Arabs on the Mic

Meghan Askins
December 20, 2006

It's a rainy night in LA and the audience inside a Culver City club has gone quiet. All ears fixate on hip hop emcee Excentrik as he plays the 'ud, an ancient Arabic predecessor to the guitar, seldom heard in the era of custom ringtones and MP3s. The reflective tones of Excentrik's solo intensify as his fellow emcee Cookie Jar joins in and begins to rap. "We like to make you dance a little and think a little, back and forth," announces a third performer named Ragtop, who is at the helm of the hip hop crew The Philistines.

Backed by a funk band called The Legitimates and assisted by DJ Myson King, members of The N.O.M.A.D.S. and The Philistines deliver a performance that is both engaging and provocative. With songs about New Orleans, Los Angeles, and the Middle East, the artists display both political savvy and rapid rhyme-dropping precision. And, like most key players in the Arab American hip hop movement, coordinating emcees Omar Chakaki and Nizar Wattad are well-educated, dynamic, and articulate.

Chakaki, 25, whose stage name is Omar Offendum, makes up half the voice and brain of The N.O.M.A.D.S. (Notoriously Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Sh*t). Chakaki is Syrian American, and signs his emails "Sinsyrianly Yours." Hip hop was part of his musical landscape growing up in Washington D.C., but it wasn't until the events of 9/11, that he was moved to speak his mind through rap. Chakaki received a degree in Architecture from the University of Virginia, then moved to California where he began collaborating with Nizar Wattad, a.k.a. Ragtop, founder of The Philistines.

Wattad, 26, brings a fresh perspective with a rural Tennessee upbringing and Palestinian roots; much of his family still lives in Haifa, the largest city in Northern Israel. He started The Philistines with his younger brother Bader (B-Dub), and MC/producer CJ (Cookie Jar), a Filipino artist. The crew's name begs reassessment of the word "Philistine," which has come to mean one who is ignorant or uncultured, though it also refers to an ancient people that inhabited parts of the Middle East. The word, "Palestine" was derived from "Philistia," the land of the Philistines, and in Arabic Palestine is known as "Filastin."

Free the P

In early 2005, Omar Chakaki and Nizar Wattad teamed up to make the first hip hop compilation dedicated to a free Palestine. They looked for musicians to contribute, and, says Chakaki, "the response was overwhelming."

"The artists who contacted us weren't only Arab American, they came from all sorts of backgrounds," he adds. The musicians on Free the P insist that when it comes to the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli rule, few Americans are aware of the bleak reality of the situation. Chakaki and Wattad feel that U.S. media and government often ignore Palestinian civilian casualties and pleas to end what they refer to as, "an Apartheid state."

The resulting album, "Free the P," is comprised of tracks from 24 artists, including Latinos, African Americans, two hip hop crews from Gaza, an Iraqi Canadian, an Israeli American rapper from Michigan, and a Palestinian American spoken word activist. For Chakaki and Wattad, it was important to involve people from "all walks of life, [including] Jews, Christians, lesbians, atheists, and Muslims." "Free the P" turned into a rallying cry from artists of numerous faiths and nationalities, talking about oppression and occupation at this moment in history. Wattad decided that the proceeds from the album would go to the production of an upcoming documentary, SlingShot Hip Hop, about Palestinian hip hop artists in the West Bank, Gaza, and what he refers to as "occupied Israel."

On the title track of Free the P, The Philistines sketch the state of their world, communicating thanks for other artists' support and contributions. "From the West Bank to the West Coast/We start to connect and get close/Profess our best hopes despite the stress/Because there's something in our chest/This love." Listening to the rest of the album, it's easy to understand what The Philistines are grateful for. Alongside the classic track "Neo-Con Luv," a collaboration between the well-established Palestinian American artist Iron Sheik and Excentrik, there are also plenty of new and perhaps unexpected voices.

Immortal Technique, an Afro-Peruvian emcee from Harlem, delivers a crushing account of the U.S. government's behavior that ends with the lines, "We don't get weapons contracts, nigga/We don't get cheap labor for our companies, nigga/We are the cheap labor, nigga/Turn off the news and read." Illustrious Palestinian American poet Suheir Hammad performs two works, the first of which states that anywhere in America, "You are standing on stolen land." Hammad urges the listener to look for injustice and "do something, start by saying something." The N.O.M.A.D.S team up with Palestinian American artist Excentrik for the track "Pollution," which speaks of "Damascus' ashes and Jerusalem's tears" and "Arab bloodlines thinning fast like oil pipelines."

Angry Arabs

Excentrik, 26, was raised in Oakland and Detroit. He says that, for him, turning to hip hop was inevitable. "There just was no other choice really. Where I grew up, it was all we had," he adds. "Rapping and free-styling were natural reactions." Excentrik learned to play the �ud and started producing beats in high school. Anger and discontent with his surroundings motivated him to make music. "My friends were athletes, so they played basketball. I was like a skinny-ass kid, and music got me out there. When you're all pent up and shit, what else are you going to do?"

When he was in sixth grade, Excentrik's teacher asked the students to look through a geography book and talk about their ancestral origins. Excenrik was shocked to realize that the Middle East wasn't included in the book. When he told the teacher he was from Palestine, she said that he must have been mistaken. "Palestine," she said, was simply an old-world term for Israel. In the end, Excentrik got up in front of the class and said that his origins were Asian. He says he felt marginalized and degraded by having to lump himself into a broad category of Asians and other "exotic people."

Excentrik would like people of color everywhere to listen and respond to his music because he says they're likely to identify with the racism he has faced, and adds that he doesn't want anything to do with listeners he calls, "white suburban punk kids who are oblivious to the roots of hip hop."

Omar Chakaki, on the other hand, has more inclusive visions of his audience. He says he wants his work to appeal to hip hop lovers of all backgrounds because he sees the potential for numerous kinds of alliances. Though he also faces prejudice -- for example, he says he's frequently harassed at the airports -- Chakaki tries to focus on more positive day-to-day interactions.

Jammin' in the Motherland

In October, The N.O.M.A.D.S. and The Philistines along with Excentrik and several other hip hop artists, including Palestinian American DJ/producer Fredwreck, were invited to perform at an event called Project Peace in downtown Amman, Jordan. They opened for a famous Arabic pop singer and ended up stealing the show. The audience was made up of 2,000 -- mostly young -- people who thrived on their infectious hip hop vibe. The concert was particularly momentous for several of the artists whose families live in the area and came to watch. "Our moms were crying," Chakaki recalls.

These musicians' work often includes samples of the 20th century Arab music that was so present during their childhoods. The cleverly-titled N.O.M.A.D.S. track "Fairuzin," for example, remixes a song by the celebrated Lebanese singer and cultural icon Fairuz. Omar Chakaki feels that such samples "helped us take back our culture," since non-Arab rappers have also used Arabic clips without a sense of their history. When the crews performed tracks with samples of traditional songs at the concert in Amman, the audience went crazy, soaking up the familiar sounds.

One of the most hopeful elements of the Amman experience for the performers I spoke with was a sense of pan-Arab pride and cohesiveness. The artists themselves represented diverse nationalities, with Narcyist (formerly of the hip hop crew Euphrates) from Iraq, Omar Offendum from Syria, and Ragtop and Excentrik from Palestine. Chakaki explains that all too often, political ties and nationalistic views get in the way of friendships, especially now that thousands of Iraqi refugees have begun to cause tension in Jordan. It was exciting to see that instead of showing biases, the audience in Amman embraced all the performers with the same enthusiasm.

As young American artists with ties to the Middle East, Omar Offendum, Excentrik, and Ragtop all convey a sense of fractured identity. "We're navigating this terrain with the good that both sides have to offer," says Chakaki. Being linked to the Middle East and the U.S. allows him to claim the aspects of each culture he views as valuable. "We're breaking old traditions when they're not helpful and dispelling stereotypes wherever we can," he says. Self-invention and discovery seem to be vital elements of these artists' projects. Fans are often energized to speak up and reach across what have traditionally been very large divides. As Chakaki puts it: "Young people tend to view the world in the same way. We see past the borders and look for the common ground."


Meghan Drury Askins recently received an M.A. in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside and now works as a writer based in Los Angeles.

Photo by Laith Al-Majali


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nice...<br />
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Where I can find their albums? Want to hear this...<br />
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I must say backed by a funk band called The Legitimates and assisted by DJ Myson King, members of The N.O.M.A.D.S. and The Philistines deliver a performance that is both engaging and provocative. This is good news!<br />
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Excentrik would like people of color everywhere to listen and respond to his music because he says they&;re likely to identify with the racism he has faced, and adds that he doesn&;t want anything to do with listeners he calls, "white suburban punk kids who are oblivious to the roots of hip hop.<br />
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