Oddisee Goes Beyond the Surface of the Muslim Experience in America (Audio)
Born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, producer and rapper Oddisee is a Muslim African-American whose unique experiences with identity and race influence in large part his phenomenal new album, The Iceberg. During a time in U.S. politics when the term “Muslim ban” has become commonplace, Islamophobia and our perceptions of Muslims have become flashpoints in our collective consciousness, although those are not new components to life in America. However, recent worldwide events including the Syrian refugee crisis and the onslaught of ISIS-delivered attacks seem to have sharpened the focus in this country on the relationship between ethnicity and immigration in ways that are sometimes troubling, if not downright racist. Add to that the U.S.’ continued systemic (and blatant) oppression of people of color, and these issues can become compounded to such a degree that feeling “American” can seem like an unattainable ideal.
All of that and more are heard on the D.C.-area artist’s latest, whose singles “Like Really” and “NNGE” both deal with being a Black American in the post-Obama era. However, as Oddisee recently discussed with NPR, it really doesn’t matter who’s president, at least for the oppressed. “I think African Americans in this country, we’ve experienced so many presidencies where not much has changed for the Black experience, so this is just yet another president that doesn’t care about us. And it’s easier, because he’s a bit more upfront with it,” he says about Donald Trump. When people ask him his thoughts on Trump’s policies, including the Muslim ban, he says “I don’t know what else can be done that hasn’t been done already. You know how many white rooms I’ve been detained in since 9/11? You know how many times my passport has been looked at by an official and they look me in the eyes and ask me what country I’d been born in, as they’re looking at my passport? These offenses have been happening to me for quite some time.”
Jokingly, he says, “I’m normally the one who takes the longest when I tour with my band — it’s an ongoing joke, where we all get in separate lines, ’cause they know that if they get behind me, they’re not gonna get out to the baggage carousel first, because I’m the one who’s always detained.” However, that experience speaks to a very real trend that continues to permeate headlines today. Earlier this week, Muhammad Ali’s son was reportedly flagged for his “Arabic-sounding name” at an airport in Florida. Last month, immediately following Trump’s so called Muslim ban, “an undisclosed number of people from countries affected by Trump’s order — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria — had been detained despite having valid visas and green cards” at LAX alone.
Oddisee goes on to explain that The Iceberg was addressing such instances of prejudice and how they are emblematic of much deeper, sometimes hidden oppressive beliefs and structures. “Initially, there were things going on in my own personal life and around me that had me constantly questioning, ‘I wonder how much people really know is going on,'” he says of the album’s inspiration. In part, being the child of a Sudanese father and African-American mother helped shape his view of the world, but he says recent events left heavy impressions on him, as well. “The Syrian refugee crisis was at an all-time high in Europe and I was on a ferryboat from Calais, France to England. One of the largest refugee camps was in Calais,” he explains. “Witnessing it firsthand, contemplating my own family and my own roots, it really hit home. In Germany, he interacted with some of the immigrants, particularly those who spoke Arabic. “I got to speak to them and explain to them that my father came to America as an immigrant and that things will hopefully get better.”
“Listening to the stories that these kids had — many of them were the last to survive out of their families, period. They were 12, some of them younger. I wondered if people back home really had a face to the story, and if they understood the consequences of what was happening, and the causes and effects, really, to the effect that I was experiencing,” Oddisee shares.
When asked to divulge some backstory into the making of the song “You Grew Up,” which includes the line “You ever have a friend that became a fanatic?,” Oddisee discusses an anecdote about a Sudanese man in another country, but whose life parallels his own in many ways. “A story came out about a Sudanese son of Sudanese parents who lived in the United Kingdom, who gave their child a very good life and all that he could ask for, but didn’t necessarily know what was going on outside of the home as their son attended school and interacted with kids in the street,” he explains. “Apparently, it wasn’t that easy for him to be Muslim where he was, and he became attracted to radicalism and became an ISIS executioner.”
He goes on to share “I remember me being a kid in Prince George’s County where everyone was predominantly Black, where I would be made fun of because my last name was Mohamed. Students would ask me, does my father drive a taxi, just because of my ethnicity. And I’m only half-Sudanese, so I don’t want to know what Arabs experience who phenotypically look Arab, have similar names to myself, and are raised in areas of the country that are far less diverse than my own, if I experience that on that level. That is basically how that song came about.” It’s that kind of harassment at places like at school and on bus rides home that can lead a person to feel embraced by dangerous groups, he argues. “When you have children that you may be giving the perfect life to, but they’re…experiencing adversities that they don’t necessarily feel comfortable to talk about with their own parents — if there’s someone that finally lends them an ear, they may not care what type of ear is listening. And this is the same type of victimization that happens to kids who join gangs, who join military regimes, who join terrorist cells. It’s the same type of psychology, preying on the vulnerability of fragile people.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Oddisee says that, despite the seemingly endless cycle of racism, ignorance, and oppression affecting the majority of the world’s population, “I think America is waking up in general — and this is people in power in America, and the majority — to what a lot of the minorities have been saying for quite some time. ‘No, we haven’t come that far.'”