiscuity, or misogyny etc, then, obviously, that is not compatible.
I understand there is a scholarly debate as far as music in Islam. I tend to fall in line with those do not believe it is haraam, citing the importance of intentions. If it doesn’t distract you from the demands of the Muslim faith, like praying, then, there isn’t anything wrong with it, especially if it is positive. I understand that it does distract a lot of people, and Hip Hop in particular can be a tool to spread negativity. But it’s a tool like anything else, so it’s how you use it.

I know a lot of spoken word artists, and I don’t see how you could ever say something like that is haraam.  At times I perform without music. I have been at events were people are uncomfortable with music, so I performed without it. I’m sensitive to that. I take time with my lyrics and make sure it is something I can do with or without music. That’s where I kind of stand on it.
Some people may say kaafir, haraam, judge, and use apocalyptic language after they hear a Muslim performing with music, but I question the intentions of those people. In the end of the day, there are haters out there and haters gon’ hate. I do this with positive intentions Insha’Allah.

2. There are a lot of Muslim performers: emcees, poets, rappers, singers, b-girls, beat boxers, and others. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? As far as Muslim culture, and Arab culture, goes, there is a hesitation and apprehension surrounding even the idea of Muslim females on stage.

Well, I think it is a beautiful thing, and I encourage it, especially if they’re doing it positively. I welcome it, I embrace it, and I hope to see more of it because they’re inspiring to other women who think there is something wrong with that, when I, personally, don’t think there is.  Many good friends of mine are Muslim female Emcees. The best example that comes to mind is Poetic Pilgrimage: two very confident sisters from the UK of African-Caribbean decent.  They wear hijab and practice Islam to the best of their ability, and you can see it reflected in their lyrics. I think what they’re doing is very positive, and I encourage it.

As far as Arab culture, Shaadia Mansour, she is not Muslim; she’s Arab, but faces similar sentiment. Our community looks down on woman who are on stage, performing. In my opinion her heart is in the right place and has the best intentions. I think, especially with her, as far as the Palestinian cause is concerned, she’s such an important voice to put out there; it’s a different faith for the world to see, that it’s not just a bunch of angry men that are rapping about something. It really changes the dynamic.

3. A lot of your lyrics carry a heavy weight, since they have some political or historical background. Do you think music and lyrics have to have something behind them, some motive, or can it just be open expression?

I think it has to be honest self expression at the end of the day. In hip-hop we have the saying “keepin’ it real.” If you’re not “keepin’ it real”; If you’re not being true to yourself, true to your history, true to your background, then, I, personally, am not that into it. But, that doesn’t mean it has to be political, it can be anything. If you’re skillful with your art, I have to respect that.  I don’t go out of my way to be political. We live in a politicized world. Being a young Arab American Muslim, it happens to affect me deeply, and so I speak about it. I also used to translate Arabic poetry to English and English poetry to Arabic. That is a more relevant to my experience.

4.  How much of a difference can hip hop make without actual political change, or do you think this is the medium through which political change can occur?

I think it is a tool. It can spark dialogue, debate and awareness about issues in communities where there is none: locally, nationally, and internationally. When an artist is as successful as Lupe Fiasco (Wasalu Muhammad Jaco) says what he said about Gaza getting bombed in a particular song, it is a really really big deal. That album sold hundreds of thousands in the first week. It is extremely important. However, it is not going to stop the bombing in Gaza. No, it’s not going to fix the issue. In my case, I see the medium as the message. People see a young Muslim American Arab rapping on stage, comfortable in both languages. There’s a lot behind that, that I don’t’ even need to say. They can infer from it.

5. There are a variety of sheikhs out there, maybe you’ve heard names like Suhaib Webb and Hamza Yusuf. There are also many books, so are there any inspirational books you’ve read or scholars you really look up to?

I have actually met Sheikh Suhaib several times. He’s a great inspiration, masha’allah. I grew into my Muslim American Identity. I went to an Islamic School growing up, it was a Saudi Islamic School based in Alexandria, Virginia, mostly set up for students with family back in the Middle East who worked in the embassy. We had the Saudi Arabian curriculum coupled with the local county curriculum. It essentially for people intending to move back to the Middle East, and so they didn’t really establish the Muslim-American identity, and that was something that took me years to understand and really, kind of, be at peace with.

Hearing people like Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, Suhaib Webb, and Zaid Shakir speak are very inspirational to me. Sheikh Yassir Fazaga is also from southern California. I really, really, really enjoy his khutbahs. Some of the most inspirational one I have ever heard were from him. But Islam aside, reading books by authors like Edward Said, and novels by men like Amin Maalouf have greatly influenced me. Also included are emcees and reggae singers of all sorts. A number of old Arabic singers and poets: Khalil jibran, and darwish. All of this influences me, and I think you can see it in my music because I try to make it an honest reflection of me.

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Great American Patriots

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Glenn Greenwald, AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, just as the U.S. President does each year.  Here is how the American Congress — especially the super-patriots of the American Right — reacted to their own President the last two times he addressed them (with frosty coolness and even passive-aggressive hostility):

And here is how the super-patriots of the American Right — largely joined by their Democratic colleagues — reacted to the speech given today by this foreign leader: with multiple standing ovations, including for ludicrous and absurd proclamations such as equating Hamas with Al Qaeda and claiming that Israel is “not a foreign occupier” in the West Bank:

Indeed, according to ABC News, Netanyahu received more standing ovations from the U.S. Congress (29) than the U.S. President did the last time he spoke (25); all of the ones Netanyahu received were from the super-patriots of the GOP caucus (and most from the Democratic caucus as well), whereas those right-wing patriots joined in only a small fraction of the ones received by their own country’s President.

What makes this more remarkable still is that this foreign leader whom they were cheering so boisterously and continuously just completed a public, ugly conflict with the American leader and has a long record of demonstrated indifference to American interests; yet the super-patriots of the American Right sided so brazenly and publicly with this foreign leader over their own country’s President.  Meanwhile, both political parties in Congress are in a frantic competition to see which one can lavish Netanyahu with more obsequious praise; this statement sent out in the name of Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey is typical of the entries.  For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ran to AIPAC to undercut (and rebuke) his own President and the leader of his own party on Israel, something that — as Andrew Sullivan correctly observed –  would be inconceivable on any foreign policy issue other than Israel.

In sum, the same faction that spent the last decade demanding fealty to the Commander-in-Chief in a Time of War upon pain of being accused of a lack of patriotism (or worse) now openly sides with a foreign leader over their own President.  The U.S. Congress humiliates itself by expressing greater admiration for and loyalty to this foreign leader than their own country’s.  And because this is all about Israel, few will find this spectacle strange, or at least will be willing to say so.

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Community News (V13-I21)

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Saheela Ibraheem: Budding scholar Par Excellence

EDISON,NJ–Muslim Americans continue to excel in a variety if fields despite all the odds. The latest such examplar is Saheela Ibraheem, a 15 year old student from New Jersey, who has been accepted to the prestigious Harvard University. She  opted for the world renowned university even though she had an option of thirteen other top rated schools to choose from including, MIT, Columbia, and Princeton.

The hijab wearing Ibraheem has always been a brilliant student and and hard worker.She speaks Arabic, Spanish and Latin. She said she hopes to become a research scientist and study the brain.

“If you are passionate about what you do, and I am passionate about most of these things, especially with math and science, it will work out well,” Ibraheem told CBS News.

Mosque to come up in Harford County

ABINGDON,MD–Harford County will soon have a mosque of its own. A ranch style home on 5 acres of property is now being renovated to house the new mosque, ABC News reported.

Dr. Rehan Khan, a spokesperson for the community, told the channel that the mosque was much needed: “People use to go to Baltimore. (It’s) almost an hour’s drive. There are about a hundred families in the area. Most of them are highly professional physicians, pharmacists, computer specialists… living in the area. There’s not a single place of worship for them.”

Unlike in other places the neighbors have been welcoming the group.

Once work on the mosque is completed, the group plans to hold an international food festival to serve as an open-house for the community.

Long range plans include providing a soup kitchen, an after-school program and a free health clinic as well.

Muslim inmate wins long fought case

NORFOLK, VA–A Muslim inmate in Virginia has won a seven year battle to have access to religious materials in the prison library. The Virginian-Pilot reports that the State;s Attorney General has settled with Rashid Qawi Al Amin after court’s ruling in his favor.

The Corrections Department will spend up to $2,500 on Islamic library materials at the Greensville Correctional Center and hire a Muslim inmate to work there. Inmates will be allowed to donate religious materials, after security review.

Al-Amin will be able to submit his own list of reading materials, videos and CDs and get $2,000 to defray his costs fighting the case.

Christian clergy plan Qur’an readings to combat Islamophobia

Washington, D.C. – Christian clergy at churches across the country will host readings from the Qur’an and other sacred religious texts as they welcome their Muslim and Jewish colleagues on Sunday, June 26, 2011 for Faith Shared: Uniting in Prayer and Understanding.

Faith Shared is a project of Interfaith Alliance and Human Rights First, which seeks to send a message both here at home and to the Arab and Muslim world about our respect for Islam. The National Cathedral in Washington, DC, along with 50 churches in 26 states have committed to participating in this effort.

“The anti-Muslim rhetoric that has pervaded our national conversation recently has shocked and saddened me,” said Interfaith Alliance President Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy.  “Appreciation for pluralism and respect for religious freedom and other human rights are at the core of our democracy.  We believe that demonstrating our commitment to those core American values will help counteract the intensified level of negative stereotypes and anti-Muslim bigotry in our recent public discourse.”

Faith Shared seeks to counter the anti-Muslim bigotry and negative stereotypes that have erupted throughout the country in the past year and led to misconceptions, distrust and in some cases, violence.  This countrywide, day-long event will engage faith leaders on the national and community levels in a conversation with their houses of worship, highlighting respect among people of different faiths.  This event will help counter the common misperception abroad that most Americans are hostile to Islam.  It will send a message that Americans respect Muslims and Islam, as they respect religious differences and freedom of religion in general.

Faith Shared is designed to reflect the mutual respect shared among so many Muslims, Christians, Jews and other Americans, as they stand together to oppose the negative images that have dominated domestic and international news.

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