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Oddisee

Nov 29/2016
WORDS by Leslie Ken Chu PHOTOGRAPHY by Eric Tavares

Sudanese-American hip hop artist Oddisee is transparent about the intentions behind his EP, Alwasta, which he released online for free last March. “You give something to get something.” Alwasta complements his even more recent instrumental release, The Odd Tape (which followed in May), adding repertoire and hype to his current 30-date North American/European tour.

Alwasta derives its title from the Arabic term “wasat.” The colloquialized form, “wasta,” loosely translates to “middleman” or a figure who possesses great social currency and who uses that wealth to connect members of their community. “A person has achieved social currency by being an influencer or someone who can come to the aid of others,” Oddisee explains. “It’s almost like a credit system. I’ve definitely been there for a lot of people, and I’m a person that everyone knows they can count on.”

Oddisee can’t overstate the importance of wasta in funding the EP’s creation. “The whole album wouldn’t have come together without having wasta.” Vital personnel including his graphic designer, keyboard player Ralph Real, and friend who is an Arabic-English language teacher all returned his requests for services – album art, musical tracks, and translation – within 48 hours.

“Social currency is something that I have an abundance of,” Oddisee says, aware of his stock. “It’s something I’m very proud of. It’s something that I’m very happy to have – , the ability to essentially do what I want, when I want, not based on how much money I have in my account but by how much respect I have from people.”

Wasta has taken Oddisee far in his career, and he’s certain wasta can take him far around the globe. “If right now I wanted to fly halfway around the world, I can’t think of a single place where I don’t know someone who would give me a room or a bed. If I was hungry, I can’t think of a single state or country that I wouldn’t know someone who would feed me.”

Oddisee is particular – and blunt – in distinguishing wasta from karma. “I know it’s ideal to think of it as a karma system, where you give without thinking of returning, but it’s not that. It’s the cold, hard truth.”

Like social currency, soul flows through Alwasta. Whether Oddisee maintains an approachable, positive vibe or gets political recounting his Muslim experience in post-9/11 America, his authenticity cannot be denied at any point on the EP. “Soul is as core to my music as it is to humanity…. I think all music has a soul.” Oddisee admits he’s unsure what soul is as a genre anymore, but he does know that soul is a feeling. “My music’s definitely based on feeling and emotion, and I think that that’s something you can hear and feel in my music.”

Oddisee acknowledges the subjective nature of music numerous times throughout our conversation, but there’s one detail he doesn’t leave open for interpretation. Alwasta’s closing tracker, “Slow Groove”, recalls Eddie Kendricks’s widely sampled “Intimate Friends” (Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Drake, and Common have all put their own spins on the classic), but Oddisee immediately clarifies that “Slow Groove” does not sample a single part. “Rob Real replayed everything, and we added a vinyl crackle in the background to make it sound like a sample. But there’s no samples in it whatsoever.”

With the release of Alwasta and The Odd Tape, Oddisee keeps busy but perhaps not as busy as one might think. The trick is in how he balances his schedule: by spending as much time off of the road as he spends on it. When he’s not touring, he says, “I work prolifically on a lot of music, and then over the course of the year, that music will release itself.” This routine creates the illusion that he writes all year round.

Despite Oddisee’s work rate, and despite his bustling mind and making himself available to his communities, he manages to find time to enjoy simple pleasures, like most everyone else. For him, there truly is no place like home, where he can just be Amir Mohamed el Khalifa. “I wanna be there more than anywhere else at any given time no matter where I’m at in the world. I’d rather be in my apartment, on the couch, watching Game of Thrones with my wife than anywhere else.”

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