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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Interview with Graffiti Artist Mohammed Ali

June 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Siddiq Ather, TMO

Mohammed Ali also known as Aerosol Arabic is a Muslim Graffiti artist who has gained attention worldwide, painting murals and conducting shows for peace, justice, and humanity. He was born and raised in Birmingham, England. He was involved with graffiti art during the eighties when it was spreading like wildfire across the U.K. His work has been displayed in a variety of exhibitions, and he has spoken at various artistic and academic venues. 

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Do you think the attitude towards graffiti has changed since the eighties?

They have and haven’t. You still hear the questions of whether graffiti is just vandalism or art. People like Banksy have targeted a whole different audience and shown the power of street art. The attitudes toward the art form have not evolved enough, but the art form hasn’t either.  Many of the artists from this movement are not like Banksy. They are not trying to communicate to the mainstream.

Do you think art needs a purpose?

For me, it has to communicate something. Initially, I was just expressing myself: one’s identity, your name, or your tag. What’s the point of that? If I am painting a public space why should it just be a selfish expression? Why should I be expressing my name? Communication is paramount for me.

What is the value of graffiti art in society?

Who owns the public space? I suppose it’s the people.  So, when I’m painting, I’m painting for the people. I need to be communicating something of value. In big cities we are bombarded by visuals and imagery by different useless commercial products.

For me, it is about taking ownership of the public space and offering, to the public domain, ideas that are beneficial for a progressive and positive society. In our lifetime we have seen the breakdown of certain values. I want to bring something back that will be of benefit to the people, me, as a Muslim, me, as an artist, and me, as human being.

How much of your art is for you and how much is for the audience?

For me, it’s for the audience. I paint for the people, really me getting any personal fulfillment from painting is like a bonus for me. I’m an artist, but I don’t do art for art’s sake, so art for the sake of mankind, I suppose. Art I hope will bring some good to society. It’s a channel for me to release my thoughts and ideas so people may benefit personally, spiritually, or otherwise.

Is art only meant for adding positivity to the world, and for the betterment of society?

Each to their own really. It’s fine that people want to express their color, art, and composition for their own personal benefit; I’m not going to criticize that. Certainly art has some therapeutic properties for personal benefit. There’s a space and need for that.

But I feel, as a Muslim, I also have a strong social responsibility. What did I do in this world if I leave, not if, when I leave I feel I am accountable. What did I do for my community and society at large? What would be the point if I left this world and didn’t do anything to benefit it?

How does being Muslim affect your art?

As a visual artist, graffiti and the Islamic art of written word were interesting. In graffiti art it was man. In the Alhambra Mosque in Spain, it was the word of God. When I rediscovered my identity as a Muslim, as a graffiti artist, I was blown away by the marriage and melding of the two art forms. I felt I could take the best of both worlds without conflict.

There are issues of drawing figurative forms. I do a lot of shadowesque silhouette forms of people. So I have found different ways of expressing things. It has made me think outside the box.
How has your outlook on art changed since you started?

I wasn’t one of those people mindlessly vandalizing property: painting an eyesore, with something of color. I have a social responsibility now. What kind of example would I be if I was painting walls illegally? So I’ll see a wall that’s ugly screaming to be painted, that’s someone else’s wall, anyone can tell you about painting someone’s wall without permission.
Before there wasn’t really a message, just a name, now the focus is on the message rather than selfish expression.

What keeps you going?

Feedback from people, whether it’s to know kids in Palestine were joyously talking about some wall painted in an English city, or seeing an old woman emotionally passing her hand over a load of painted bricks. Art has the power to change the world. I’ve seen how it can.

What is one of the most difficult moments as an artist?

Well the event with the Chicago mural was a challenge, being unable to complete it. Difficulties I face are a blessing. They give me encouragement to come back and do something bigger and better.  I’m planning an event similar to”Writing on the Wall” with IMAN in Chicago, insha’Allah.

Where do you draw your inspiration?

Engaging with the people and traveling my travels. Historical figures: Malcolm X and Salahuddin, leaders who fought for justice. The prophets would be the best examples of course. What we are doing as artists and activists is a continuation  of these people who fought and struggled, fought for justice, fought for bringing back values.

One of my favorite quotes is from the author George Orwell, he once said, “In a time of universal deceit, speaking the truth will become a revolutionary act.”

How do you see yourself advancing in the future professionally, personally?

I established an organization called Soul City Arts, and have been programming and directing theatrical events with other artists. My arts organization in my city is called the Hubb Arts Centre. I want to continue collaborating with groups like IMAN. The scene of arts for social change is very small and people who work in this arena need to connect so they can effectively bring about social change.  We have to think strategically and think where we want to be in ten years.

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The CIOGC Trip to the Illinois Capitol: The Senate Floor

July 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Siddiq Ather

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This day I was blessed and allowed the privilege of shadowing a senator and being a page on Muslim Action Day. It was a very enlightening experience, following the process through which laws are made. The senators behaved very amiable and openly explaining and explicating on the sides of the bills being voted and discussed on.  The event resulted in many beneficial dialogues on issues such as gambling and the original topics previously arranged as well as new issues that happened to fall on the senate floor. It was also interesting to observe the way bills would be voted on , not by one group of voters democrats another group republican, but a mixture of republicans and democrats on either side. Certain caucuses and groups of senators united under specific bills they all supported or opposed, and at times unanimous votes occurred on certain bills.

At times there were lulls while at other times opposing sides, the support and opposition of a bill, would rise and debate going into further detail on each other’s positions and analyzing them for faults and problems. One point to note is that this is only half a senator’s job; the other half is when the senator is in his district office dealing with issues relating specifically to his/her district, so they have to address issues both when they are in the senatorial hall as well as in when those that concern their individual districts. One thing that astounded me was the relaxed manner in which some senators talked with journalists, even when it wasn’t “off the record”.  All in all it was a great day, but as time passes I hope the event becomes even more strategically organized, gathered, and implemented.

In retrospect, today was a day when the Muslim community seized and acted upon its democratic responsibility of letting its voice be heard by its representatives; they showed what community wants and doesn’t want. Instead of being immured in homes and community centers, the voice of the ummah of Illinois came out into the open and became manifest to those chosen to represent us in our state congress. Although to some the “voice’ of the ummah was not as complex and powerful as they had imagined, one must consider that, like the first words of growing child, this event, this action that is more powerful than any word is a symbol of progress and growth. We must remember that all praise is due to Allah, and he is the one who has all control; similarly, we must remember that He is also the answerer of supplication. We should make supplication that the voice of the ummah in Illinois, in America, and around the world became more powerful.

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