It’s nearly impossible not to learn something while listening to Oddisee’s latest mixtape, Alwasta. Whether it’s a lesson about the black American experience on “Asked About You,” or the effects of Islamophobia on “Lifting Shadows,” the rapper-producer (born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa) is not afraid of exploring weighty themes. But unlike many conscious MCs, Oddisee has no interest in telling you how to think; that’s your job.
“I do think artists designate their style of writing and their music to a specific thing, and mine is definitely geared towards making people think,” he explained during a phone call in May. “Not telling them the answers, not thinking for them, not telling them how it should be, not telling them how it was back in the day, just making people think.”
Luckily, he’s given us plenty of food for thought in a prolific 2016 during which he released Alwasta (recorded in a single week) and an instrumental day-in-the-life LP titled The Odd Tape. He’s even gearing up for another vocal record in the coming months. That’s all on top of a touring rampage that’s seen him trek across the country and ultimately head to Europe after a stop in his current hometown of Brooklyn for the Northside Festival.
All of that success wouldn’t be possible without “alwasta,” an Arabic colloquialism that loosely means “the plug,” but which Oddisee describes as being “a middleman of social currency.”
“Someone who has enough respect from everyone to command favors and connect people, because of the person that they are,” he said. “Oftentimes that has nothing to do with money.”
The Alwasta project was a literal example, with Oddisee putting every aspect of it together in just seven days in order to have more vocal tracks to play on tour. His graphic designer created the cover in 48 hours, a friend who teaches in Saudi Arabia made sure the Arabic on the cover was correct, his keyboardist recorded all seven songs and served as engineer on a moment’s notice. As Oddisee tells it, these people were just as crucial to the project coming together as he was. While his music operates in the political realm—he put Arabic writing on the Alwasta cover to ensure that it was seen by people who might otherwise never interact with the language—it’s clear that a primary motivation is bringing people together and creating something for them to engage with on their terms.
“I’ve never really seen myself as an educator, and I don’t think it’s my responsibility or any artist’s responsibility to educate people,” he professed. “…Even though I want my music to have thought-provoking content, [I want] for it not to alienate people or chastise anyone, because I don’t feel like that’s the main focus of music.”
Oddisee’s goal is for people to have a relationship with his work, and the nature of that is up to them. That’s why he made The Odd Tape an instrumental, so people could graft their own daily experiences onto it.
“We know about the inner workings of so many rappers’ lives as a result of the music they record, but with an instrumental it allows people to make their own interpretation, and if my daily routines are similar to yours it can then be your theme music without my words getting in the way of it,” he said.
The album is meticulously, warmly crafted, and demonstrates his virtuoso talents on the boards. It’s a mix of samples and live instrumentation woven together that can serve as your soundtrack from the start of the daily grind (“Alarmed”) to the blissful moment you finally drag yourself to bed (“Still Sleeping”).
“We are all spoon-fed this concept that we are all so very unique. In fact, we’re not. We share far more in common than we’d like to admit, and by displaying my daily routine I hope that people can connect with it and say, ‘You know what, this feels like my day, too.’ And then suddenly you don’t feel like you’re alone in your daily life.”
Oddisee, who has lived in Brooklyn for the past six years, describes his own routine as yeoman-like. “I’m a creature of habit,” he said.
Originally coming to New York to be closer to a creative center after living in the Washington DC area, Oddisee initially found the city’s divides to be jarring and frustrating. He recounted a story of being unable to find healthy food in his neighborhood, and taking a bus to Downtown Brooklyn to an upscale, healthy grocery store with a clientele that was almost solely white.
“I found myself in museums and coffee shops and cafes where I was the only black person, and it didn’t make sense to me because I don’t come from that,” he said, noting that he was used to a more mixed culture in Washington. “But, over the years those things have changed dramatically.”
He’s now wary of the role of classism as a newer concept that’s impacting not just New York but America as a whole. It’s surely the kind of topic he’ll find a way to deftly discuss on his forthcoming record with his usual blend of intelligence, candor, and of course, alwasta.
“I’m not the poster boy for anyone, but I’m the poster boy for everyone because my music is designed to be open to interpretation,” he explained.