Sitting on Oddisee's couch, I've either just made him very happy or very annoyed. We've been talking about the producer and rapper's newest album, The Iceberg, and I've wrongly made an assumption about the focus of one of its songs, a clacking, guitar-driven tune called "This Girl I Know."
"This is about your wife," I'd blurted out sheepishly while connecting eyes with his actual wife, Aziza, who's been quietly reading in the corner of their Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, apartment during our conversation. Her response, a smile curled at the corners and shrunk with pity, told me almost immediately that I had missed the mark. Through a few stifled laughs, the rest of the room's audience, which includes both Oddisee's manager and fellow DC-bred rapper Toine, let me know that the "girl" in question is not her, but rather a metaphor for hip-hop, à la Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R."I imagine this sort of whiff was either the point of the song's figurative makeup—or a result of a dumb journalist just not listening close enough.
"It's all good," Oddisee, born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, says with a patient chuckle. "That's what this is for."
A little embarrassed, I nod and add that I can get pretty used to "this," referring to the listening session we're having in his sunlit living room on a day following the first true blizzard of winter. Amir, dressed in blue house slippers, and Aziza have pulled out all the stops in making sure their guests of late (other writers and industry folk hoping to discuss the new project, I learn) are comfortable. This involves an impressive spread of snacks, highlighted by hummus crackers drizzled with honey, and steaming cups of red Moroccan tea that Aziza, who's Moroccan-French, mixes right in front of us in long, waterfall-like pours. Small ornaments, like two handsome silver hookahs standing in the corner and a rolling suitcase wrapped in an American flag graphic poking out of the bedroom, hint at the couple's diverse backgrounds.
This isn't just my observation; Amir points it out when I ask why he hosts journalists at his home. The warm aesthetic, he says, is meant to inspire a different picture than one you might expect from a so-called conscious rapper. That designation, left over from when the genre was split into sub-segments of mainstream and underground, is still plagued by stigmas—namely that the lyrically focused MCs of that era wear beanies with brims and sleep on their friends' couches. Amir uses his living space to dispel that notion, just as he's been using his music for years to encourage the reassessment of other timeworn assumptions.
Oddisee's dense, message-driven albums have nudged listeners into rethinking their positions in the big, bubbling universe (hint: they're not at the centre of it), while his instrumental projects, crackly and brisk and built on the live instrumentation of his long-time band, differ in their sheen, which glimmers amid the hazy, compressed audio files that dominate the beat tape realm. The Iceberg, his 11th solo project overall, is a culmination of these media, combining verbal barbs on contentious topics—like the dynamic between young black men and the police—with intricate production.
"No one really wants to do the hard work of understanding why things are the way they are," he says. "My message is to try to bring everyone together to realise that we're not all that different."
That message can be directly tied to Amir's eclectic upbringing. As he explains it, his artsy side comes from his mom, who he spent weekends with in DC as a kid. In what she didn't have in material goods—she lived below the poverty line in subsidised housing—she provided in creative encouragement. His practical side, meanwhile, comes from his father, a Sudanese immigrant who was taught in England and at one point, along with Amir's uncles, traveled to the Middle East to help wealthy Persian Gulf Arabs transition to Western practices. He's now retired and, to this day, asks Amir, "How's business going?" when referring to his music. This dynamic not only provided Amir with a balanced outlook on life, but also an acute understanding of the world's diversity—or, as he explains it, its people's similarities. By splitting time between the ghetto, the upper middle-class suburbs of Prince George's Country in Maryland, and Sudan, where he visited his cousins every summer, he learned that people share a lot more in common than they think. "It made me understand why things are the way they are in the black community and how similar immigrants are no matter where they come from," he says, propping up his chin with the palm of his hand.
He speaks eloquently and, with his round glasses and slim build, gives off the vibe of the young teacher who's simultaneously chill and has his shit together. This aura shines through when he gives examples of the underlying threads that tie us all together, a topic he continues to emphasise: A figurative group of Persians, adamant about their singular qualities as a culture, don't realise that Sudanese and Colombians share some of the same traits, for example. Financially stable blacks who move to a neighbourhood with cheap rent—just as Amir did seven years ago when he moved from DC to Brooklyn—are gentrifiers, too, he points out. And, my favourite out of the bunch: Fans of Toronto crooner Drake can have just as much appreciation for lyrics as those of more traditional, word-heavy MCs. I enjoy this correlation mainly for how it unfolds:
Amir: "I really appreciate [Drake's] writing style. I don't necessarily agree with all the stripper music; I can't relate to that. I've never even been to a strip club."
Amir's manager: "That's not true. You performed at one in Toronto."
Aziza: *Lifts head from book to stare coldly at Amir as room goes quiet.*
This isn't the first time Amir's words have gotten him into some trouble (the club's dancers weren't working that night, to clear the air). He's always used his music as a platform for promoting his beliefs, political and otherwise. Though he's diligent in shaping his rhymes to be more from the perspective of a woke friend than a berating pundit, they're still based in his viewpoints, running the risk of upsetting those who believe the opposite. This is a lesson he's learned throughout his career, with a recent example being the criticism he received over the lyrics of "Like Really," the first single off The Iceberg. Against a muffled guitar line and bullish drums, he runs down a list of sharp-ended beliefs, methodically undercutting flimsy concepts like the All Lives Matter movement. A young white fan from Colorado, he recalls, was especially upset over the song's message.
"I said, 'By all means, tell me why you disagree," he says, describing what happened when he reached out to the fan. "I've always been in a position where I've been able to understand completely where he's coming from but don't expect people to completely understand where I come from."
Critiques from a 16-year-old troll on the Internet? Easy to handle. Rejection from The White House? Not so much. Midway through our conversation I learn that Amir was slated to perform at President Obama's farewell bash in January, alongside Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. At the last minute, however, house officials pulled him from the bill, citing his music as too controversial. Amir believes their concern stemmed from one song specifically, "Lifting Shadows," a single off last year's EP Alwasta, where he raps, "I love my country, hate its politics." The line, coming from a proud Muslim rapper who has strong family ties to Sudan, a country that Obama left largely sanctioned (he did lift one penalty related to money transactions before leaving office,) posed potential turbulence for an administration on its way out.
Politics is a topic I'd been eagerly waiting to broach with Amir. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that Donald Trump signed in the extremely hasty and controversial ban of Muslim immigrants, an executive order that included Sudan. I figured Amir would have some strong opinions on it, even if his family wasn't directly affected (they weren't, due to their possession of US passports). But while he has plenty to say about green cards, the concept of "brain drains" and Islamophobia, he genuinely seems most hurt by Obama's staff and their move to cut him. I can't blame him. The nation's first black president built a legacy around the idea of acceptance, from deeming same-sex marriage a "victory for America" to signing in an initiative to let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice to hosting a plethora of rappers at the White House. Yet they rejected Amir, the son of an immigrant who uses his voice to critique the country in a thoughtful manner—a true patriot, by some people's definition. In a way, it's fitting: Just like his music, Amir's dismissal illustrates that a disconnect exists at every level, no matter how high.
"This is why I'm very reluctant sometimes," he says, dropping his shield of confidence for the first time. His conviction returns, however, with a look around the room. "But then you get angry. And you want to give that message."
Photos by Julian Masters. Follow him on Instagram.
Reed Jackson is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.