Oddisee: “Let’s Celebrate the Differences”
Chase met the multitalented poet, rapper and ideologist Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, AKA Oddisee, at his concert at Doornroosje, Nijmegen (The Netherlands). After his shows in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, 'The Iceberg' tour also stops in Brussels on Sunday, March 26. We talked with the half-Sudanees, half-American visionary about his last album, ‘The Iceberg’. A very political album with a clear message that asks us to dig beneath the surface. Or as he puts it into words: ‘Cause when you take the time to understand the makings of a man, you comprehend that he’s the sum of circumstance.’ (Digging Deep)
Written by: Flore De Pauw, Photos by: Ted van Aanholt
When he comes in a little later than expected, Oddisee explicitly apologises a couple of times, feeling bad that he kept us waiting. We immediately get a sense of his genuine, reasoned state of being. This attitude will also shine through later on, during his concert. The attitude that it’s not about him, it’s about his message.
Can you explain to people who haven’t heard your last album ‘The Iceberg’ yet what it's about? What message did you want to tell?
‘The Iceberg’ is about encouraging people to think critically. Critical thinking is at an all time low in the world and I want to encourage people to dig beneath the surface, to understand why things are the way they are and to not just judge them by the first thing that they read or see.
Is that something that frustrates you?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that it frustrates me but it’s something that concerns me. It’s just something that has been around for a long time. I really feel like people are making flash judgements about everything. I started out on this album wanting to dig deeper into my own personal life as an artist, as an African-Amerian in the U.S. But as I continued to write the record, so many thing were going on in world politics that I wanted to expand the narrative from only being about me to more of a global understanding.
In ‘Hold It Back’ you say: ‘I ain’t never been to college and she (his sister, n.v.d.r.) graduated honors yet the bosses think that I'm a better fit’, a phrase that is clearly talking about the inequality between males and females. I have the impression that a lot of rappers are singing about this subject nowadays. Do you recognize this as a trend?
Personally I haven’t heard anybody else but that doesn’t mean anything because I’m exposed to very little music. (laughs) To say that something is a trend is dangerous. It could come across as an impure reason for one to be a champion for a cause. More importantly, the cause is gaining more attention, is being noticed by people who want to participate in changing it. The fact that I saw my sisters graduate, struggle to find work and even consider to continue going to school for fear that they wouldn’t get a job, is something that is very present in my life. I saw it from my mother down to my own sisters and I feel like I have a platform to discuss it. More importantly, on this record I wanted to discuss a series of concerns. To show that we should be united in our issues. I shouldn’t be fighting a fight of black America over here, while women are also fighting a fight over here. In fact, if we all put our efforts together, we see that a lot of our problems are equal. I wanted to use this record to kind of be a magnet. To attract people with different kinds of concerns and frustrations trough music and channel them in one record so that they can create a dialogue.
That sounds like a positive message. On the other hand, in ‘You Grew Up’ you really express your pessimism.
Ah yes, absolutely. (laughs)
Are you pessimistic? How do you see the future, of not only American children but also of young children all around the world?
I think all pessimists say that they’re not pessimistic. And I think all pessimists say that they’re realists. I would be more than glad to join them. I don’t think I’m a pessimist, I think I’m a realist. I’m extremely optimistic about many things. My optimism comes from history. It comes from life lessons. The reason why I feel like I’m a realist is: humanity has done what’s going on right now forever. It goes through cycles of liberalism and conservatism. Anytime things become too conservative, it gives birth to a renaissance of free thinking and liberalism. And then when things become too liberal, people want to push it back and become more conservative. We are in an age where we’re witnessing that transformation. That transition in itself creates the void for something else to replace it. Humanity has been doing this since we’ve created civilization. So my optimism comes from knowing that.
So things will change?
It has to. It creates a constant reaction. It does it in music, it does it in politics, it does it in society in general. I say I'm a realist because no, not everyone’s going to jump on board. It’s going to get very, very hard and things are going to suck for quite some time. That can be misconstrued as a pessimistic thought. But I know that in the end, it will give birth to something better. And I guess that’s where the optimism comes from.
Alright, in a previous interview you talked about the fact that it’s important to lend an ear to young children in order to prevent them from going the wrong way and turning their backs on society. If you could do whatever to make that happen, what would you do?
(thinks)… I would encourage more cultural exchange in schools. I think that we need to do something to stop the indoctrination of children and to take away whatever beliefs they blindly take over from their moms and dads. We need to encourage them to believe something that they would’ve never believed by themselves. I remember when I was in the third grade and we had a cultural food day in my class. Everyone had to bring some food from their country.
(To his photographer) Did you do that?
Photographer: Nah man, I’m just laughing at the thought of me bringing neck bones and macaroni and cheese. (laughs loudly)
So, I was in Silver Spring, Maryland. This was before I moved to Prince George's County, Maryland. Prince George's is where he (points at his photographer) and I come from, a predominantly black county. Silver Spring is far more diverse: culturally, racially and financially. I grew up there the majority of my life. I remember a kid bringing sushi and the Ethiopian kid bringing Injera. I brought shahan ful, a Sudanese dish. I remember us being weirded out by everyone else’s food. Like: 'Ieuw, what's that? That's disgusting! I'm not eating that.' And the teachers was like: ‘No, everybody’s gonna try everything.’ That was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. It opened up my palette to wanna try all types of food from all around the world. This is in the third grade! I would love to see more cultural exchange; it inspires us to see the similarities in the differences and to celebrate the differences. Not to hate the differences. I think that that could be really advantageous for the development of kids growing up into adults.
Unfamiliar things can scare people.
Sure. I meet so many people who don’t know anything about their neighbours. By neighbours I mean the people who occupy the same cities. They go to school together, how can they not know anything about each other? That’s crazy. I think a lot of issues come from that.
How do you try to avoid that in your own life?
My sister graduated from university in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. I asked her: 'What do you want as a gift?' She answered: ‘I want to travel Europe.' I said: ‘Fine, I’ll take you with me.’ So I took my sister all through Europe and I told her: ‘I have one condition. You cannot say anything is bad, nasty or weird. You can only use the word different.’
Did that work out for her?
(laughs) Man, when she first came to London she freaked out. My sister was born in America but she moved back to Sudan ten years ago. She’s 24 now. So she's lived the last ten years of her life in a Muslim country. She was like: ‘Look at how these women are dressed!' 'All these men keep looking at me.' 'This guy asked me for my phone number!’ and ‘What’s up with this food inside this can?’. 'This is weird, this is nasty.’ I told her: ‘No, this is not weird, it’s different.' By the end of the tour, she really understood that it was different. When she went home, she was making all types of food from all around the world for my sisters and brothers. She was also reading different articles about different places that she was normally not interested in. That was just a free way to submerge into another culture.
One thing my father always taught me was: have as many things in your hands as possible. Don’t depend on one thing to make a living. Don’t turn your back on an opportunity, take it. Whatever it is, take it. Never think you’re better than anything. If there’s food on the table, take it.
To continue on the subject of intercultural challenges, in ‘Like Really’ we can hear a lot of frustration. Do you see some kind of progress for the black community in America?
For one thing, something else falls apart. It’s very hard to determine progress for black America, you can never really tell. My photographer and I come from a very affluent black neighbourhood but we are anomalies in America. The rest of black America can’t relate to the lives he and I had. Where I’m from, black people are doing very good for themselves. But it’s also home to one of the largest economic gaps between the rich and poor. So it’s very hard for me to determine if there’s progress. Okay, more black people are in different kinds of movies and television is showing more than the black stereotypes nowadays. That is definitely a form of progress. Certain laws are encouraging but certain laws attack minorities. So it’s very, very hard to determine any type of progress. For every single thing that we’re given, something else is taken away and that seems the most consistent thing.
Over to Belgium. You worked with TheColorGrey. Funny, because this summer he told us that he really wanted to collaborate with you. How did this partnership come about?
He reached out to me via social media to tell me to check out some of his music, saying that he’s a fan of mine. I checked it out, it was good. TheColorGrey opened a show of mine, we met backstage and I told him: ‘If you ever wanna collaborate, I’ll take care of it’. And he finally got around to it. (laughs) But I’m a fan, I really want to encourage that type of music. I will see him soon by the way, he’s my opening act on Sunday.
Encouragement is probably really one of the most important things for a young artist. In ‘Rain Dance’ you talk about the fact that your parents didn’t really want you to become a musician ('I want to be like doctor Dre, they want degrees from Harvard’, n.v.d.r.). Who or what inspired you to continue what you were doing?
Proving my father wrong was my biggest inspiration. And wanting to be better than him. We had a bit of a father-son competition. My father is a really good businessman and he only respected business. Music was the one thing I did that I knew I was better at than other people. Whenever I did it, people wanted me to do it again. I was an illustrator and a painter and I got accepted in The Art Institute of Philadelphia but I didn’t receive the scholarship that I wanted. So, as good as an artist as I was, I wasn’t exceptional. But whenever I rapped, it was different. So I thought to myself: I have this particular skill that people appreciate so I think I need to do this. My dad didn’t respect it. And I’m so thankful for that. Because I don’t think I would’ve survived as an independent rapper if I didn’t have a good business mindset. I inherited an immigrant perspective to work from my dad.
You know how many things you do out of obligation in this life?
One thing my father always taught me was: have as many things in your hands as possible. Don’t depend on one thing to make a living. Don’t turn your back on an opportunity, take it. Whatever it is, take it. Never think you’re better than anything. If there’s food on the table, take it. That’s something I really took to heart.
That’s a smart life lesson.
Yeah. I don’t turn my nose up at anything. There’s no way of me saying I’m overqualified for anything. This is just the way I am.
So the fact that your parents didn’t support your life choices made you as successful as you are today?
For sure. Me and my dad always have great conversations about business. He has never heard my music.
Did you just say he has never heard your music?
That’s right, me and my father have a very special relationship. He’s a very Sudanese man and he’s not interested in rap. My mom, on the other hand, is all about supporting me. She understands my music more, so she listens to it. But if my dad would listen to my music, it would only be to support me. It wouldn’t be genuine. You see my father and I have a very unique relationship. We don’t like when people do things just to support. If you don't genuinely like something or want to be something, we don’t want you there. It’s the same situation when my family wants to come to my show but I know they only listen to top 40 rap; I don’t want them there. While most people I think dó want that type of support. My father is the only person I can truly be myself with. There’s nothing done out of obligation. My father didn’t even come to my wedding.
Well, that is very interesting.
(laughs) I love it! I called my dad and I said: ‘Listen, I’m getting married in New York. I know you’re in Sudan. It’s going to be very quick so there is no need to spend 1400 dollars just to see me put a ring on her finger.’ He was like: ‘Thank you, I really appreciate that. Take care man, bye!’ I wish I could be like that with more people! (laughs) You know how many things you do out of obligation in this life? It’s the western relationship of obligation that we’re all stuck in. I only do things because you asked and you asked because you think you should. Me and my dad don’t have that. (smiles)
Thank you so much for your time and see you in Brussels!
On Sunday, March 26, Oddisee is performing at the AB, Brussels. Get your tickets here.