Sudanese-American rapper Oddisee on music, family, and Sudan war

It’s midday on a Sunday, and I’m seated, ready to meet rapper and producer Oddisee. Just as I settle in, an email arrives from his agent, suggesting he might be a few minutes late because he has just completed a half-marathon.

Intrigued by this unexpected turn of events, I frantically searched for ‘London half marathon June’ in various ways, but found no relevant results.

Oddisee arrives only a few minutes later than our scheduled meeting time and shows no sign of having broken even the slightest sweat.

He explains that after his morning run, he still felt good after several miles and decided to persevere, covering a distance other runners might train for months to achieve.

Fans of the rapper and producer, born in Washington D.C. to a Black American mother and a Sudanese father, will not be surprised by such a remarkable achievement.

With the exception of a recent break, he has prolifically released albums and extended plays (EPs) and frequently performs. His London show was part of a tour spanning four continents and coincided with the release of his latest EP, And Yet Still.

Oddisee’s musicality and discipline can be traced to his parents, he tells The New Arab. “I get my creativity from my mother; I get my business prowess and work ethic from my father,” he says.

“My mother, I’ll have conversations with her, and she’s asking me about lyrics… she’ll call me and say, ‘That was clever.’ My dad, he says, ‘How’s business?’”

Do not mistake his father’s pragmatism for a lack of interest. Oddisee, born Amir El Khalifa, was primarily raised by his father, and though his father harboured the doubts most immigrant parents have about their child pursuing a career in music, he has been an avid supporter, even when times have been tough.

The two are now physically thousands of miles apart. After living in the US for some thirty years, Oddisee’s father moved to Sudan in 2007.

He has since returned to the US just twice; once, to get his social security account instated (something made light of in Call Baba, a skit on Oddisee’s 2020 EP The Odd Cure); the second time, for his daughter’s wedding.

“Had he been able to combine those trips, he would have,” Oddisee tells me. “He had no interest in returning to the States.”

From war zones to world tours

His father’s determination to stay put in Sudan has persisted even during a devastating war between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary that has raged for well over a year, killing thousands and displacing millions more.

He still lives in an apartment block he built on land he owns in the city of Omdurman, just across the Nile from the capital Khartoum; it is the same building in which Oddisee would stay during his summers in Sudan as a child.

While the army tried to push the RSF out of the area, his father allowed people fleeing the fighting to take shelter in the building. He had an extra well dug when water was becoming scarce and put his generator to use so that people in the area had access to electricity.

The Sudanese army recognised the building as a site of both refuge and strategic value and set up perimeters around it. They “used the building to counter the insurgency, push the paramilitary out and to send aid and take care of people in that neighbourhood,” Oddisee says.

While the apartment building became a local focal point in the war, communication blackouts were leaving parts of Sudan without connection to the outside world for unbearably long periods of time.

Oddisee and his family did not hear from his father for months. It was only through a soldier that he was able to gain brief and precious internet access and speak to family far sooner than other Sudanese were able to, to tell his son: “I’m fine.”

A fighting spirit has kept Oddisee’s father alive, yes, but so has sheer luck; he has only narrowly avoided death on multiple occasions.

“He was hit by shrapnel from a bomb that exploded and killed four soldiers; the shrapnel went into his leg and his hand; his brother’s building next to his was destroyed but his wasn’t; he’s armed – my dad doesn’t play. He’s surviving, he’s surviving.”

While his father holds strong in Sudan, Oddisee is able to tour the world doing what he loves, and he has a wife and two young children who live in New York. But it is not without carrying some of the weight of the world.

“I see what’s going on in Gaza, in Sudan, in Congo, Haiti… I deal with this duality of constant guilt, and I think I balance this guilt by reminding myself to be thankful for what I have.”

From difficult experiences in his childhood up until now, it is art and music that helps him navigate such heavy emotion.

Creative expression through drawing and illustration gave way in his teens to making music; while the medium changed, the therapeutic power remained.

“When I experienced those times, I was always doing something creative to get myself out of it,” he said.

“Fast forward, and that’s still the case. The worst times I’m in, that’s when I go in and make music.”

Guilt, gratitude, and anger sit side-by-side in And Yet Still. In World on Fire, he wrestles with the challenges of fatherhood amidst global conflict and criticises hypocritical politicians who support then condemn warlords; the very next track, Thankful For, celebrates triumph over inner demons and is so infectiously joyous that it is almost impossible to sit still through.

Global sounds, local roots

While his affinity for Sudan is clear in his lyrics, his beat-making and production have always been rooted in the sounds of East Coast hip-hop, specifically those of the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia tri-state area, the DMV.

He does not feel the need to layer overtly Sudanese sounds onto this music, he says.

“I was introduced to this American genre in an American city. So I think that it would be a very large deviation if I took this East Coast upbringing and this East Coast music and just made it Sudanese. It would take a lot of deliberation to do that,” he says.

Instead, he opts to fold in that influence in more subtle ways – ways that a general audience might miss but Sudanese listeners can catch.

“In Thankful For, the syncopation of the drums was Sudanese. The bassline was Afrobeat. The guitar was Congolese. The claps were Gnawa,” he reveals. 

“I pay homage in the weirdest, strangest, nuanced ways, an ‘if you know, you know’ type of thing.”

Shahla Omar is a freelance journalist based in London. She was previously a staff journalist and news editor at The New Arab

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