“I wanted my music to take people on journeys.”
This is how Amir Mohammed El Khalifa simply known as “Oddisee” started his conversation with me. For those of you who don’t know who he is, Oddisee is a Sudanese/American Rapper born and raised in Maryland to a Sudanese father and an African American mother. Yet, calling Oddisee a rapper might just be the understatement of the year; same as calling Leonardo DaVinci a painter. Oddisee’s music is entirely self-recorded, mixed and produced, and as many of you might have noticed his photography skills are also superior. But a fewer number knows that his true beginning was with a brush and a palette instead of a microphone.
It was only proper to sit down with the coffee enthusiast in Caffeine Cafe in Khartoum, where I started the conversation with a question I was always curious about.
Khider: Where did the name come from?
Oddisee: The name Oddisee comes from Homer’s Odyssey, which I read as a child. The word means journey in Greek, so when I started this I wanted my music to take people in journeys and for them to travel through music.
“I tend to come from places that fight”
Amir’s family resides near the Nile in Omdurman’s “Banat”, so it felt natural to start our journey from there. He says comparing his American and Sudanese backgrounds: “Omdurman feels just like Brooklyn to me, because if you look at it traditionally, Brooklyn was more dangerous, Brooklyn is larger than Manhattan, there’s more diversity in life, less conformity and it’s very anti the establishment. Now if you look at Omdurman historically compared to Khartoum, it’s the exact same, it’s very anti-establishment, it was capital of the Mahdi government and my family’s home is right by the river bank in Banat. The soldiers burial ground is right next to my house so there’s a history that I’m super connected to, it’s a history of fighting oppression. Being a black American and having ancestors who fought in the civil war to abolish slavery in the states, I tend to come from places that fight, from both sides of my family.”
“I look at America from the eyes of an immigrant”
Khider: Growing up with an African American mother and a Sudanese father, which parts of your character do you perceive as Sudanese and which parts did you get from your American side?
Oddisee: I think I get my creativity from my American side and my sense of business from my father’s Sudanese side. I look at America from the eyes of an immigrant not a native so I don’t take it for granted. I treat it like I just got here and it’s better than anything I’ve ever seen, that happened since I used to go there as a kid from Sudan. I just had a different perspective and I didn’t care about the materialistic things when I moved there.
Khider: How was growing up in Washington D.C.?
Oddisee: Crazy! Back then and till now I think. Washington has the largest population of Sudanese in America, so there was that, but DC also had the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia. So we had a lot of Habesha, a lot of Somalis, Iranians, Lebanese and of course add to that the Sudanese. There’s that and there’s also the fact that DC is the only city in America that has a majority black population. I didn’t grow up with the rest of the Sudanese kids, I grew up on the other side of the bridge in Prince George’s County, in Maryland. Where I grew up it was all black, no white people, no foreigners, just black and I’m super thankful for it, because it was the wealthiest concentration of black people in America. However it’s also home to the largest gap between rich and poor, so I grew up in a place where you can see black doctors, lawyers, dentists, basketball and football players as well as waste pickup workers; the full spectrum of life from rich to poor was represented by black people. You didn’t have the idea that because of the color of your skin you couldn’t do certain things, you didn’t have the idea that because of the color of your skin you were being discriminated against. It was amazing growing up with the black pride, you felt empowered.
Khider: And what changed?
Oddisee: I left. I left and went around the country and saw how bad it was for black people everywhere else and I discovered that I lived in an oasis not knowing how black people were treated everywhere else. Then I came to Sudan, and I remember walking to the basketball court in El Mawrada and Southern Sudanese guys would be there so I’d join them. I remember some of my cousins asking me what I’m doing playing with them, and I asked, confused, why wouldn’t I? And then I realized that even in Africa there’s color prejudice between lighter skin and darker skin, and that was hilarious to me because we’re all black to white people. I get it and where it comes from, it’s systematic and caused by colonizers, and our people uphold it instead of destroying it.
“Let’s talk business.”
Khider: How does your family feel about your music?
Oddisee: My father has never listened to a song of mine. He never asked about my music, he only asks ‘how is business’. He’s Sudanese, he doesn’t know rap music, nor does he care. I think a lot of times people want support and approval from their friends and family whether it’s genuine or not, but me and my dad have a relationship where we don’t do anything out of obligation. We only do things because we want to for each other; and this affected every other aspect of my life. I don’t tell anyone what I do, I’m very anti-celebratory I don’t celebrate myself, I don’t ask people to come see me when I do shows in their towns unless they love the kind of music I do. I’m an underground rapper, I’m not a mainstream rapper so you have to like the type of music I make to know who I am. So if I had a show in Sudan, I’d like to sell out, but not because I’m an American-Sudanese rapper, because they know or like my music. I do have a fan base here (in Sudan) but as it’s customary in most of my shows, a certain percentage knows me but the majority of the crowd doesn’t, even if the show is sold out to fifteen hundred attendees, I say only two hundred would actually know who I am.
What I admired most about Amir is his incredible ability to accept his duality, his African American side alongside his father’s Sudanese origins, “I think if you arrive at that later in life it might be harder to adapt, but if you’ve been coming back and forth, then I think it’s a little easier.” he commented about adapting to duality. Adding “I think it’s also easier for males, it’s much more difficult for females, I mean my sisters and I used to have these conversations all the time, the freedom I had as a boy coming to Sudan in the summer, the things I was allowed to do as a child, they weren’t allowed to do even as adults.”
Khider: That being said, then why do you see yourself as an outsider?
Oddisee: Because I am an outsider, I’m not from here I don’t live here, I come here with privilege and I come here knowing that I can leave, you know? I mean the electricity cuts for example, it’s cute to me, because I know I’m going back home, I’m not exposed to this on a daily basis. Every place, every country has an invisible culture, rules that you can’t see, I don’t know them here, and the ones I know change when I come and go, and that’s what makes me an outsider.
A renaissance man?
As a fan, I was a bit overwhelmed by the versatility Oddisee showed; here I was talking to Oddisee the rapper, Oddisee the producer, the published photographer, the painter, all of that under one roof.
Khidir: How do you go about it?
Oddisee: Well I’m appreciative that you might think I’m all that, but I think that all art comes from the same place and you can see the art in anything. The way I make beats or write rhymes, take a photograph or even cook it’s all the same exact process, it’s a combination of material in symmetry, balance of elements to makes something pleasing, and when you see the math in all of it, you realize that it all comes from the same place, I think that’s why I managed to go from painting and illustrating to music to writing to photography and most recently I’ve been heavily into cooking. My wife is a great cook and I’ve been cooking with her. My wife is never alone in the kitchen, and I remember saying that this is just like making beats, and she’d be like: just wash the cucumbers and shut up, but yes it’s all similar.
“I learned everything through observation” says Amir talking about his creative process, “I wasn’t a good student back in school, I didn’t like school because I couldn’t learn by dictation, you have to show me and they had one teaching method so I was a very smart child but a very bad student and as a result I didn’t go to university but stopped right after high school and I couldn’t wait to get out.” He continues “when I travel on tour I listen to what they listen to in the countries I visit. Musically, some songs are popular in places and unknown in others, there would be a song that’s number one in Sweden but not as popular in France, so I understand different styles of music and I take that and I bring it on and I create music that I know will be effective in different markets. I don’t design an album for every person to like every song, I design a record for everyone to have their own favorites, guaranteeing the success of the album, and that all starts with observation.”
Khider: Do you think that your Sudanese background affects your music?
Oddisee: A hundred percent! I think that my Sudanese background made me appreciate everything I have back home, it gave me a level of optimism through any circumstances because no matter what happens to Sudanese people they find a way to be good- they’re some of the nicest people I know. A lot of cultures have stereotypes and no matter where I go Sudanese are always the hard working, trustworthy nice people no matter what you put them through, it’s a culture based on apathy.
Avery important question had to be asked then, how familiar is Oddisee with the hip-hop scene in Sudan? and to that he answers “a bit, not too heavy but I know a few artists. I’ve been to a couple of events called Nas With Notepads with my home girl Sara Elhassan, I know Nas Jota, Sufyan, and most of those I know were introduced to me by Big Hass who has a radio show (Laish Hip-hop) in Jeddah, he’s a big fan of anything Sudan.”
We start talking about his tours and he recalls; “being in Europe during the refugee crisis, people would ask me what I think about it. We were asked to escort refugees- which of course we couldn’t do because it’s illegal. Those were difficult situations and I wish I could’ve helped more. It’s weird to realize that the people who were celebrating me in my shows because they love my music would discriminate against me if I came on foot as an immigrant. If I walked there as an immigrant I would be received negatively and that hurts my heart; the fact that I’m accepted as an entertainer but not as a person. Europe always had that relationship with black people, if you’re entertaining them, they like you, if you’re winning football championships they like you, but if you’re just there, no, which is why I’m grateful to be an American. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be a black person anywhere else in the world, even with all that’s going on in America right now, I wouldn’t want to be a black male anywhere else in the world, including even Africa.
“The Good Fight”
Khider: Going back to your last album, my personal favorite, The Good Fight, what is the good fight you’re fighting nowadays?
Oddisee: The good fight is an unconscious fight, it’s a fight when you’re so compelled to do something that you don’t realize you’re fighting it. The type of music I make is not popular, and yet I feel compelled to keep on doing it.
Khider: In your last EP Alwasta, which came out in early 2016 you spoke your heart in the track “Strength and Weakness” and talked about this particular subject beautifully turning antonyms in conjunctions to show the blurry line between what’s good and bad in terms of using power. Was it always glory versus cause, was there any temptations to drop the cause for the sake of going mainstream and getting the glory?
Oddisee: I wouldn’t say I’m tempted to go mainstream because I always do mainstream stuff, I just don’t do it with my raps and my vocals, but I do commercials and sell music to all kinds of artists. I found my ways to make money in the mainstream without compromising my own integrity, but I don’t really have lines between what’s mainstream and what’s not. I think the more complex the music is the more introspective the lyrics get and the more alienating and isolating it becomes to the listeners. So the more complex you make your music the less and less people listen to it, so you got to make it simplistic and easily digestible and I don’t make that type of music. I’d rather my audience keep up with me instead of me simplifying it for them. If I had only 10,000 fans around the world I would be virtually unknown, but, if those 10,000 spend 10 dollars on an Oddisee album that’d be 100,000 a year which is more than most see in a year. The minute I understood that I stopped caring about becoming popular.
Khider: Do you campaign for a particular cause?
Oddisee: I’m passionate about anything that I experience, but, if I dedicated myself to fighting everybody’s cause, it wouldn’t benefit anybody. I’ll be far more effective creating music that breaks barriers down instead of fighting for any specific wall, to fight instead of hiding behind the walls. And there are many; the Islamophobia wall, African American wall, or economic wall. I find myself doing shows with crowds that are so diverse, and that’s my job- bringing all of these people together when they most probably would have never been in the same place if it weren’t for music. I can’t fight banks or stand with a sign in front of an embassy but I know I make the music for all of those who do.
Khider: What’s next? What are your plans for the future?
Oddisee: Have some kids, stop touring and stay at home so I can focus more on music licensing. Build something here in Sudan; I want a house of my own so I could spend some more time in here. I’ve heard they recently lifted the sanctions and it will take some time for them to be fully implemented but as soon as they’re done I’m going to start investing here.
Khider: Speaking of which, you’ve been married for almost two years now, how do you find married life?
Oddisee: I love it! My wife is awesome, every time I travel and meet other people I’m thankful for my wife, she’s very similar to me. She’s Moroccan born and was raised in France. We understand each other, we have the perfect balance for each other.
Khider: Any upcoming records?
Oddisee: I have one that I’m working on, called The Iceberg, coming out in early 2017. It has a common theme of hidden messages, just like an iceberg, the tip you see isn’t the whole story, much more lies underneath it.
The Iceberg comes out worldwide on Feb 24 2017.
This post is also available in: Arabic