Rapper Oddisee kicks off his recent single "NNGE" with a rhyme that packs a punch: “I mean, what is there to fear? I’m from black America, this is just another year.” Born Amir Mohamed, the 32-year-old rapper, who is African-American and comes from a Sudanese Muslim background, is no stranger to prejudice. But like that powerful opening line, his funk-tinged music retains a world-weary wink.
"NNGE," off his 11th studio album, The Iceberg, is the latest addition to a career that's cemented his name as a respected underground MC both in the Washington, D.C. hip-hop scene and abroad. For this album, he turned his gaze back on his roots, taking cues from the resilience of the communities he calls home and the history of local music forms. Here, TIME premieres the video for "NNGE" (short for "Never Not Getting Enough"), along with a conversation with the artist about his upbringing in Maryland, his musical roots and the meaning of his rhymes in the current political climate.
TIME: You're both African-American and Sudanese. How has that combination of backgrounds influenced your music?
Oddisee: I have the perspective of an American and an immigrant simultaneously. Through the eyes of my parents and the world that they created for me, growing up in Washington, D.C., I was around a lot of politics. I don’t necessarily mean Capitol Hill and the White House. I mean the actual politics of society: the economic gaps between rich and poor.
Living in Prince George’s County in Maryland, which is one of the most affluent African-American communities in the country, I found myself in the unique circumstance of having a father who came from a developing country, and my mother who came from below the poverty line. My dad was doing well for himself and raising us in an affluent community. My parents divorced, [so I'd] go from a low-income area on the weekends to a high-income area on the weekdays for school, and everything in between that. It definitely had a profound impact on me, getting that full spectrum of what life was like in black America and in America in general.
How do you think those two experience come together to shape your sound, or what you speak about in your lyrics?
My music has a level of connectivity with people regardless of their background, and I think that comes from me being an amalgamation of so many things. People can always hear a bit of themselves in my music no matter where they come from.
What made you want to become a rapper?
I actually didn’t want to become anything other than an illustrator. All my life, I used to draw and paint. In my last year of high school I discovered rap music production. Rap was also the thing that people would tell me I was good at. As an illustrator, I was decent. But I was nothing special. Yet whenever I would rhyme—at the lunch table, or on the school bus, or in our neighborhood—it was the one thing that, every time I did it, people asked me to do it again. So I started to listen to them.
What artists were formative for you when you were starting out?
It’s interesting how those have all come back into vogue recently. What’s old is new again right now.
Absolutely. Rap is very cyclical. It works in cycles of sound, of subject matter. So—it’s right on time.
How is your latest album, The Iceberg, different from what you’ve put out before? What’s new about the story you’re telling today?
This record is trying to encourage people to think critically. I have such a wide demographic that listens to me, in terms of age, gender, race, religion, and many of my listeners may be on opposite ends of beliefs, but will have my music in common. I wanted to serve as a vessel to encourage people who think opposite from one another to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and to do my best to stimulate conversation and dialogue with subject matter we can all relate to but may not have an in-depth understanding of.
For example, there are plenty of people who judge the economic situation of black America on the surface, and think that African-Americans are materialistic and in debt and manage money poorly. These are stereotypes that you hear, but in fact if you understand the history of our existence in this country, you see that many of these things are systematic, inherited, and passed down. There’s a song called “Built by Pictures” that explains that. The idea of the American Dream for black America was one built by pictures of looking at the idea of what America was supposed to be, without actually having the tools to do it successfully. So it might look right on the outside, but is fundamentally flawed. This song is encouraging people to look past that surface judgment.
Can you unpack the title of “NNGE”—Never Not Getting Enough? What does that phrase mean to you?
As a minority in America, I’m used to adversity. I’m used to invisible walls and obstacles. That’s one thing that I really appreciate about the black American community: its resilience. No matter what is thrown at it, we will never settle and not get what we’re after. As a Muslim, as a Sudanese American, as an underground hip hop artist, there are so many things that would detain me from pursuing my dreams. Getting stopped for random checks at airports, they’re not gonna stop me from getting on a flight and going on a world tour. Or the color of my skin discouraging banks from loaning me money to purchase a house will not discourage me from being a homeowner. It’s a policy now that no matter what is thrown at me, to never settle for it.
There’s also a line in the song, “Well let me show you how to persevere,” which speaks to that pretty clearly. Is it fair to say you’re an example of getting past these kinds of identity obstacles?
Absolutely. There’s a really funny Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle where they’re watching Trump win, and their white friends in the room can't believe it. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are looking at them like, "You guys didn’t know this was already the case?" We’re living in an America where all the warnings and complaints black America had are actually being acknowledged by everyone, which I think is a great thing. We’re all unifying in our concerns for our nation. We’re very accustomed to getting past it, and not having things stop us from getting what we want. That’s something that black America has lived with from the beginning.
What about this music video for "NNGE"—where was it shot? What’s the backstory?
On the music side [of "NNGE"], it’s inspired by a local form in Washington, D.C. called go-go. Go-go is based around live instrumentation, specifically drums and congos. It was invented by Chuck Brown; he’s a native of Washington, D.C. and had a funk band called Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers in the '70s. It’s almost completely stayed in the District of Columbia and the surrounding areas, and has never really broken out to the rest of the country.
So myself and the artist featured on it, Toine, we’re from the exact same neighborhood. As an ode to the sound of the music, we shot the video in Prince George’s County where we were from. If you’re from the area, you’ll recognize many of the landmarks, down to the food that we’re eating in the back of the car—classic afterparty meals.
It’s a lot of references musically and visually to the place that birthed us and raised us. It’s also the home of our nation’s capital, the home of our politics. So the lyrics tackle the political climate in Washington D.C. right now and the rest of the country, and the instrumentation is an ode to the local music that comes from that same city.
Is there a story behind your name, Oddisee? How did you come up with that?
I think in fifth grade I read The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer. Odyssey means "journey" in Greek. I had a vivid imagination as a kid and always wanted to go on different journeys in my mind. When I decided to take hip hop seriously and had to give myself a name, from a very young age I wanted my music to take people on journeys. The spelling obviously changed for search engine purposes.