On Tuesday, the podcast Dukkan Show uploaded the interview that I’d been waiting for since I learned of Sudanese-American producer and rapper Amir Mohamed, a.k.a Oddisee.
I discovered Oddisee in 2012, a few months after the release of his album, People Hear What They See. His work was a revelation, a blend of lyrical depth and an East Coast sound that felt like home and made me long for ‘home’.
Four years later, AlWasta drops and I sit in front of my computer sobbing as “Lifting Shadows” plays in my earbuds. The song so succinctly encapsulates everything I feel about existing at the rocky intersection of America and Sudan and the triggering time in which we live that I am unable to contain my emotion. Despite Oddisee’s Americanness being by blood while mine by birth, I felt a fully shared experience with him that I had not felt with any other artist. So I spent time sifting through interviews, trying to find one in which he discusses this balance of identity, with no luck. That is, until Tuesday.
The Dukkan Show interview comes at the heels of a similar conversation, in which Oddisee was also a participant, exploring ‘the Sudanese New School’ of musicians who live that Sudanese-tinged otherness that has shaped my entire life.
The conversation left me unfulfilled; not through any fault of those who engaged in it, but more so due to the fact that I was looking for answers that they couldn’t provide. In the same way that I battled against being pigeonholed my whole life, I ironically found myself inflicting the same war upon them – demanding from them a certain, specific validation within this identity that is much more fluid and diverse than I gave it credit.
In reality, I was looking for these artists to address how they consolidate their otherness with being Sudanese. I was looking for them to resolve my struggles with identity and give me clear and defined parameters in which to exist, rather than allowing them to simply be individuals and creatives who are not only not defined by how they carry that burden, but are not required to carry it in the first place.
Because that’s what it was to me; that’s what it had always been – a burden. The burden of proving that I was “authentically” one while simultaneously having to prove to be “authentically” another. The burden of showing that I was more of one thing than another. The burden of hiding the desire to be both one and the other. The silent desperation to be neither, to have nothing to prove, to be free to be whoever.
So as I listened to Amir describe the way he views and interacts with his Black American and Sudanese identities, I had what my friend calls a “Beautiful Mind moment”. As he tells the story of his upbringing, it becomes apparent that Oddisee has managed to rise above the petty playing field of a singular identity, completely avoiding the turf war – choosing to be a spectator instead.
“I wasn’t Black American to my mother’s side of the family, and I wasn’t Sudanese to my father’s side of the family. I was just alone. So that actually allowed me freedom to develop my own personality and not be indoctrinated into any belief system.”
Why had I never considered that perspective? The answer came to me before I had the chance to wade deeper in self-pity. “My mom said to me very young, ‘when you go back to Sudan and you’re with your family and they pick on you, don’t worry about them. And if you come to my side of the family and they pick on you, don’t worry about them’”.
It took me a long time to not feel lonely in the aloneness of being other. At home, Sudaneseness reigned king, queen and court jester. My parents imparted every aspect of the culture down to the humor, wove it into every fiber of my being, taught me to boast it as a badge of honor.
At school, I put it away. Tucked it under the folds. Drowned it out with unmistakeable American drawl. But it wasn’t all negative; being out in the world gave me the chance to flex all the parts of my identity that were left to atrophy at home. It was a break from the pressure of having to uphold a culture that felt so distant and, truthfully, practically theoretical.
‘Back home’, I knew that my personality would give me away, so I preempted the bit Amrika (American Girl) label by boldly brandishing my badge – flaunting my Arabic skills and breadth of cultural knowledge. Instead, I was labeled 7aboba – grandma. My Sudanese Arabic, although flawless in sound, was old. All the ‘genuine’ terms I was made to learn by my father were baladi, outdated, uncool. “Who even knows what that means? Who cares?” My loneliness became two-fold – rejected by my elders for being American, and ridiculed by my peers for being lame.
Eventually, my self grew too large to remain quelled, forcing me (and my parents) to accept the reality – that my identity was complex, three dimensional, and that this did not diminish or tarnish its authenticity. In fact, it added a richness to my experience and a valuable uniqueness of perspective.
“I can see Sudan as a Sudanese and as an American; I can see America as a native and as a foreigner.”
This duality of perspective is a powerful tool, if we allow ourselves to wield it. Part of accepting my complex identity was also granting myself permission to fully claim each part of it. But when I finally did, I found that my opinions were often dismissed, and I was deemed “unqualified” to speak on anything. “Aren’t you from Sudan?” and “What do you know about Sudan to speak on such matters?” were often retorts to any argument I made, no matter how sound or secured in fact it was.
The irony is that our dual identity makes us unfit to speak on behalf of its parts – until it does. In the summer of 2002, I was confronted by a relative who demanded that I explain why I “cared so much” about 9/11. In 2016, I am urged every day by relatives to fulfill my duty as an American citizen and vote against Trump, so that “things don’t get worse for us”.
Denying one side or the other full ownership of my allegiance breeds resentment, but, as Oddisee puts it, “I can’t be the poster boy for both, I’d wear myself thin. And I can’t choose one.”
“When I leave the country, I’m checked as a Black American and a rapper, and when I enter the United States, I’m checked as an Arab and a Muslim.”
In the same way that we are the sum of our parts, we are also the sum of their stereotypes, bestowing upon us the honor of bearing, perhaps, the biggest brunt of all. I find that I represent a collection of fears that I never imagined myself capable of instilling in people – and thus vulnerable to attack from any of these sides. I am at once a threat as a Black Muslim child of immigrants, and as an American imperialist sell-out influenced by Western culture and ideals.
It is exhausting to exist in this epicenter of incongruity, but I am comforted in knowing that there are others who live this otherness and claim it as I do. It is my identity – “I can’t pick sides; I was born into a duality.”
a version of this article appears in Elephant Media’s The Tusk blog.