Oddisee's 'The Iceberg' Has A Trove Of Stories Beneath Its Surface

Feb 18, 2017
Originally published on February 18, 2017 8:47 am

The rapper Oddisee, born Amir Mohamed, has never shied away from big-picture questions about race, politics, wealth, religion and love in his music. He believes in digging deeper — and fittingly, he's titled his new album The Iceberg because there's a lot going on beneath the surface. He spoke about it with NPR's Scott Simon; hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Scott Simon: Was the concept for The Iceberg that something you started out with, or did it begin to occur the deeper you got into the album?

Amir Mohamed: It was more so of an epiphany that came first, then the title of the album, and then the songs were created around it. Initially, there were things going on in my own personal life and around me that had me constantly questioning, "I wonder how much people really know is going on."

Can you give us an idea of what's going on?

The Syrian refugee crisis was at an all-time high in Europe and I was on a ferryboat from Calais, France to England. One of the largest refugee camps was in Calais.

A lot of Brits refer to that place as "The Jungle."

Yes — and witnessing it firsthand, contemplating my own family and my own roots, it really hit home. We did a performance in Munich, Germany, where a local organization was interacting with a lot of the refugees who were brought to Bavaria and Munich. A few of the kids spoke Arabic, and I got to speak to them and explain to them that my father came to America as an immigrant and that things will hopefully get better.

Listening to the stories that these kids had — many of them were the last to survive out of their families, period. They were 12, some of them younger. I wondered if people back home really had a face to the story, and if they understood the consequences of what was happening, and the causes and effects, really, to the effect that I was experiencing.

Your family's from Sudan, right?

Part of my family, yes. My father's from North Sudan, my mother's African-American. I was raised by my father and my stepmother, who were both Sudanese.

The song "You Grew Up" has a verse about a childhood best friend who was white. You say, "I was trying to keep my Nikes clean / He was trying to scuff his Chucks up." This is your actual life?

Yes and no. I did start off my early childhood in Silver Spring, Md. And my best friend at the time was white. He was a kid who was really into going into sediment ponds and catching snakes and frogs. I remember hanging out with him and going up on the train tracks in Silver Spring in the summertime where he would catch snakes that were sunbathing. Me, I'm listening to rap music at this time, asking my dad for Nikes, and he literally was asking his mom for Converse, saying they look better when they're dirty. And I was like, are you kidding me? You can't do that, you have to keep 'em clean. And that was my first interaction with a cultural difference and us being both very American. I didn't know it at the time, but I was like, "Why am I praised for the cleanliness of my Nikes while he's praised for the dirtiness of his Converse? What is that?"

There's another sequence later in the song that I wanted to ask you about. It begins, "You ever have a friend that became a fanatic?" Where does this vignette come from?

A story came out about a Sudanese son of Sudanese parents who lived in the United Kingdom, who gave their child a very good life and all that he could ask for, but didn't necessarily know what was going on outside of the home as their son attended school and interacted with kids in the street. Apparently, it wasn't that easy for him to be Muslim where he was, and he became attracted to radicalism and became an ISIS executioner.

That is when the second verse started to make itself, where I remember me being a kid in Prince George's County where everyone was predominantly black, where I would be made fun of because my last name was Mohammed. Students would ask me, does my father drive a taxi, just because of my ethnicity. And I'm only half-Sudanese, so I don't want to know what Arabs experience who phenotypically look Arab, have similar names to myself, and are raised in areas of the country that are far less diverse than my own, if I experience that on that level. That is basically how that song came about.

Why do you think that young man from the UK was lured into ISIS?

There's another song on the album, called "Waiting Outside," that talks about mental illness. I mainly focus on mental illness in the African-American community, but there's something that needs to be said about depression, stress and mental illness in the communities of developing countries. Sudanese people, and many other countries around the world, see the idea and the concept of depression, stress, anxiety attacks, nervous breakdowns, mental illness, as something that only white people and Europeans go through and experience — let alone seek help for, and actually speak to someone and pay someone to help them with their problems.

With that being said, it gives a false presence that we're impenetrable and we're not vulnerable to those same instances. So when you have children that you may be giving the perfect life to, but they're being picked on at school, harassed on the bus home, not appreciated the same in the workplace and experiencing adversities that they don't necessarily feel comfortable to talk about with their own parents — if there's someone that finally lends them an ear, they may not care what type of ear is listening. And this is the same type of victimization that happens to kids who join gangs, who join military regimes, who join terrorist cells. It's the same type of psychology, preying on the vulnerability of fragile people.

Let me ask you about one more song, "Never Not Getting Enough." What do you want people to hear in this song?

I think America is waking up in general — and this is people in power in America, and the majority — to what a lot of the minorities have been saying for quite some time. "No, we haven't come that far," or "I'm a victim or racism." I think African Americans in this country, we've experienced so many presidencies where not much has changed for the black experience, so this is just yet another president that doesn't care about us. And it's easier, because he's a bit more upfront with it.

People ask me, "Amir, are you worried about what Trump's doing? Are you worried about the impact this can have on your life?" I don't know what else can be done that hasn't been done already. They say, "Well, are you worried about the Muslim ban?" You know how many white rooms I've been detained in since 9/11? You know how many times my passport has been looked at by an official and they look me in the eyes and ask me what country I'd been born in, as they're looking at my passport? These offenses have been happening to me for quite some time. I'm normally the one who takes the longest when I tour with my band — it's an ongoing joke, where we all get in separate lines, 'cause they know that if they get behind me, they're not gonna get out to the baggage carousel first, because I'm the one who's always detained.

You're talking about something that's lasted a lot longer than the current presidency.

Right! So there we have the line, "What is there to fear? / I'm from Black America, this is just another year."

Are you fearful?

No, there's nothing to fear for me! I don't necessarily want to believe this, I don't want to subscribe to it, but I've been taught to look after myself and not to depend on my country to do so. So I've become accustomed to it. I've been taught by my father, "Amir, don't get involved in politics. Keep your head low, make your money, don't make a fuss or they'll kick you out." I've been taught by grandmother and my mother, "This country doesn't love you, you've gotta go out there and get it on your own and make it happen for yourself." So the president doesn't matter to me. I don't think that that should be right, but this is what I've been taught.

I have a strange question to wind up with: Are you happy?

Absolutely! Maybe my happiness is inappropriate because of all that's going on in the world, but I was taught to take care of myself, and I'm doing a very good job of such.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Oddisee, the rapper born Amir Mohamed, has never shied away from big world questions in his music - race, politics, wealth, religion and love. He believes in digging deeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIGGING DEEP")

AMIR MOHAMED: (Rapping) So let's get into it. So let's get it into it.

SIMON: And, fittingly, he's called his new album "The Iceberg" because there's a lot going on beneath the surface. Oddisee joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MOHAMED: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The concept ice berg - was that something you started out with? Or did it begin to occur the deeper you got into the album?

MOHAMED: It was more so of an epiphany that came first and then the title of the album and then the songs were created around it. Initially, there were things going on in my own personal life and around me that had me constantly questioning, I wonder how much people really know is going on?

SIMON: Can you give us some idea of what was going on?

MOHAMED: I'm on tour at one point in Europe, and the Syrian refugee crisis was at an all-time high in Europe. And I was on - what do they call them? - ferryboat from Calais in France to England. And one of the largest refugee camps was in Calais.

SIMON: The place a lot of Brits refer to as The Jungle.

MOHAMED: Yes, and witnessing it firsthand and contemplating my own family and my own roots, and it really hit home. And we did a performance in Munich, Germany, where a local organization was interacting with a lot of the refugees who were brought to Bavaria and Munich in specific. And a few of the kids spoke Arabic, and I got to speak to them and explain to them that my father came to America as an immigrant, and things, you know, hopefully, will get better, et cetera.

And listening to the stories that these kids have - many of them were the last to survive out of their families, period. The children - they were 12, some of them younger. And I wondered if people back home really had a face to the story, and if they understood the consequences of what was happening and the causes or the effects, really, to the effect that I was experiencing.

SIMON: Your family is from Sudan, right?

MOHAMED: Part of my family, yes. My father is from North Sudan. My mother is African-American. I was raised by my father and my stepmother who are both Sudanese.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GREW UP")

MOHAMED: (Rapping) Let me take it back to my childhood, when six flags was still called Wildwood, where I had every race as a neighbor. We were all working class trying to make it out of our hood. My best friend back then was a white kid. He was tight. He liked the same things I did. Despite us being different colors, man, we were tight as Elmer's, and we called each other brothers. While I was trying to keep my Nikes clean, he was trying to scuff his chucks up. He was grunge. I was fresh. We were young, cuss along to rap while we're sneaking into punk clubs...

SIMON: This is your actual life?

MOHAMED: Yes and no. I did start off my early childhood in Silver Spring, Md., and my best friend at the time was white. And I remember hanging out with him and going up on the train tracks in Silver Spring in the summertime, where he would catch snakes that were sunbathing, and he would catch them. And me, I'm listening to rap music at this time, asking my dad for Nikes. And he literally was asking his mom for Converse, and he was saying they look better when they're dirty. And I was like, are you kidding me? You can't do that. Like, you have to keep them clean. And I remember that was my first interaction with a cultural difference in us being both very American. I didn't know it at the time. But I was like, why am I praised for the cleanliness of my Nikes, but he's praised for the dirtiness of his Converse? What is that?

SIMON: There's another sequence in the song - later in the song I want to ask you about.

MOHAMED: Sure.

SIMON: About another friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GREW UP")

MOHAMED: (Rapping) You ever had a friend that became a fanatic? Most of y'all haven't. But if you ever did, you'd understand the one thing that y'all have in common is somebody took advantage of the damage as a kid. I knew a guy whose folks were professors. Truth in the flesh that Allah was a blesser. Grew up in a Midwestern town where the weren't many brown people he could seek reflection. Got picked on in school during lectures. Graduated hating everybody in his class. Picked on because he prayed five to the east, and he didn't eat the meat that Allah said was bad. One day a man approached him in a mosque. Changed his life when he asked him a question, do you ever feel your life was a loss? And what if I could teach you that life was a weapon...

SIMON: Where does this vignette come from?

MOHAMED: A story came out about a Sudanese son of Sudanese parents who lived in the United Kingdom, who gave their child a very, very good life and all that he could ask for but didn't necessarily know what was going on outside of the home as their son attended school and interacted with kids in the street. And apparently, it wasn't that easy for him to be Muslim where he was in the United Kingdom, and he became attracted to radicalism and became an ISIS executioner.

And that is when the second verse started to make itself, where I remember me being a kid in Prince George's County where everyone was predominantly black, where I wouldn't be made fun of because my last name was Mohamed. And students would ask me, does my father drive a taxi, just because of my ethnicity. And I'm only half-Sudanese. So I don't want to know what Arabs may experience who phenotypically look Arab, have similar names to myself and are raised in areas of the country that are far less diverse than my own - if I experienced that on that level. And that is basically how that song came about.

SIMON: Why do you think that young man from the U.K. was lured into ISIS?

MOHAMED: There's another song on the album called "Waiting Outside" that talks about mental illness. I mainly focus on mental illness in the African-American community.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING OUTSIDE")

MOHAMED: (Rapping) That's a vital part in the art of blackness. We don't get depressed. We compress the sadness. Feeling any way about a day is a privilege. Conversing to the doctor, get expensive answers. Never visible but I could fill a room with people that the sun run away and feeling gloom. Anger is an illness I'm tired of containing. So what my mind saying? I be waiting on you on the outside at the last call. I be waiting on you (ph)...

But there's something that needs to be said about depression, stress and mental illness in the communities of developing countries where Sudanese people and many other countries around the world see the idea and the concept of depression, stress, anxiety attacks, nervous breakdowns, mental illness as something that only white people and Europeans go through and experience. Let alone, it's definitely only something that they seek help for and actually speak to someone and pay someone to help them with their problem.

With that being said, it gives a false presence that we're impenetrable and we're not vulnerable to some of those same instances. So when you have children that you may be giving the perfect life to, but they're being picked on at school, harassed on the bus home, not appreciated the same in the workplace, et cetera, and they're actually experiencing adversities that they don't necessarily feel comfortable to talk about with their own parents - if there's someone that finally lends them an ear, they may not care what type of ear is listening. And this is the same type of victimization that happens to kids who join gangs, who join military regimes, who join terrorist cells. It's the same type of psychology on preying on the vulnerability of fragile people.

SIMON: Let me ask you about one more song. This is "Never Not Getting Enough."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER NOT GETTING ENOUGH")

MOHAMED: (Rapping) I mean, what is there to fear? I'm from Black America, this is just another year. If you're new to disrespect by your elected puppeteers, well, let me show you how to persevere. Just get up every time somebody knocks you down and celebrate in front of people like they not around. And if they try to build a wall to keep you balling out of bounds, use the bench they told you to warm to keep the fences knocking down (ph)...

SIMON: What do you want people to hear in this song?

MOHAMED: I think America is waking up in general - and this is people in power in America and the majority - to what a lot of the minorities have been saying for quite some time. No, we haven't come that far, or I'm the victim of racism. I think African-Americans in this country - we've experienced so many presidencies where not much has changed for the black experience. So this is just yet another president that doesn't care about us. And it's easier because he's a bit more upfront with it.

And when people are - they ask me like, Amir, are you worried about what Trump's doing? Are you worried about the impact that this can have on your life? I don't know what, like, what else can be done that hasn't been done already. He's like, well, are you worried about the Muslim ban? I'm like, Muslim ban? You know, how many white rooms I've been detained in since 9/11? You know how many times my passport had been looked at by an official, and they look me in my eyes and ask me what country I've been born in as they're looking at my passport? These offenses have been happening to me for quite some time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER NOT GETTING ENOUGH")

MOHAMED: (Rapping) Because it's never enough. Never not getting enough in this life that I'm leading, and you know that we're leaving. Y'all go. I ain't leaving. I'm posting life (ph)...

SIMON: I have a strange question?

MOHAMED: Sure.

SIMON: Are you happy?

MOHAMED: Absolutely. Maybe my happiness is inappropriate because of all that's going on in the world. But I was taught to take care of myself, and I'm doing a very good job of such.

SIMON: Amir Mohamed, Oddisee - his new album "The Iceberg" is up February 24. Thank you so much for being with us.

MOHAMED: Thank you so much. This has been a great conversation. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE SONG)

MOHAMED: (Rapping) I was born with small access to big dreams and detached homes. And lazyboy couches where fit thrones that will sit kings. Lion statues on the fences larger than the castles they guarded. Lawns made the pastures pristine to race with the have-nots. Broke with the mots where the jags park, doing dirty work with the whips clean. Notice the Jones' audit what they have is for the show and even though (ph)... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.