Oddisee’s Hip-Hop Connects Through People Not Politics

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“I watched the news more as a kid than I did cartoons,” says Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, better known as Oddisee. He is recounting his childhood perspective on the world. He says that he was “fascinated” by watching the news because he wanted to understand every detail about his environment—why his parents were divorced, why there was religious conflict, why people spoke different languages. For those that have been following Oddisee’s almost 15-year career as a solo artist and as part of Diamond District with yU and Uptown XO, the fact that he was inquisitive from an early age should come as no surprise. As both a producer and an emcee, Oddisee’s music exudes creative ambition and a thoughtful attention to detail.

The Good Fight, which dropped earlier in May, blends elements of spiritual jazz, soul, and funk with a drum production style and lyrical prowess that echoes some of the best underground New York hip-hop. Picture Mobb Deep with added introspection and hints of Roy Ayers. What’s more, Oddisee has developed a keen sense for building his music’s message out of precise observations, rather than sweeping, grandiose lyrics. This analytical stance toward the world started around the time he was avoiding cartoons in favor of 60 Minutes.

Oddisee grew up mostly in Prince George’s County, Maryland but he spent his weekends in Washington D.C. with his mom. His father is from North Sudan and his mother grew up in the District. For him, this created a situation where he was “stuck between two different worlds.”

“To my mother’s side of the family, I was the Muslim, I was the nerd. Why? I’m not sure. And to my dad’s side of the family I was the thug. I was the ghetto kid. And those things were so crazy for me growing up. I would go back to Sudan and visit my cousins and stuff and I was the American kid who knew about rap music and Jordans and stuff like that. When I would go to my mom’s side of the family or come back to the states, I was the kid who traveled and ate strange food, you know? So I existed between both worlds; and I was always okay with it but everyone else always seemed to notice it and have something to say about it.”

These contradictions attuned Oddisee to how society propagates rigid barriers related to religion, class, and ethnicity. “It was a blessing and a curse to be born into two ethnicities, into two religions, because it gave me this sense of hyperawareness as a child that no child should ever have,” he reflects. His surroundings allowed him to see the arbitrary and destructive nature of stigma. He describes how his “father’s side of the family chastised and pointed the finger at black America for not taking advantage of opportunities and resources. Or how black America pointed the finger at immigrant America and Africans who immigrate to this country and saying how they’ll live on top of each other, and six to seven of them will be in one room apartments just to go work at a gas station.” Oddisee learned how to interpret these social dimensions by watching, listening, and piecing together the actions of the people around him. It may have deprived him of his innocence, but developing this skill early in life primed Oddisee for entry into hip-hop.

The Good Fight doesn’t make any grand explanations, but, according to Oddisee, it does offer brief insights into “living fully as a musician without succumbing to the traps of hedonism, avarice, and materialism.” Perhaps most importantly, it does so using the most fully realized set of musical elements that Oddisee has produced to date. The live horns on “That’s Love” slide in perfectly alongside the two-bar sample that anchors the track. On “Counter-Clockwise,” the instrumentation swirls around a swinging break. In turn, Oddisee melds his cadence to the track’s rhythm like solder piecing together the wires of an old radio.

He noted that for The Good Fight he wanted to take the lyrical dexterity of 2013’s Tangible Dream and lace it over the instrumental elements of 2012’s Rock Creek Park. The album is at its most affecting when he is able to blend these distinct creative approaches without contrivance. For “Contradiction’s Maze,” the horns give the beat a spacious and slow-moving feel, creating room for Oddisee to either spread out the lines that are best heard on their own (“I wanna make nonstop profit / I wanna make a non-profit”) or slam together phrases for emphasis (“In a circle of self-worth and judgment / how you match it up gets puzzling / how you know enough is enough when you lust for much of enough / it feels just as real as something”). Tangible Dream hit home with fans because it was Oddisee’s most developed attempt yet to tell a story, both about himself as well how he relates to success, fear, and uncertainty. His new material continues in that vein, extending a philosophical approach that Oddisee insists is about “people not politics.”

His lyrics point to the fact that The Good Fight is about a struggle, but not necessarily the struggle that you might assume. On “Want Something Done,” he raps: “I’ma help the people close to me / they help the people close to them and then hopefully/ friends of their friends’ friends heed the notion / we started off locally and now it’s changed globally / that’s the way it’s supposed to be / single seeds only grow to trees if left alone to breath.” It is an argument suggesting that effective change can only happen when people are able to build relationships. Further, it’s a partial rejection of the overtly political militancy that is often woven into underground rap (Oddisee refers to some of his peers as “conflicted rebels with sordid views”).

When asked about why he takes this stance against explicit politics in hip-hop, Oddisee stressed that forming a connection with listeners is one of the most important elements of his music. He talked about the diverse fan base that has reached out to him: a Latin American man suffering from depression, a student applying to Stanford, a Christian pastor in the Pacific Northwest, a soldier deployed in the Persian Gulf. For Oddisee, it’s these people who form the basis for his music.

He explains, “So when I get people that come to me and say ‘yo, I’m going downtown to fight against the Israeli state,’ I don’t necessarily want to fight against the Israeli state. I want to fight against Zionism. So if it is within these parameters I am all on-board. But if it’s all about jumping on something just to get a camera on yourself because you want the attention right then and there, I’m not your guy. Whether that be for Ferguson or Baltimore or Israel, because I get asked for the whole gambit.”

Again, Oddisee’s mixed heritage involves him in multiple sides of diverse issues. He continues, “100% black American rappers get asked to go to Ferguson or Louisiana after [Hurricane Katrina]. I get asked to go to that and I get asked to go to the embassy to fight against Israeli action, or the oil crisis, or genocide. And I have to be very selective in terms of what I get behind or else I end up being a rebel who is being used for everybody else’s cause.”

The hip-hop that has staying power finds a way to endear itself to its listeners. In the tradition of some of rap’s great storytellers (Masta Ace, De La Soul, Rakim), Oddisee observes the world around him with intense curiosity and a sharp eye for the fabric that holds people together. This translates into rap that feels, at the very least, like an embodiment of the musician’s personality. In the current hip-hop climate, that may not be enough to pack Madison Square Garden, but it’s enough to receive the support of fans that take the time to listen.