Adil Omar, a young rapper with explosive lyrics, breaks taboos in Pakistan

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 12, 2012 

— In September, rap fans will be treated to the online release of “The Mushroom Cloud Effect,” a hardcore album by a debutant artist featuring collaborations with American powerhouses like B-Real, Xzibit and Everlast.

The improbable star of the album is Adil Omar, a 21-year-old Pakistani who works from a studio in the corner of his bedroom in an affluent suburb of Islamabad.

A relative newcomer to Pakistan’s thriving music scene, Omar has struck a chord with educated Pakistani youth who – after five years of Taliban terrorist attacks – are using artistic expression to rebel against the moral policing of their conservative society and being labeled as extremists in the West.

True to the rap genre, Omar’s lyrics are a scornful, frequently abusive commentary on those stereotypes.

“I make a terrorist tear a wrist, prepare for his funeral, and I’m way beyond your government’s or parents’ approval,” he rapped in “Paki Rambo,” a 2011 hit whose YouTube video has generated more than 260,000 views.

The song also provided the inspiration for the title of his new album, with Omar wryly commenting on the nuclear arms race between Pakistan and its archenemy, India: “There’s no silver lining to a mushroom cloud.”

Just a few years back, Omar said, his lyrics and his decision to drop out of high school to pursue a full-time music career would have been unthinkable in a society where kids generally compete on the basis of exam grades.

His freedom came in part because of his father’s death from an illness when Omar was just 10. Three years later, Omar recorded his first songs and embarked on a music career that his mother, Zainab Omar, a former TV show host, has come to terms with.

The “Paki Rambo” video earned him a nomination for Pakistan’s top entertainment honor, the Lux Style Awards, an unexpected prize considering his explicit lyrics.

“Adil Omar is super talented, and I say this even though I have a love-hate relationship with rap,” said Fifi Haroon, Pakistan’s top music critic.

Omar differs from his contemporaries in that he sings not in the native Urdu language but in English, which also is widely spoken in India and has helped propel Pakistani acts to stardom there.

That language barrier has traditionally meant that Pakistan’s biggest acts haven’t broken into the international mainstream. But while political relations between the United States and Pakistan remain badly strained – especially since the U.S. raid that found and killed Osama bin Laden north of Islamabad last year – a new generation of artists closely identifies with Pakistani-Americans like Grammy nominee Nadia Ali, who gained fame as the singer of the 2001 hit dance track “Rapture.”

Ali has stayed in touch with her Pakistani fans through online chats and has inspired the emergence of cutting-edge electronic dance performers, notably Talal Qureshi and DJ Barrister, the stage name of lawyer Assad Saifullah.

Their biggest challenge has been to overcome social taboos. For centuries, the performing arts in what is now Pakistan have been the domain of a professional courtesan class, the Kanjar, and the Murasi musicians who worked for them. Both terms are still commonly used as pejoratives, but educated youngsters are now dictating a new social narrative in which singing, modeling, acting and filmmaking are desirable.

“Five years ago, it was unthinkable, socially, for kids, and especially girls, to perform in commercial stage plays or take roles in music videos,” said Iyla Hussain, a 19-year-old theater actress in Islamabad. “Now we are beginning to break down those barriers. We’ve had to fight for this, at home, as well as against terrorists.”

Like her contemporaries, she grew up during the height of Pakistan’s terrorist insurgency. In 2007, stick-wielding extremists from a nearby militant mosque besieged her school, and she helped the younger students clamber up ladders over the school’s back wall to escape. The following year, the Taliban assassinated a classmate’s father, a politician.

That generation of Pakistani artists lived under virtual siege for about three years, having to endure the cancellation of one event after another because of the threat of Taliban attacks. They have since decided to ignore the threats.

“We reached the point where we were sick of being confined by this security drama and decided to move on,” Hussain said.

These young Pakistanis’ biggest weapon is the Internet. Omar will release “The Mushroom Cloud Effect” on iTunes and YouTube – in part because it is practically impossible to prevent copyright theft in Pakistan’s unruly marketplace – although he does plan a limited CD release.

It was on YouTube that one of Omar’s early videos was viewed in 2007 by B-Real, lead rapper of the American hip-hop group Cypress Hill.

Then 16, Omar was working on his debut album at the time and was a few tracks short of completing it. He and B-Real got to chatting on the MySpace social media site and B-Real casually offered to work with him – if he could make it to Los Angeles. His family paid his airfare, and soon Omar was rubbing shoulders with music industry stalwarts like the producer Farid Karam Nassar, better known as Fredwreck.

From his online interaction with American music fans, Omar believes the terrorist violence that plagues Pakistan has given him an ironic creative advantage.

“It’s just a very volatile place, and that adds an edge to people here,” he said. “Pakistani music has an indescribable element that seems to draw Americans to it.”


Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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