If you really think about it, there’s not that much new or surprising about D.C. native Oddisee making an album called The Iceberg—not when he’s been imploring people to think critically and look below the surface since his early days on the mic. He’s always been an artist who reveals himself in layers; it might just be that The Iceberg has the most layers he’s ever granted us.
A year ago, Oddisee was touring in Europe and taking notes of everything he observed—a ferryboat through the migrant camps in Calais, a concert in Munich attended by a group of young refugees, a greenroom where a bunch of fans from all over the world came to hang out with him. Once he got home, he thought about these experiences in the context of his own upbringing—but also reflected on his career, his relationship to hip-hop, his own growth. The result ended up being an album that documents Oddisee at his most direct and uncompromising.
Just before his concert at the 9:30 Club tonight, we met up with Oddisee while he was on tour in Europe and talked to him about some of the experiences behind The Iceberg and his return to D.C.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
Washington City Paper: The Iceberg came partially out of some travel experiences that were really profound for you, including a ferryboat ride through Calais and a performance attended by refugees in Munich. Can you talk more about that?
Oddisee: It’s always been about traveling for me, acquiring experiences and finding a way to incorporate them into music. On the last tour we went on, there was a lot going on and a lot to take in, and for the first time I felt like I had to make something more direct. I’ve always grazed the surface of politics, but I never wanted to come across as a political rapper. But this is one of those times where I had to really risk that. It was personal too—my father came to the United States when the first civil war had broken up between north and south Sudan. It hit home, talking to kids who had outlived their parents and their siblings.
WCP: The themes on the album are intense—you drop bars about mental illness, the wage gap—but musically, the vibe isn’t heavy. How did you keep the songs from feeling weighed down?
O: I look up to Marvin Gaye a lot, and not just because he had an amazing voice, but because he had this ability to entertain and educate at the exact same time without one taking away from the other. When I was listening to “What’s Going On,” I thought, “Wow, you could play this at a cookout and completely turn off the message and enjoy the music, or you could sit in the dark and listen to this and be sad about the world at the same time.” So that’s been a constant decision of mine.
I think [the balance] can also be accredited to growing up bilingual. There’s a way I spoke English to my mom and a way I spoke English to my dad—there were certain words I used with my American mom, and then I’d have to explain myself in another way to my dad. That taught me how to communicate in layers to get a point across to people who may come from a different background. I’m trying to design music that isn’t too heavy and that won’t alienate people, but I also don’t want it to be too entertaining. Finding that balance between the two is really essential, and I guess if I had to explain how I do it, I think I always do my best to ask a question. A statement is when you start to get more emotional, but I think a question just encourages people to be curious and inquisitive.
WCP: But your music has always had a political bend to a certain degree—I’m thinking about songs like “American Greed.” Do you feel like people are catching up to you?
O: Art is very cyclical and it works in extremes, and hip-hop is old enough to see some recurring cycles at this point. You can see how it went from being party music to being conscious music and then, from there, into gangster rap, which is another form of social commentary, and it keeps flip-flopping. The south was dominated with crunk and that evolved into trap—and it was more entertainment, which I think left room for a generation that wanted content. So we’re at a point culturally where people want substance from the music.
I think we’re also at a point where youth culture is directly affected by what’s going on politically. Under the Obama administration, a lot of people thought we were progressing to the point where we were removed from certain issues, and now we realize that they were just beneath the surface waiting for us. So I think it was a timing thing culturally and in hip-hop, where, I hate this term, but it’s conscious music’s time. And then you have artists like myself who have a direct relationship to what’s going on—I am Muslim, I am half Sudanese, I am affected by the ban, I’m monitored.
WCP: Are you feeling more pressure to speak for, or defend, communities you’re part of in the last few months?
O: Definitely. More people want to know my thoughts and opinions because of my background. It’s something I’ve always been wary of because I’m not just a Muslim rapper or an American rapper or a Sudanese rapper—I want to reflect all of those things and I’ve been cautious not to get pigeonholed. With that being said, if I have the ability to shed light on a particular subject, it’s within my duty to do so, and this is an album where I felt that more than ever.
WCP: You’ve saidyou’re not fearful—you’re optimistic. Is that still the case?
O: I’ve seen too much to think any of what’s happening now will end the world. Growing up back and forth from D.C. to Sudan, I saw different perspectives—middle-class America, poor America, a third-world country. Seeing that made me realize that it takes a lot to end the world, and we’re definitely not there. I have nothing to not be optimistic about. Some of my happiest moments are when I had the least in Sudan.
I had this great aunt, Mary, and she died last year at the age of 92. I loved talking to her—she lived up on New Hampshire Avenue and Allison Street. I’d be like, ”How’s life, Aunt Mary? What do you remember?” And she’d be like, “I remember horses and buggies in Takoma Park, I remember rockets going to the moon, I remember the assassination of Kennedy, Malcolm, Martin, all of it. I remember crack and heroin, I remember opium, I remember Vietnam.” And I’m like, “You experienced all of that and you were black.” I mean, if you think about it, the entire Bronx burned down and it gave us rap. What are we bitching about? What is there to be scared of?
WCP: Your show in D.C. is coming up. Who do you hit up when you’re back in town, and do you still see yourself as part of the scene there?
O: I see family, I ride my bike, I get some injera and I do my rounds, but I’m pretty low-key. I go back for a reset button. But I don’t really feel connected to any scene. NYC and D.C. are doing fantastic jobs of eradicating safe spaces for art and creativity, I don’t know where open mics are in D.C., where MCs—like what I came up doing—freestyle for one another and play demos and beats and learn how to perform.
WCP: But you still see D.C. shows as a homecoming.
O: Yeah, they definitely feel like a homecoming. It’ll be the best show on the tour. D.C. is that place where, without a doubt, every single day, people are like, “Welcome back, welcome home, good to see you.”
Oddisee performs tonight at 7 p.m. at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. $25.