CAIRO: Decked out in flashy chain necklaces, baggy jeans and a closely shaved head, Omar Tohme looks every inch as intimidating as the violently passionate lyrics he raps in his music. But behind his aggressive hip hop front is the suave, gentlemanly demeanor of a person confident in himself and in what he calls “the cause.
He is Omar Tohme to the outside world, but to the awakening world of Middle East hip hop, he is “Omarz, (which stands for “One Man Army Rises Zealously ). Omarz and his fellow Arab musicians in this underground hip hop circle are promoting the new cause, which, as he puts it, is “a few of Che’s teachings, with some of Bob Marley’s, and every single hip hop act with a ‘fu*you’ directed to the power, and Islamic teachings.
For Omarz, the soul of hip hop, and his music, is the idea of fighting oppression.
Omarz says he’s seen a lot of that these days. He was in Beirut throughout the Israeli bombings last month. And even though he’s a rapper, he can’t find a way to express his feelings. “Words are my craft, and I can’t explain it to you. We’ve seen too much.
He has just arrived from Lebanon – after the cease-fire, he notes proudly – to assure his family in Cairo that he is fine, and to try and continue developing his record and label, “Black Banners Entertainment. Its potential in Beirut was left as battered as the Lebanese skyline after the Israeli bomb strikes.
“We want to open it in the Middle East, he sighs, “But we want to do it right. So we might open it in the U.S. or somewhere like that.
The past 35 days made a drastic change in Omarz’s summer plans: from putting the finishing touches on his first released album, to dragging bodies out of charred wreckage.
“It’s something you really don’t want to know about, he says. “The bodies we were moving were so burnt that the white in the eyes were black.
Omarz spent most of his volunteer efforts throughout the crisis doing something he knew a little better – rapping. He went around to schools in Beirut where refugees were being housed and performed for the children. “They were laughing, ’cause I was dressed funny and was rapping.
But his music is actually a growing trend, especially among younger generations. Part of this he attributes to the Arab rap style he and some fellow artists pioneered, “Fusha rap. The lyrics are sung in formal Arabic, instead of English, and it is very popular in Lebanon. “We have lots of little kids who don’t speak English, and now they’re rapping, in Arabic. Now, the trend has spread to Egypt and Palestine as well. “We’re trying to make it the sound of hip hop, when it comes to Arabic stuff.
But aside from the innovative practices and powerful riffs, Omarz’s music can be a bit of a shock for first time listeners. Omarz doesn’t deny that he is violent in his music. His online musician persona is the first testament to that – in some pictures he poses with guns, flames are the background for his site and he is self-described as “swinging scimitars verbally for the past 13 years.
“Hip hop is my way of letting go, he says. “I’m not trying to be civilized, honestly. When I’m in the booth, it’s my time to be angry. His raps have fighting words.
Take for example his latest and most provocative single, I’m a Terrorist. One line in the song calls for “Sand Nigger action. The premise of the song, he says, is to reclaim what he considers an unjust label, “You wanna call me a terrorist because I’m fighting people that are unjust to me, then fine, I am a terrorist. Omarz says his goal is no different than African Americans’ reappropriation of the racial slur, “nigger.
Omarz says this violent anger is all a natural part of the art of the traditional hip hop ideology that he holds dear: representing the powerless.
It’s no surprise then that hip hop is deepening its hold on the Middle East, where the myriad conflicts have left many feeling downtrodden. Omarz says that this is the one thing he’s gained from the war in Lebanon – self assurance in his dream of spreading the music here. “In the U.S., they’ve lost track of this original essence of hip hop. I’ve witnessed what no one has. Nothing can break me now [the Americans] talk about drive-bys, and shootings. He contemplated the recent events that the Middle East has suffered through, saying, “We’re righteous. No one can tell me ‘You’re not black, or latino, you can’t be doing this.’
He pointed out that Hezbollah’s fight against Israel was about as “gangsta as you can get.
“That’s straight up hip hop. That’s holding your block down. Well, people in America talk about holding down a block – we’re talking about holding down a country . The code of hip hop is all about holding your block down.
But Omarz says he’s not only concerned about Arabs. True to his faith in the “code, he says he embraces all who face hardship.
“Mentally I understand I’m not just rapping for Arabs. I’m rapping for anyone who faces oppression . If Arabic is my culture, hip hop is my culture as well, and the universal language is music.
If you’re interested in checking out Omarz’s music, go to www.djlateralskills.com, or www.myspace.com/contraenterprize.