Few rappers take as rigorous of an approach as Oddisee when it comes to creating music. His process for crafting an album goes like this: produce the beats, put them in the order they’ll be on the album, develop a theme for the album, then formulate the subject matter for each song working within that theme. Only after that’s all set does he write the lyrics and record them. “I’m a very calculated worker,” he says. “I always say I work smart, not hard.”
This fact is evidenced in his output. It’s only May and he’s already done with one EP written and produced by him, as well as an instrumental full-length (Alwasta and The Odd Tape respectively).
Oddisee describes his writing process as being fairly open. He likes to write while walking around and he can write on the road. “I’m not restricted to writing in specific elements, but I do have my preferences,” he says.
This flexibility also comes through in the actual words he writes. In a genre where artists often express their point of view in a very didactic way, Oddisee says he’s more interested in posing questions. On “Lifting Shadows,” a song from Alwasta that deals with the issues faced by Muslims in America, he raps, “I got a name that’ll scare all the brave in the land of the free. All in the name of protecting a country that’s shooting its citizens dead in the streets.” Here, Oddisee explains how he goes about approaching political issues in his music.
What do you see as the most effective means of political action for average people. In another interview I read, you were talking about selectively deciding which movements to get involved with and how to go about getting involved in the first place. How do people go about making a difference?
The minute you insert the word “people” into anything, there’s no one way to do anything. That’s the most important thing I feel that I’ve understood. Marching may be effective for some people, scolding and criticizing may be effective for others. I find for me, simply putting my own observations in music seems to be the most effective way for me to get my point of views and messages across to my audience. And my audience in turn subscribes to that and shares similar beliefs. But outside of that, there is no one more effective way to do anything. Our very nature is based on that. A lot of times we get caught up trying to persuade people to do things our way or see things our way, and that’s where a lot of conflict comes from. We’re constantly at odds with one another because we’re not necessarily listening to hear someone’s side. Many times we’re just waiting for our turn to speak. And we’re always on the defense trying to get people to believe what we want.
I’m not really interested in making people believe what I believe. I just want to share what I believe and what other people believe and leave it up to interpretation. The biggest thing I want is for there to be more critical thinkers in the world. That’s something I’m definitely concerned with, which is a massive talking point on my next album. There’s a severe lack of critical thinking in the world right now, and I think that we’d be a lot better off if people would think about things in a more critical fashion.
“Most of us have so many pressures in our life that it’s a privilege to think critically. Oftentimes you don’t have the time to think about things beyond face value.”
What in particular taking place right now has you concerned about people’s critical thinking skills?
I just think that we as a society, western or eastern, are extremely gullible. We could go down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, but definitely through media and politics and propaganda we have been systematically made more gullible. And I’m in awe of how effective it’s been. Not necessarily scared, but more so in awe. If you open any history book you can see that what we’re experiencing now has been there and will always be there, and it’s expressed itself in many different ways, whether it be motivating an entire nation to support atrocities committed or to go to war, or to be anti anything. That you can motivate an entire nation to think consciously as a collective has always been something that has put me in awe.
But it’s always something that’s been cyclical. Every extremity breeds another extremity. So wherever we are in the world, it’s actually creating the catalyst for something to revolutionize it. If you look at history long enough you can almost predict what the next step is. So I don’t really necessarily have any concerns, I’m just oftentimes in awe of what I observe.
What’s stopping people from thinking critically?
One of the biggest challenges stopping people from thinking more for themselves is oftentimes it’s not the easy route. And we are a society that is based on being insatiable and instant gratification. We don’t want things to be more difficult. Most of us have so many pressures in our life that it’s a privilege to think critically. Oftentimes you don’t have the time to think about things beyond face value. I wholeheartedly understand that. But for the people that are privileged to do so, it is up to us to encourage and to do it for others. I think that’s one of my purposes in music.
I am the product of a mother who is from one of the poorer areas of the District of Columbia and a father who was from a war-stricken third world country. On both sides of that spectrum my parents weren’t allowed the opportunity to critically think. Every day was a constant struggle to worry about what tomorrow’s going to be, and more so what today is going to bring. They afforded me the opportunity to think about the future. Therefore it is my responsibility, no matter how difficult it may be. Finding ways to convey that message is the path that I’ve been put on this earth to do.
What is the process of translating that thought, or any specific thought regarding a major issue faced by society, into music?
It usually involves asking the questions of who, what, when, where, and why. And putting that in music, and not necessarily inserting my own opinion, but posing the questions and leaving it up to interpretation. So instead of trying to control how people think, I just want to encourage people to think in the first place by posing questions in music.
On “Lifting Shadows” you talk about some of the issues faced by Muslims today both in America and Europe. What kinds of experiences have you had that inspired that song?
It came from the sum of a lot of things: hearing what Donald Trump was saying about closing the borders, about stopping Muslims from entering the country; my band and I traveling through Europe and seeing migrants make their way through the country from North Africa and the Middle East, and take such a risky route because anything was better than home; knowing that my own father left Sudan to leave civil war and escape mandatory service in the military. All of those things together created the subject matter for that song and I felt like that was the perfect time to say what I had always wanted to say in a song.
“All of us in some capacity allow someone to think for us. There are certain things that we pluck and pull to think for ourselves, but none of us are exempt from allowing institutions to think for us.”
I was wondering in those lines where you’re repeating the word “trump” a few times, if those were directed specifically at Donald Trump.
What does it feel like for you to see someone like Trump saying the kinds of things he does on TV all the time?
Again, I stand in awe. We all know that these people exist who share these beliefs. We all know that the coasts of our country, east or west, is not a true reflection of American beliefs. And I don’t know why we’re constantly surprised when we discover what America really thinks and believes—the majority of America for that matter, outside of our major cities along the coasts. We all know it’s there, we all know what they believe. The irony I find is that I don’t actually think Trump believes half of what he’s saying. He’s a capitalist, he’s always been a capitalist, and he will say and do anything whatever it takes to advance, because that’s what capitalism is. It’s growth, exponential.
Any one of our corporations that was responsible for creating some of our greatest American cities, like Detroit or Pittsburgh, where it was based around an industry that became an American institution, their very same CEOs and presidents shut down those mining facilities in West Virginia and the steel mills in Pittsburgh and the car factories, and moved them to Asia in order to save money and make more money—knowing that they were moving these corporations to places that didn’t practice the same humanitarian laws, taking away American jobs, and basically working under slave labor. And no one has a problem with it. Yet we’re surprised when we have a capitalist who reshaped Atlantic City by putting in casinos and taking advantage of an already ravaged city just to make money is now inciting racist speech in order to win an election. He’s a capitalist and all of our capitalists will say and do whatever it takes. He’s no different than anyone who’s moved a corporation abroad to make more money at the consequence of American lives and jobs. Yet those same people who were laid off will vote for Trump. That is what I find fascinating.
Do you feel like there’s any way to reach those people and share some of your perspective with them?
For me it’s posing questions. To ask, “Why?” And if you start people and encourage them on the trail of thought, it’s easier for them to start to understand that things aren’t always what they seem,and that everything should be questioned. I feel like that is all that we can do. Because as long as we have media outlets that think for us, we’ll always have people that are too busy to think for themselves. And that’s a dangerous place to be. All of us in some capacity allow someone to think for us. There are certain things that we pluck and pull to think for ourselves, but none of us are exempt from allowing institutions to think for us, whether that be where we’re going to eat tonight, or what movie we watch, or what music we listen to, or the god that we pray to, or the president we vote for. None of us are fully exempt, but all of us should question everything.